Insight Blog

May 13, 2015

The Hazards of Workplace Anxiety

From performance reviews to presentations to office politics, the modern workplace is rife with situations that trigger anxiety. And while anxiety is not always a bad thing—it motivates people to pursue their goals, and it keeps employees on task—too much of it can lead to poor performance and deteriorating health. According to Maryam Kouchaki, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, there may be an additional hazard: her research shows that anxiety can have an impact on employees’ ethics.

“When people feel anxious,” she says, “they are more likely to perceive even neutral situations as threats, and these perceived threats can lead to unethical behavior.” This self-protective response, which evolutionary biologists believe was shaped by natural selection, has long been important for human survival. But because anxiety causes people to focus inward and concentrate on acquiring resources—including money— those in its grip are more likely to lie, cheat, or steal than those in healthier mental states. They are also less willing to share information, collaborate, or be proactive. “Previous research has shown that job-related stressors can lead to ‘counterproductive behavior,’ as opposed to ‘citizenship behavior,’” she says. “What we found is that a general feeling of anxiety makes people less concerned about ethics.”

Together with her coauthor, Sreedhari D. Desai, Kouchaki conducted six studies to test her hypothesis. In each one, she induced anxiety in half of her test subjects—for example, by asking them to listen to the theme song from Psycho or showing video of a mountain-climbing accident. (The other half listened to Handel and watched Planet Earth, respectively.) The results were striking: the anxious subjects were more likely to lie in order to earn money and to say that they were comfortable engaging in unethical behavior, from falsifying reports to stealing office materials to using confidential information to advance their careers. For Kouchaki, this is evidence that anxiety might have a corrosive effect on any organization.

So what should business leaders do to reduce the level of anxiety in their organizations?

First of all, no organization will ever be able to rid itself of anxiety—and there is only so much a manager can do to create a harmonious work environment. Even at companies that invest heavily in their employees’ well-being, there will always be stress in the workplace, and employees themselves can deal with this on an individual level. “There are ways to reframe anxiety in a more positive light,” Kouchaki says. “Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize your feelings, understand your reactions, and reframe situations. People who have high emotional intelligence are able to deal with anxiety in reasonable ways.”

Yet there are certainly steps that leaders can take to ensure their employees are less anxious. One approach, Kouchaki says, is to address the physical side of anxiety, which many companies are already doing. Some promote yoga and meditation; others rely on PlayStations and relaxing office furniture. And whether by offering gym memberships, standing desks, or company-sponsored outings, companies now widely encourage exercise for all employees. As Kouchaki sees it, any of these might help reduce anxiety in the workplace, but companies should not value any stress-reliever over the others. “Because anxiety can be very personal, the key thing for managers is to give people options to choose what works best for them.”

But perhaps even more important, Kouchaki says, is fostering what she calls “psychological safety” in an organization. Psychological safety can mean allowing people to express themselves in constructive ways—for example, by giving employees more opportunities to voice their opinions in a friendly environment. “Because anxiety can be caused by deep ambivalence,” she says, “there’s an important social element to this. There has to be a way for people to share, get advice, or discuss their issues.”

By addressing both the physical and social aspects of anxiety, companies can significantly reduce the level of stress their employees experience. Of course, leadership matters, too. “In general,” Kouchaki says, “good leaders design workplaces where there are fewer reasons to experience anxiety in the first place.”

Kouchaki, Maryam, and Sreedhari D. Desai. 2015. “Anxious, Threatened, and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts.” Journal of Applied Psychology. 100(2): 360–375.

Photo credit belongs to Carles Sànchez. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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