Photo: Fletcher Pride
A lot has been said about stress in the workplace over the years, and for good reason. Stress takes a serious toll on employees, both in terms of physical and mental health. It’s largely known as a productivity killer — but is that the whole story? Or is there another side to stress that is equally important, but rarely discussed in relation to performance and motivation?
The fact is, stress isn’t black and white. It’s neither good nor bad. Too much stress is, of course, detrimental to well–being and productivity, but the right amount can be used as a motivational tool to get more done. It can even be used as an engagement tool, thereby improving levels of turnover. But how can that be the case? Why do we need an optimal level of stress to ignite our desire to perform, and what can be done to keep that balance just right?
The Problem with Stress
Before moving on to the lesser-discussed benefits of stress, it’s first important to establish the problem with stress. Excessive stress can impact our bodies, mood and behavior. When exposed to prolonged stress, someone might experience headaches, fatigue, muscle tension or even chest pain. It can also result in angry outbursts, social withdrawal or drug and alcohol misuse, not to mention restlessness, burnout, anger and depression. Left unchecked, stress can contribute to long-term health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
What’s more, stress can cause real issues for businesses. When an employee feels overwhelmed and unable to cope, organizations might experience an increase in absenteeism. They might also see a higher rate of voluntary turnover. So while the downsides of stress can’t be overlooked, we should also understand that, to a degree, stress can actually be beneficial in a working environment.
Can Stress Be Good for Productivity?
Studies into stress as a productivity tool aren’t new. In fact, they date back more than a century. As an example, we can look to the Yerkes-Dodson curve, a theory established in 1908. Understanding this curve can make a huge difference to your performance management measures and procedures, as well as our understanding of employee motivation.
The Yerkes-Dodson curve suggests that we need stress for motivational energy. The study found that low levels of stress result in poor performance. With no stress to spur them on, people generally don’t have the motivation to get their work done, resulting in laziness, complacency or avoidance. The study also found that as stress increases, performance also rises — to a point. Once stress levels are too high, performance drops. People stop focusing; they become overwhelmed; and avoidance behaviours kick in again.
Researchers have found that stress can improve our memory, make us more flexible and help us prioritize tasks and deadlines. In fact, small amounts of stress can even help our immune system. The problem is, when it comes to the stress curve, everyone is different. Some of us don’t need much stress to get motivated, while others need a lot. Some of us crumble when confronted with too much stress, while others thrive. So a manager’s job is to provide “good” stressors while keeping an eye out for signs of too much stress.
How to Stimulate ‘Good’ Stress
So how can managers provide employees with “good stress” without overwhelming them? There are ways of spurring employees on, and they all require a degree of collaboration, communication and trust.
- Set stretching goals — When goals are too achievable, it’s easy to become complacent. Stretching goals force employees to sit up and pay attention. In fact, some companies believe that more daring goals create the most exciting work environments, as well as being the “building blocks for remarkable achievements.” Goals need to be stretching enough to interest employees, or to develop them and their skills. The balance lies in ensuring goals are realistic. Giving an employee an unrealistic goal will only serve to frustrate them.
- Deadlines are important — Ensure goals and projects have a firm deadline. This will -introduce an element of urgency that many require to get a job done.
- Give more responsibility — New responsibilities and requirements are always a little scary. Even if an employee thinks they’re ready to take the next step in their career, a brand new, unfamiliar task will always be slightly stressful. But it’s the good kind of stressful, and with the right coaching and support, employees learn to navigate new responsibilities, thriving in the long run.
- Don’t micromanage, but be present and observe — Observation, to some degree, is important in this area. Obviously, micromanagement is never a good idea, but observation to an extent might provide the right amount of stress. According to the Hawthorne Effect, employees experience improved performance when they are being watched. Rather than taking this stance too seriously, you might consider cloud-based, goal-tracking software.
How to Avoid Too Much Workplace Stress
When stress levels begin to elevate within your organization, it’s necessary to dial back the pressure. To avoid too much workplace stress, we recommend the following:
Give employees more control over their work — Autonomy is important. When an employee is overly stressed, it will help for them to regain an element of control. Find out how the employee’s role and responsibilities can be adapted to better suit them and their needs. This might involve adapting how they work (for example, it might be possible to let them work remotely part-time) or what they do at work. Consider revisiting your goal-setting process to make it more collaborative. Put your employee in the driver’s seat and allow them ownership over their goals and objectives.
Allow employees to work to their strengths — It’s great to work on our weaknesses, but constantly doing so can be stressful and overwhelming for some people. Instead, allow employees to pinpoint their strengths and work with them. Your employee might have a strength that could be a real asset to your organization. Once established, a degree of stress can then be reasserted, and employees will likely feel all the more motivated to grow and succeed.
Encourage employees to take breaks to clear their heads — How many of your employees eat at their desks? Do people take regularly scheduled breaks? Are they worried about taking days off? Your employees are human and they need time away from work to recuperate. To avoid complete burnout, employees need to know that breaks are not only accepted within your organization, but encouraged and required.
As with many things in life, when it comes to stress at work, it’s all about balance. The right amount can motivate and engage employees, while too much will prove to be damaging to overall health and productivity. Your employees are individuals and their needs will vary from person to person. Managers need to get to know their team, know what they are capable of, know when to coach and know when to dial things back. Doing so will ultimately boost employee happiness and improve company culture.