Change and Stress: Why knock-on effects are not always immediate
Higher workloads, a change of boss and changes across an organisation can affect employee stress. This is something which is well known by employers but what you might not be aware of is that the symptoms of stress are not always immediate and can take a while to come out as frustration, anger and other behaviour, according to new research.
Using the term, “Counterproductive work behaviours” to describe how a stressed employee reacts, the study conducted by SF State organizational psychologist Kevin Eschleman, and published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Behaviour, shows that such behaviours generally do not take place immediately after stressful changes in the workplace. In fact, behaviours such as taking a longer lunch or stealing company property see a delayed onset from when the employee starts dealing with increased stress levels.
Previous studies looked at how employees reacted immediately after stressful events at work, but this research looked at both how and when employees dealt with workplace stress. The results indicated that such behaviours could be affecting more employees than previously thought, contributing to lower employee engagement.
Eschleman and his research team conducted surveys in various different professions about stress at work and engaging in “Counterproductive work behaviours,” or CWBs for short. To gauge their attitudes over time, surveys were conducted 3 times over the space of six months, and the results were compared. In the study, there was an expected increase in CWBs immediately after a rise in workplace stress levels, but what wasn’t expected was that those who didn’t engage in CWBs initially when stress levels increased, did actually begin to participate in CWBs weeks or sometimes months later.
Why the difference in behaviour? According to Eschleman and his team, it is down to the personality traits of the individual. Those who were described as being more conscientious, harder workers, cooperative and trusted their employers, were more likely to participate in CWBs later on. In fact, they were even more likely to participate in CWBs than those who engaged in such behaviour immediately after an increase in stress at work.
The delay is explained by Eschleman in the fact that conscientious workers have more support at work both from their company who invest in them training, higher wages and benefits, and from work colleagues who provide them with friendship. This only works at first and will still lead to problems down the line. Eschleman explains:
“Your personality might influence how you try to cope initially, but if things are bad for a really long time, it doesn’t matter what your personality is. At the end of the day, you’re going to do these deviant things.”