Photo: Fletcher Pride

To Boost Productivity, Hack the Stress Curve

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.

6 Productivity Killers and How to Get Rid of Them

Do you ever feel like your life at work is spinning out of control? Like you cannot seem to get ahead of the game. You spend countless hours working tirelessly, sun up to sun down, and yet still you cannot seem to catch up? The work continues to pile up on your desk until you reach the end of the week – by which point the mountainous stack of stuff you are behind on is a guaranteed show stopper for your weekend. You can forget about having a good time. Relaxing? Ha, yeah right. Instead, you will spend your nights wide awake trying to figure out how you will compensate for what you did not accomplish in the week past, especially once next week’s work starts rolling in.

Monday morning comes around and you stumble into the office, plop down in your cubicle – bloodshot eyes from a weekend of restlessness and disturbed sleep – and all at once a 100 lb. cinderblock of discouragement is dropped on your back. Overwhelmed does not even begin to express how you are feeling.

There is no way you will ever make up for lost time. You are never going to get ahead and you can forget about that spring break vacation trip with your friends down to Destin.

Negativity floods your body and suddenly you are 100 percent unmotivated to even attempt to do a single thing. Great.

Open Facebook tab, Amazon Prime – loading, and what’s that? Oh yeah, you almost forgot to order those Florence and the Machine tickets for your best friend’s birthday! Que the procrastination.

If you feel like you are putting forth every effort on the job and yet still are not getting the results that you desire, you might have fallen victim to one of – or all six of – these common productivity killers.

Failure to Prioritize

Sure, there are probably 15 different things for you to do at any given moment during your workday, but you are no different from the rest of working class America. There will always be things to do and deadlines to meet, the key is to prioritize these obligations in a manner that helps you to stay organized. Staying organized will help you to successfully accomplish your goals and meet your deadlines, which in turn will naturally keep you motivated to carry on.

So, if you have 35 emails that are awaiting responses, a deadline for tomorrow evening and a surprise birthday party to plan, can you guess in what order you should tackle these tasks? That’s right, go for the most urgent first, as well as take time to ensure that you bump your projects with nearing deadlines to the top of the list, and as you probably assumed, the birthday can be moved toward the bottom of the list.

Make your workday more efficient by being able to recognize the order in which you should prioritize and cross things off as you accomplish them, this will lead to a mega-boost in productivity.

Out of Control Multitasking

Multitasking is a skill that any efficient and productive worker must have. However, there is a limit to the amount of multitasking that one should partake in. There comes a point where too much multitasking becomes counterproductive. Being able to recognize and drawn that line is essential to maintaining your productivity and motivation to continue on in the workplace.

A study a couple of years ago conducted by Stanford University, found that those individuals that excessively multitasked were far less likely to harbor the ability to filter information, unlike those who only partook in light, productive multitasking. Not being able to filter information translates to an inability to weed out irrelevant information and thus makes you far less efficient.

Slow down and take a step back every once in a while. When you find it necessary to concentrate, have less communication devices open. That means close the Facebook tab, set your G Chat messenger to ‘away’ and put your smartphone on vibrate. Once you eliminate these distractions you will find it much easier to concentrate and stay focused, thus improving your productivity and efficiency on the job.

No Motivation

There is hardly anything more detrimental to your productivity than lack of motivation. It can sometimes be very difficult to get motivated when you are drowning in work. Not only that, but sometimes outside influences can also hinder your ability to stay focused and get your job done.

Every once in a while, we just need a break, a chance to reboot. When it comes to motivating yourself to be more productive and efficient on the job, one of the best ways to recharge is to listen to inspirational speakers. Motivational speakers know what they are talking about and they know how to kick start your battery. These are professionals, who have been exactly where you are today, but were able to pull themselves out of the ‘funk’; and they are generally a highly effective way to get yourself re-motivated to be productive in the workplace.

You Are Burned Out

Being burned out on work means two things: lack of motivation and severe lack of productivity. Do you find that you work eight hours straight and yet still you accomplish nothing? You stare blankly at the computer screen, send redundant pointless emails and search aimlessly on the Web for help in accomplishing even the simplest of tasks. If any of that sounds familiar, then you are likely burned out. Do not panic, there is a simple solution for recharging your battery.

Choosing to take more frequent restful breaks will undoubtedly improve your productivity tenfold. The key is to ensure that your breaks are just as productive as your crunch time working. That means working hard for a couple of hours and then taking a swift 15-minute brisk walk. Working an hour or two more at full capacity, getting lunch and listening to an inspirational speaker. Work an hour or so more and find somewhere quiet to meditate for ten minutes. You get the idea.

You Are Plagued With Self-Doubt

All of those feelings about whether or not you have the ability to finish a project on time, or complete a task that will please others will ultimately drag you down – way down. Self-doubt is capable of wreaking havoc on your workplace productivity and overall motivation to accomplish necessary tasks. If you often find yourself in doubt, consider the following solution.

First and foremost, recognize it. Notice that you are doubting yourself and do something about it. Is there something that you can do, perhaps someone that you can ask, to help ensure your success with a project? Maybe you are certain that you cannot meet a deadline, no big deal, ask for an extension. The point is to recognize the doubt and act in a way that diminishes it.

Your Office Space is Chaotic

You are your environment. So, if your desk is full of stacks of paper, piles of junk and overall clutter, then guess what your head is going to feel like. You guessed it – massive chaos. Take time to get your workspace organized and watch as you almost instantly become more productive and motivated to meet more goals.

Chaos and clutter bring you down and fog the mind; distractions hinder your ability to focus on what is important; over multitasking prevents you from accomplishing just about anything; being burned out is like poison to your performance, in that it will kill you slowly; you will never succeed as long as you doubt yourself; and all of these things collectively lead to a lack of motivation to be productive in the workplace.

If you are feeling bogged down on the job, consider eliminating these six productivity killers from your work life and watch as your performance improves almost overnight.

How do you stay productive in the workplace? Please share, we would love to hear from you!

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