You Stole Those Paper Clips Because You Were Stressed Out

Anxious workers are more likely to be dishonest or make unethical decisions, new research shows

From the bottomless well of anxiety among U.S. adults--America is the most anxious nation in the world, according to the World Health Organization--comes a new hazard: In addition to being less healthy and worse at negotiating (PDF), stressed-out adults are also more likely to make unethical decisions in the workplace, new research finds.

For an article that will be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Sreedhari Desai, a professor at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Maryam Kouchaki, of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, conducted six studies in which they made some test subjects feel anxious, whether by asking them to listen to the theme song from Psycho (instead of some soothing Handel), showing video of a mountain-climbing accident in Vertical Limit (vs. watching Planet Earth), or having them read about research that found nicotine in many toothpaste brands (instead of learning about a relatively humdrum industrial development project). The subjects who were made to feel anxious were more likely to say they'd be OK with doing things like stealing office materials, lying in a report, or using confidential information that'd been accidentally left behind to advance their own careers.

You can look to the cavemen to get a sense of why high-strung employees might be stealing more pens than their Zen co-workers. "If there's a threat in the environment, you're more likely to feel that your position is insecure, and this causes you to want to guard your resources, to defend yourself, and try to accumulate more resources, even if that's possible by being unethical," Desai says.

Of course, a little bit of anxiety can be a good thing; you're more likely to be alert, and to think about where you're going next, she says. But when anxiety reaches a certain threshold, it can wreak havoc on people's health, work performance, and—as it now turns out—likelihood of sticking to ethical decision-making.

What's the fix? Well, scoff at the bean bags, hammocks, and Zen meditation classes if you’d like, but Silicon Valley perks that Google and others are famous for may actually be effective tools for curbing worker anxiety, Desai says. Johnson & Johnson has encouraged employees to bring yoga mats to work and squeeze in sun salutations on their lunch hour. 

"Even handing out mini stress-busters, like squishy balls, could be a small step that would be super helpful," Desai says. "It sounds somewhat cute, but having a workplace that encourages humor and works to mitigate anxiety levels in the workplace is important."