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How to Handle Stress in the Workplace

When I speak with clients about a high-performance workplace filled with engaged employees who offer discretionary effort, they sometimes wonder whether I am describing an unattainable Shangri-La.

There is nothing utopian about the workplace I help leaders create. Even the best organizations comprise humans, with all their foibles and idiosyncrasies, their needs and inefficiencies. What makes a high performance culture special is that it recognizes the genesis of these issues and creates a framework for maximizing the talents of employees.

Primarily, a high-performance culture is rooted in the findings of neuroscience: that our brains demand certain conditions and, when those conditions exist, our brains function superbly, even transcendently. Employees who feel valued and fulfilled in their work aren’t just great employees, they acquire proprietary feelings toward their company.

You Can’t Eliminate Stress

Nonetheless, stress is part of every workplace. There is the external stress of a boss’s expectations, and the internal stress of people’s own expectations. There’s stress from negotiating the personalities of co-workers and customers in every job, even the best ones in the most inspirational cultures.

The question for high-performance cultures is not how to eliminate stress altogether. After all, the stress of internal expectations is what drives great performers in any field. High-performance cultures minimize the kind of stress that arises from feelings of insecurity, distrust, and disrespect.

In fact, high-performance cultures add stress to employees—but it’s the right kind of stress. A culture in which employees feel a sense of belonging is also one in which they feel a sense of obligation. That is what I mean by a proprietary feeling toward the company; it is theirs, and they care about its performance.

Employees in that position are driven to help the company succeed, grow, and prosper. They are not satisfied with “good enough,” but want to push ahead, to innovate, to win in the marketplace—whatever that means for their organization. All of which causes stress.

Distinguishing Good Stress from Bad Stress

A 2015 study of workers in China found exactly these two kinds of stressors—what they call “challenge stressors” and “hindrance stressors.” Challenge stressors deepen learning and personal growth, and serve as the engine of creativity and innovation. The research found that while challenge stressors help generate novel ideas, they have no effect on executing them. Challenge stress is all positive.

Hindrance stressors—or dis-stressors—are the stuff of toxic workplace cultures, the research found. They arise from job confusion, job insecurity, a lack of autonomy and workplace politics. They inhibit idea generation and execution. Furthermore, a high level of hindrance stressors overwhelms everything else positive in a workplace—nice offices, cool meeting spaces, ping pong in the break room, all that. The reason is obvious: hindrance stressors are a symptom of an unproductive culture, and no amount of papering over it can cover up how that makes people feel.

Other research has found that good stress causes the same reaction in our autonomic nervous system as aerobic exercise. It gets us “pumped.” Blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to the brain, powering our muscles to greater feats. The profound conclusion is that good stress is good for workers and for business, while bad stress is bad for both.

Action Steps:

  • Understand the difference between good stress and bad stress in the workplace.
  • Consider how the company culture is affecting employee stress levels.
  • Work fervently to eliminate bad stress by supporting and valuing employees.
  • Incorporate the findings of brain research as you build a supportive culture.
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