Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Stretching emotional limits leads to bad behaviour at work

While counter-productive work behaviours (CWBs) such as pilfering stationery or hassling colleagues arise through the decisions of individuals, there is an increasing interest in how they may be encouraged by broader working conditions. Incentive schemes or different levels of organisational engagement may deter or encourage such behaviours, and now a recent study suggests that emotional exhaustion may open the door to bad actions. The research, led by George Banks at Virginia Commonwealth University, suggests that emotional exhaustion matters because it makes it harder to form and maintain deep relationships within the organisation, such relationships being the foundation for a sense of organisational commitment.

The research team surveyed 113 South Korean bank employees, and contacted the supervisors of each to get a measure of CWB from an outside source, allowing them to minimise correlational artefacts due to data arising from a common source. All employees rated their emotional exhaustion with items such as "I feel frustrated by my job" as well as their organisational commitment, for instance "I really care about the fate of this organization". Supervisors rated the frequency of CWBs relating to the organisation ("Takes a longer break than is acceptable in your workplace") and that specific to organisational members ("Makes fun of someone at work"). They found that higher exhaustion was related to both lower organisational commitment and higher frequency of CWBs. Analyses suggested that the effect of emotional exhaustion on CWBs is solely due to its influence upon organisational commitment.

It's already well-understood that emotional states can contribute to CWBs. For instance, they become more common when individuals experience negative emotions arising from co-worker incivility. Whereas that finding suggests a reflexive quality to the rise in behaviours - “the employee strikes back” - the current research suggests that they can also increase due to the mechanisms that prevent them being eroded. Banks' team point out that CWBs typically present an intrinsic reward, such as pleasure, personal gain or thrill-seeking, that would normally be resisted using regulatory processes. But exhaustion is likely to tap the resources these processes themselves depend on; moreover, the motivational juice of doing right by your meaningful relations peters out when those relations have deteriorated due to lack of attention. The author suggest that to avoid the substantial costs that CWBs present to organisations, they should act to reduce emotional exhaustion by better work design, or at minimum through availability of stress reduction techniques.

ResearchBlogging.orgGeorge C. Banks, Christopher E. Whelpley, In-Sue Oh, & KangHyun Shin (2012). (How) Are Emotionally Exhausted Employees Harmful?. International Journal of Stress Management. DOI: 10.1037/a0029249


  1. thanks for exposing this to world, amazing stuff!Employee Statements

  2. As an employee of a national supermarket chain which demands that we adhere to a specific set of questions for each customer we deal with, I can attest to there being a significant amount of stress involved where customers direct their impatience and anger straight at the till operator because of the time taken up with these questions.

    The hostility from the public combined with the repetition of the same questions countless time throughout each shift give a palpable sense of emotional frustration amongst till staff, morale is low, self esteem is eroded. There is a lack of interest in the performance of the store, despite it meaning failure to reach specified standards directly affects bonus, there is a noticeable reluctance to observe rules and in some instances the most placid of personalities have been seen to lose their temper.

    Stress related conditions are seen to worsen and time off for depression is not uncommon. The majority of studies seem to be concerned with specific areas of the service industry, I would like to see these studies being taken further into those areas which are not commonly seen as being worthy of study.

  3. Thanks Anonymous for your insights from your own industry. I agree that further research into wider types of jobs would be a welcome step. We'll try to cover it here when it happens.