How employees spread ‘mental fatigue’

by L&D11 Aug 2016
Have you been a victim of condescending comments, put-downs and sarcasm in the workplace?

New research has found that experiencing such behaviour reduces employees' self-control and leads them to act in a similar manner.

The study was co-authored by Russell Johnson, a Michigan State University business scholar, who investigated how incivility may be spreading at work.

"People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued as a result, because uncivil behaviours are somewhat ambiguous and require employees to figure out whether there was any abusive intent," said Johnson.

"This mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil toward other workers. In other words, they paid the incivility forward."

Even though curt remarks and other forms of incivility do not involve openly hostile behaviour, they do have a significant effect on employees.

Research also indicates that workplace incivility can be costly to companies, and result in a loss of production and work time.

The study involved 70 employees filling out a survey relating to incivility and its effects three times a day for 10 consecutive work days.

The researchers also found that "incivility spirals" (when acts of incivility lead to subsequent acts of incivility) can occur unintentionally.

"When employees are mentally fatigued, it is more difficult for them to keep their negative impulses and emotions in check, which leads them to be condescending and rude to colleagues," Johnson said.

"This happens even for employees who desire to be agreeable and polite; they simply lack the energy to suppress curt and impatient responses."

The study also found that incivility spirals generally happened in offices that were perceived as political (i.e., where co-workers "do what is best for them, not what is best for the organisation").

"Being the victim of incivility leaves employees depleted because they must expend energy to understand why they were targeted and how to respond," the study stated.

It also added that one way to reduce perceptions of politics is by clearly outlining to employees appropriate types of behaviours.

The research stated that this can be accomplished informally, by enhancing the quality of feedback provided during day-to-day interactions, or more formally via the performance management process.

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.