Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 491-502

First online:

Moral Stress: Considering the Nature and Effects of Managerial Moral Uncertainty

  • Scott J. ReynoldsAffiliated withFoster School of Business, University of Washington Email author 
  • , Bradley P. OwensAffiliated withSchool of Management, SUNY Buffalo
  • , Alex L. RubensteinAffiliated withDepartment of Management, Warrington College of Business Administration, University of Florida

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To better illuminate aspects of stress that are relevant to the moral domain, we present a definition and theoretical model of “moral stress.” Our definition posits that moral stress is a psychological state born of an individual’s uncertainty about his or her ability to fulfill relevant moral obligations. This definition assumes a self-and-others relational basis for moral stress. Accordingly, our model draws from a theory of the self (identity theory) and a theory of others (stakeholder theory) to suggest that this uncertainty arises as a manager faces competing claims for limited resources from multiple stakeholders and/or across multiple role identities. We further propose that the extent to which the manager is attentive to the moral aspects of the claims (i.e., moral attentiveness) moderates these effects. We identify several consequences of managerial moral stress and discuss theoretical, empirical, and practical implications of our approach. Most importantly, we argue that this work paves an important path for considering stress through the lens of morality.


Moral stress Moral decision-making Moral behavior