Ethical competence and stress in IT-based work

Carl Åborg, Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos and enny öhman Persson



Stress-related problems in IT (information technology) – supported work are well known and well documented (Aronsson et al 1994, Smith 1997).

In this paper we focus on stress related moral problems in work environments dominated by the use of IT tools. Our assumption is that ethical competence may be an important factor in the efforts towards optimal use of IT systems. Ethical competence can contribute to a more satisfying handling of moral problems (Collste 2000), and thereby to reduction of the stress level and a better work environment. The point of departure is that ethical competence is a psychological problem-solving and decision-making process based on ethical autonomy theory (Piaget 1932; Kohlberg 1985; Kavathatzopoulos 2004).

Efficient use of IT systems demands competent users with certain kind and amount of knowledge. Persons lacking necessary knowledge feel that they cannot satisfactorily handle the work demands and control their work situation, and lack of control is a well known stress factor (Karasek & Theorell 1990). Social support has been shown to have an important effect on work related stress and health. (House 1981). The most favourable, in terms of stress and health, is when the work situation is perceived as characterized by reasonable demands, high control/decision latitude and high social support (Karasek & Theorell 1990).

Most experiences, from a long period of time, show that when expanded IT-systems are introduced into a workplace the subjective demands increase, while the subjective control and support decrease (Aronsson et al 1994, Sandblad et al 2003). The control factor is of special interest within the scope of this paper. Users report that when more IT-based work is introduced the control of their own work situation is decreased, while at the same time the managements control of the employees is perceived as increasing (Aronsson et al 1994, Åborg & Billing, 2003).

The main hypothesis of the study was that the existence of ethical competence contributes to lower levels of stress by strengthening the feelings of competence and control when dealing with problems during IT-supported work.


A questionnaire, Health and Moral Stress Questionnaire (HMSQ), was constructed and used. Included were questions on background information, and on the following dimensions: work demands, support and control (Karasek, R. & Theorell, T. 1990), work with the computer system (Åborg 2002), ethical competence and confidence (Collste 2000, Kavathatzopoulos 2004), health conditions (Åborg 2002).

The questionnaire first was tested with a group of 50 persons at a local tax office in Sweden. The questionnaire then was used on a bigger group of employees at the National Registration Office. 638 persons at different local offices answered the questionnaire, 568 women and 53 men. Most of them, 432 persons, were between 40-59 years of age, and they had an average of 15 years of experience at National Registration. 207 were assistants, 354 were clerks, 36 were junior managers, and 17 were senior managers.

Results and Conclusions

The results show that IT-based work is indeed correlated to moral stress and they help us to formulate hypotheses and suggestions on how to prevent moral stress and promote health. It seems that continuing education, improved support, information, control, and participation in the process of systems development could improve ethical competence and confidence in employees in highly computerized work places, and thereby increase efficiency and decrease stress.

Many employees reported worries about potential negative consequences of badly functioning computer systems. In combination with the finding that the IT systems often broke down and that using them is complex and difficult, this points out the need for better IT support and better system development processes. The results showed that, even in a well functioning computerized work place, there are serious moral concerns about IT systems. The hypotheses that ethical competence and ethical confidence can decrease stress and negative health effects of IT-supported work was strengthened, but need further testing.

The study showed that it is possible to construct a usable questionnaire to assess ethical competence as one important factor influencing subjective stress in IT-supported work. The questionnaire needs some further development and testing. Hopefully it then can become a useful tool to increase the knowledge needed to develop efficient IT systems and good and healthy work. Clearly we need more focus on moral stress and ethical competence in today’s IT-based work and in the methods and processes used in future development of work organizations and IT systems.


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