Stress in the workplace

Work-related stress – which costs U.S. businesses $300 billion annually – is a topic of major concern among organizations. Though extensive research has shown exposure to certain workplace stressors leads to negative behavior, little research has been conducted regarding specific responses to different social stressors in the workplace.

In order to cope with stress caused by colleagues, customers, and supervisors, employees often develop harmful behaviors such as withdrawal or sabotage. Withdrawal behavior includes turnover intention (planning to quit), tardiness, absence from work, and a decline in dedication to the organization. Service sabotage, on the other hand, may be demonstrated through an employee’s intentional disruption of customer service.

While frontline service environments are inherently stressful, the use of candidate selection tools like pre-hire assessments allows companies to hire the kind of supervisors and frontline workers who can handle stress, provide emotional support to subordinates and co-workers, and build lasting, lucrative relationships with customers.

A Closer Look at Stress in the Workplace and Negative Employee Behaviors

In their study, “Stressors, withdrawal and sabotage in frontline employees: The moderating effects of caring and service climates”, researchers Feng-Hsia Kao, Bor-Shiuan Cheng, Chien-Chih Kuo and Min-Ping Huang examined the relationship between social stressors in frontline environments and employee withdrawal behavior.

A sample of 420 frontline employees and 30 supervisors from a hotel-based food and beverage service in Taiwan was used for the study. The results showed a strong correlation between turnover intention and supervisor-caused stressors; a strong correlation between taking sick leave and colleague-caused stressors; and a positive relationship between customer-caused stressors and service sabotage.

Additionally, the study found that caring climates moderate the relationship between social stressors and turnover intentions, and service climates weaken the relationship between social stressors and service-directed negative behaviors.

Social Stressors and Frontline Employees

In order for businesses to curtail withdrawal and sabotage among employees, they must first understand why employees display these behaviors. This study examined stressors experienced by frontline employees that originate from three stakeholders: supervisors, co-workers, and customers.

  1. Supervisor-caused stress occurs when frontline employees have poor relationships with their supervisors or when supervisors fail to address their concerns.
  2. Colleague-caused stress stems from poor relationships with or lack of proper consideration from co-workers.
  3. Customer-caused stress occurs when employees have difficulty establishing respectful customer relationships.

According to the authors of the study, employees react differently to stressors based on their perceived source. After all, an employee’s interaction with a colleague will be different from an interaction with a supervisor or a customer. The researchers explain that each of the three stakeholders represent different requirements, demands and support, noting:

  • Supervisors have the formal power to offer objective resources, rewards and punishments.
  • Colleagues are expected to help one another, offer emotional support, and complete tasks through teamwork.
  • Customers offer respect, a potential boost to self-esteem, and are expected to act civilly.

When employees have a negative interaction with a customer, or do not receive the support they need from their supervisors and co-workers, they are more likely to act out negatively through withdrawal or service sabotage.

While supervisors, colleagues, and even customers may not immediately detect service sabotage, customers are the first targets to be affected by these actions. This means the organization suffers from this type of negative behavior.

Which Stressors Cause Which Behavior?

In order to determine the relationship between negative behaviors and workplace stressors – as well as how to remedy these negative behaviors – this study examined five aspects of stakeholder-induced frontline stress and employee reactions. The first three focused on specific interpersonal relationships, and the last two on work climate.

The first hypothesis concerned the connection between supervisor-related stress and the intent to quit. Unlike their colleagues or customers, supervisors have power over their employees, and can control their rewards, benefits, or empowerment. Therefore, this relationship was closely related to turnover intention. The second was the connection between colleague-related stress and sick leave, since lack of support from coworkers often causes susceptibility to health problems. The third hypothesis was the connection between customer-related stress and service sabotage, since emotional reactions to rude customers often leads to poor service.

The climate-related hypotheses proposed a flipside to the interpersonal relationship hypotheses. In a “caring climate,” for instance, coworkers share perceptions regarding policies, procedure, and organizational systems affecting an employee’s behaviors. This inspires employees to be sincerely interested in their co-workers’ well-being, and weakens the relationship between social stressors and withdrawal. In a “service climate,” on the other hand, where employees share the perception that good service truly is what matters most, the researchers suggested that the relationship between social stressors and service sabotage is weaker.

The study found that there is a strong relationship between stakeholder-induced stress and harmful employee behavior. Additionally, the study found that there is a weak relationship between high service climate and service sabotage, and a weak relationship between high caring climate and employee withdrawal.

While there’s no way to completely eradicate stress in the workplace, hiring the right people using data-driven tools and conducting an in-depth profile analysis of each job are good places to start.

Companies with high instances of sick and leave time should review team relationships. Additionally, since sabotage is linked with poor customer relationships, additional training in handling difficult customers could help curb sabotage.

The researchers surmised that a caring culture, facilitated by sensitive supervisors, could moderate the relationship between certain social stressors and withdrawal behaviors. However, the same link was not found between high levels of sick leave and a caring culture.

Just as caring culture appeared to moderate the relationship between supervisor-caused stressors and withdrawal behavior, strong service cultures tended to weaken the relationship between social stressors and service sabotage. However, employees still had turnover intentions in response to customer-caused stressors.

To combat withdrawal and service sabotage among workers, companies should implement data-driven hiring initiatives that identify candidates capable of providing support to colleagues and excellent customer service. Organizations with both strong caring and service cultures will likely see more success in preventing negative behaviors.


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