It bugs me when organisations focus on ‘stress’ in our lives, or in the workplace. It always feels like they’re saying that my ‘wellbeing’ can be fixed by crushing my stress levels, which can taste a little bitter (I can handle my own stressors, thanks very much).
In fact, much has been made in recent years about the harmful effects of stress in people’s environments. More specifically, there has been a move to eliminate these causes of stress, or ‘stressors’, in our lives , our schools, and our workplaces. But stress doesn’t always have to be detrimental; stressors can, in fact, have a positive effect on our well-being which can come in the form of increased feelings of happiness, engagement, job or role satisfaction and on productivity; all of critical importance in overall well-being. It’s called eustress. The key is in the way the stressors are perceived (it’s the same kind of thing with choices; having more can actually be a bad thing).
Stress is thought of as a bad thing, and stressors can easily stack up in a busy lifestyle
The traditional view of stressors centres on the harm they represent to our well-being, performance and productivity, a view born of the assumption that reducing stressors will reduce stress and so, will increase levels of well-being. This perspective is not without its merit. For example, commonly researched stressors like ‘time pressure’ and ‘emotional demands’ have been linked to negative stress in the literature and can have adverse outcomes on performance and productivity. Time pressure describes the formal and informal deadlines inherent in environments such as work. Emotional demands are often defined as experiences of and dealing with more intense emotions, such as frustration, as a result of a situation. The two intuitively go hand-in-hand in a busy lifestyle and can stack up along with various other stressors causing significant issues if left un-addressed.
We’ve known stress is good for more that 1o0 years
In 1908, we got the Yerkes-Dodson law, a model that frequents the inner sanctum of anxiety clinicians everywhere. It’s pretty simple. As stress goes up, performance improves. As stress continues to go up, performance eventually starts to decline.
Not only is it simple, it’s common sense. Anxiety and stress are intuitively motivating impulses. But too many jitters and we start to lose focus.
More recently, Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman developed their ‘transactional model of stress‘, which has come to dominate the organisational psych literature. Essentially, this model tells us that the outcome of stress in our lives appears to depend on the appraisal or the perception of the person. If the individual perceives the stressor as a challenge (that is, anticipates gain or personal growth from the situation), then the stressor generally influences positive outcomes like satisfaction and productivity as opposed to negative ones. Researchers go so far as to suggest this plays a part “over and above the perceived or actual levels of… [the] stressors”, meaning that it might not even matter how stressed you are (to a point). Other research displays that challenge stressors enhance engagement in our activities and our workplaces. This suggests that when people have a strong sense of personal responsibility they become more immersed in and gain more out of challenging situations and jobs.
Of course stress is a good thing. Just think about it…
Once again, this seems pretty obvious. Of course the appraisal of stress modifies how we feel about it. It’s why I hate scary movies, and my roommate loves them. Stress is just the physiological reaction of our body. It’s what we do with it that matters. We need to stop demonising stress, and instead focus on the ways people perceive it. In a culture that focuses so much on lazy millenials, and welfare queens, and whatnot, it changes the whole paradigm of well-being management. Just off the top of my head I can think of a few things:
- Instead of assuming indolence, what about entertaining appropriate, manageable deadlines?
- What about encouraging complexity and emotional involvement in our activities and workplaces, rather than throughput and repetitive labour?
- A focus on increasing personal responsibility will help to encourage challenge appraisals in stressful situations and thus more positive outcomes in stressful environments. This would be far more effective than scrambling to take the pressure off everyone, or overindulging in collaboration (what the hell are all these meeting doing for us anyway?).
- And finally, challenge appraisals of stressors are often positively correlated with each other. This suggests that there’s no need for sweeping changes. It’s sufficient to work on one set of stressors at a time. We’ll see improvements in other areas as a corollary.
Of course, challenge appraisals don’t always trigger positive outcomes and, in fact, “may exert detrimental effects”, like somatic complaints or sleep disturbances. So let’s not let the pendulum swing all the way back. Yerkes-Dodson came first, after all.