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Anxiety can lead to unethical behavior

Man anxious at work

Anxiety is bad for good behavior.

That’s because people who feel anxious are more likely to act unethically, according to research by Sreedhari Desai of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“Individuals who feel anxious and threatened can take on self-defensive behaviors and focus narrowly on their own basic needs and self-interest,” said Desai. “This can cause them to be less mindful of principles that guide ethical and moral reasoning – and make them rationalize their own actions as acceptable.”

Across six studies, the researchers showed that anxiety can lead to this self-interested unethical behavior. They detail their findings in “Anxious, Threatened and Also Unethical: How Anxiety Makes Individuals Feel Threatened and Commit Unethical Acts,” which is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Our work clearly has implications for organizational managers and policy makers, said Desai. “The United States is the most anxious nation on the planet, according to the World Health Organization.”

“By altering corporate culture to reduce anxiety, organizations could have a healthier workforce – and an ethical workforce,” said Desai, who shared recommendations for changing organizational culture.

  • Companies such as Google have incorporated playful furniture and play stations in their work environment, emphasizing that playfulness and failure are a part and parcel of experimentation and innovation. Such subtle cues along with flex-time could help ameliorate anxiety levels among employees.
  • Sponsoring gym memberships for employees might nudge them into getting adequate physical exercise, which is a proven way to keep stress in check and lower blood pressure. Organizations such as Johnson & Johnson have permitted employees to bring yoga mats to the workplace and do yoga during their lunch hour. Meditation and deep breathing are known to calm frayed nerves and encouraging yoga and similar exercises might not only boost the general wellbeing of employees but also improve the ethical climate of the organization.
  • Sleep deprivation has been known to result in higher levels of stress and anxiety, so setting realistic expectations for employees in terms of a manageable workload and do not need to work extra hours in the night or over the weekend can ensure that anxiety levels can be kept a minimum.
  • A widely recognized source of anxiety for employees is work-family imbalance. Offering onsite daycare services could help alleviate employees’ stress.