Psychologists have found that when employees work under crisis conditions, they are less willing to work together.
The study, published in the journal Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, found that when workers are under stress they lose their group perspective and concentrate instead on their own personal goals, to the detriment of their colleagues.
In Britain there has been a dramatic rise in stress-related absence from work over the last two years. Excessive workloads, restructuring and fear of being made redundant are the main causes of stress.
According to the Institute of Management, more than half of the country's workforce suffers from stress; the Health and Safety Executive estimates that absence from work due to stress costs the British economy pounds 6.4bn a year.
In the study, 100 naval personnel worked in groups of three, and each group was given a computer simulation of a naval decision-making task. Under highly stressful or normal conditions they had to monitor a radar screen with their own ship at the centre and numerous unidentified contacts around the ship.
As expected, participants operating under highly stressful conditions performed worse than those operating under normal conditions. But the results also showed that under stress, workers' focus of attention shifted from group goals to a more narrow, individual perspective which led to severe breakdown of team performance.
The authors, James Driskell of the Florida Maxima Corporation, and Eduardo Sales of the University of Central Florida, said that in team sports a breakdown in co-operation was more obvious than in a desk-bound situation.
"When teams get behind, team members often ignore team play, and each person tries to win the game on his or her own, with predictably bad results," said Dr Driskell.
"It is possible that, for many team tasks, the importance of teamwork behaviour such as co-ordination and communication may be perceived as secondary to other basic, individual task demands."
The key to efficiency under stress is delegation, he added."Simplifying tasks by delegating parts of them, making them less demanding, is one of the best ways of maintaining effectiveness and keeps groups working together."Reuse content