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2012 News Releases

Study links workplace stress to employees behaving badly to bottom-line losses

November 30, 2012

Dr. George Banks Dr. George Banks

Bosses everywhere might want to think twice before they pile another project on an overworked employee’s desk, according to the results of a research study co-authored by a Longwood University management professor.

Just like competition and undercapitalization, workplace stress is a powerful force affecting the success of an organization, says Dr. George Banks, assistant professor of management at Longwood, who collaborated on a study that examined the link between "emotional exhaustion" in the workplace and "counterproductive work behaviors," or CWBs.

The connection is real—and the price tag is steep. Researchers cited in the study estimate that in one year, CWBs cost organizations $120 billion due to theft, $4.2 billion as a result of workplace violence and more than $900 billion in lost income due to fraudulent activities.

"If employees feel overworked, they might lash out, so it’s in an organization’s best interest to promote well-being," said Banks, whose specialty is human resources and organizational behavior. "Our paper offers practical recommendations such as flextime and stress-management intervention programs to help companies mitigate employee stress and, ultimately, prevent harmful work behaviors."

Some 113 employees at nine branches of a large banking company in South Korea participated in the study, detailed in an article, "(How) Are Emotionally Exhausted Employees Harmful?," that appeared in the International Journal of Stress Management.

"What was unique about our study is that we had employees rate their emotional exhaustion and organizational commitment—then we asked supervisors how often their employees engaged in CWBs," said Banks. "What we found was that as emotional exhaustion increased, commitment seemed to decrease, which may have led to an increase in CWBs."

The researchers were interested in the correlation between stress levels and CWBs, not the frequency of counterproductive behavior. "We found that stress may have been causing CWBs—there is a correlation," said Banks.

Examples of CWBs identified include being rude to or gossiping about coworkers or the boss, working slowly or putting little effort into work, coming in late to work, taking longer breaks than are acceptable and avoiding safety rules.

Banks suspects that supervisors in his study likely underreported how frequently CWBs occurred. "Maybe they couldn’t see it, or they’re putting a positive spin on the situation, or they could get in trouble for reporting it," he said. Thus, the occurrence of CWBs may have been more frequent.

The study was initiated by In-Sue Oh, a former professor of Banks’ and a prominent researcher who is now an associate professor of human resource management at Temple. The other co-authors are KangHyun Shin of Ajou University in South Korea and Chris Whelpley, a Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University.