How unethical behaviour can harm our health

Unethical behaviour at work has wide-ranging impact

Unethical behaviour at work can negatively impact the mental and physical health of everyone involved – not just the victims.

While a lot has been said about the consequences of unethical work behaviour on organisations, markets and professions, there is another area that is often less considered but is of great importance. What does unethical work behaviour do to the wellbeing of people who undertake it or see others engage in it?

More than 30 years of research has clearly established links between bad ethics in the workplace and negative consequences – not only for organisations, but also for the people involved.

There is ample evidence to show that such behaviour impacts individuals’ mental and physical health, including their levels of stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, heart disease and blood pressure. 

An ethical culture, on the other hand, has been found to be associated to a significant degree with a sense of wellbeing. 

"Unethical behaviour...also affects those who witness it and even those who commit it."

For the victims of unethical behaviour, such as bullying, the negative effects on their wellbeing can cause a range of well-documented psychological and physiological ailments.
But unethical behaviour at work does not only affect its victims – it also affects those who witness it and even those who commit it. 

Doing something that a person considers unethical may, in fact, go against their values and what they consider right. But they may do it because they feel it is a requirement of their work role or is expected by authority. This misfit between personal and organisational values is likely to diminish an employee’s wellbeing.

The same negative consequences can result when an organisation’s stated values do not match what the organisation actually does. Indeed, such a mismatch has been found to be a leading factor in burnout. 

Professional development: Introduction to workplace ethics

Unclear ethical organisational values can also cause stress. If we are unsure about how we ought to behave and we cannot discuss our ethical concerns, we are left with a stress causing unclear understanding of our role and the way to reach our goals. 

Wellbeing at work can be improved by the following practices:

  • Focus on sustaining an ethical work culture, where there is consistency between what we say and what we do. We must also be aware that ethical culture is not uniform across organisations, so the local or team subcultures need to be understood, as they will impact their own people’s wellbeing.
  • Provide support, opportunities and encouragement to people to discuss ethical issues, dilemmas and concerns. 
  • Ensure that people have clarity about the demands of their roles and clear expectations and standards of behaviour. 
  • Ensure people have adequate resources, including time, to do their work, particularly given the ever increasing demands of work. Otherwise, even if there is clarity and congruence of ethical values, people may not be able to act in accordance with the set values, and this would affect their wellbeing. 

Individuals’ wellbeing is important for organisational wellbeing. But beyond its instrumental value, we have reached the time when we must agree that work should not harm people.

Read next: Who do you blame for poor ethical behaviour?

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September 2016
September 2016

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