Home » News » Workplace Stress Can Boil Over Months Later
Unethical Behavior Often Begins with Small Misdeeds

Workplace Stress Can Boil Over Months Later

New research suggests workplace stress can lead to counterproductive workplace behaviors that may not surface until weeks or months afterward.

It is common knowledge that a variety of workplace issues ranging from a seasonal surge in business, or a new manager, can lead to stress that results in immediate problems.

However, the impact of the stress may be underestimated as problems may surface down the road.

San Francisco State University organizational psychologist Dr. Kevin Eschleman determined many employees wait weeks or months before engaging in “counterproductive work behaviors,” like taking a longer lunch or stealing office supplies.

As a result, this behavior, which by some estimates costs businesses billions of dollars annually, may actually be far more expensive.

“People don’t just respond immediately with these deviant behaviors. They may also have a delayed response that isn’t caught by the organization,” said Eschleman.

“That means the organization is not taking into account long-term costs associated with these delayed behaviors.”

The study is published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Psychologists have known that high levels of workplace stress lead to counterproductive work behaviors, but previous research had primarily looked at short-term effects. That is, investigators would focus on an employee’s response at one specific moment to his or her current level of stress.

Eschleman and his colleagues wanted to know how and when employees handled changes in workplace stress, as well as whether workers’ personalities affected their response.

Researchers surveyed employees in a variety of career fields three times over six months about stress at work and asked if they had engaged in various counterproductive work behaviors, or CWBs.

As expected, investigators found that increases in stress led to immediate increases in CWBs. They also discovered some people who did not engage in such behavior at first nevertheless did so some weeks or months later.

“Maybe you don’t have the opportunity to engage in these deviant behaviors right away, and you want to wait until no one is around,” Eschleman said.

“Or maybe you think you can cope right away, but then down the road you end up engaging in these behaviors.”

Remarkably, the delayed effect was especially seen in workers considered to be more “agreeable.” That is employees who are generally cooperative, good-natured, and trusting of the organization.

Surprisingly, the latent counterproductive effects also occurred among the more “conscientious” (those who are ambitious, responsible, and abide by ethical principles). While these individuals were less likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors initially, they were just as likely — and the research suggests may be even more likely –v to do so later on.

Why? According to Eschleman, these workers have more “resources” available to help them cope with the increased stress, at least at first.

For agreeable workers, that means there are more friends and other kinds of support to buck them up during tough times.

Conscientious workers, for their part, receive more tangible benefits. Employers tend to invest money, benefits, and more in employees they view as hard workers.

An effective training program, for instance, can make adjusting to a new computer system easier.

Eventually, though, the added stress will win out for many: “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,” Eschleman said.

Companies should take care to tailor programs to help employees deal with stress, he added, since the research shows personality can complicate how and when employees respond.

Source: San Francisco State University

Workplace Stress Can Boil Over Months Later

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Workplace Stress Can Boil Over Months Later. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Nov 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.