The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Stress at Work

Topic: Citizenship Behavior, Counterproductive Work Behaviors
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (NOV 2009)
ArticleCan “good” stressors spark “bad” behaviors? The mediating role of emotions in links of challenge and hindrance stressors with citizenship and counter productive behaviors
Authors: J.B. Rodell, T.A. Judge
Reviewed By: Katie Bachman

Research suggests that stress can come from good or bad sources (Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling, & Boudreau, 2000).

Challenge Stressors can serve as opportunities for growth, for example:  you can be stressed because of job complexity (“now, WHAT am I supposed to do?”), workload (“I’ve got too much to do!”), and deadlines (Yikes!  It’s due tomorrow!”).

Hindrance Stressors, on the other hand, can be caused by stress because of bureaucracy (“Just let me do my job”), role ambiguity (“Whose job is this, anyway”), and hassles (“Like I said, just let me do my job!).

While both can lead to negative outcomes like emotional exhaustion, challenge stressors have been linked to positive outcomes such as job satisfaction. Hindrance stressors, on the other hand, are pretty much all bad, being linked to withdrawal behaviors and turnover.

Knowing that stress exists in these different forms is well and good, but what’s more interesting is looking at how those stressors affect voluntary behavior on the job. While we can assume that good stressors (challenge) lead to good behaviors (i.e. citizenship behaviors) and bad stressors (hindrance) lead to bad behaviors (i.e. counterproductive behaviors), it appears that good stressors can also lead to bad behaviors. How, you ask? It seems that emotions come into play and mediate the relationship between stress and behavior.

In this study, challenge stressors were linked to two emotions: attentiveness and anxiety. Both were linked to citizenship behaviors; however, anxiety was also linked to counterproductive behaviors. Yikes! Here we’re seeing a good stressor with a bad outcome. Hindrance stressors were also linked to emotions, anger and anxiety, but in that case the outcome was only counterproductive behavior. So, although bad begets bad, good can beget good or bad. For organizations, this can have some important consequences. Although you want your workers to feel challenged in their work, you don’t want them to be so challenged that their resulting anxiety leads to behaviors that undermine the organization. And the more clearly you can remove those hindrances, the better off everyone – and the organization – will be.

Rodell, J. B., & Judge, T. A. (2009). Can “good” stressors spark “bad” behaviors?
The mediating role of emotions in links of challenge and hindrance stressors with citizenship and  counterproductive behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94,1438-1451.