Can a 100-year-old experiment in stress teach us about today’s workplace productivity? In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson described an experiment in which they were able to motivate rats through a maze using mild electrical shocks. They found that if the shocks were too strong, the rats would lose their motivation to complete the maze and instead move about randomly trying to escape. Yerkes and Dodson concluded that increasing stress and arousal levels could help to focus motivation and attention onto a particular task, but only up to a certain point—then it became ineffective. In modern psychology, this is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Research from the 1950s to 1980s has largely confirmed that the correlation between heightened stress levels and improved motivation/focus exists, though an exact cause for the correlation has not been established. More recently in 2007, researchers have suggested that the correlation is related to the brain’s production of stress hormones, glucocorticoids (GCs), which, when measured during tests of memory performance, demonstrated a similar curve to the Yerkes-Dodson experiment. Also, it showed a positive correlation with good memory performance, suggesting that such hormones also may be responsible for the Yerkes-Dodson effect.
More recently, companies have noticed a relationship between stress and productivity in the workplace. Science Times’ recent study links constant email notification to stress, while several sites have released several studies regarding stress in the workplace. “Constant stress” at Amazon centers are making workers sick, according to the U.K. Union, while Amazon’s “brutal workplace” is an indicator of an “inhumane economy,” according to the L.A. Times. The Nation reports that it’s not just Amazon, stress is a factor of the modern workplace. On the other hand, Google’s perks have been shown to alleviate stress and boost employees’ morale, and FastCompany.com reports that happy employees are 12 percent more productive.
Stress has been known to sneak up on us, so how do we know if we’re stressed? The International Stress Management Association says that psychological signs can include worrying; depression and anxiety; memory lapses; or being easily distracted. Emotionally we can be tearful, irritable, have mood swings or feel generally out of control. Stress can even affect us physically, with weight loss or gain; aches, pains and muscle tension; frequent colds or infections; and even dizziness and palpitations. These signs can start to affect our behavior, with no time for relaxation or pleasurable activities, becoming a workaholic, being prone to accidents/forgetfulness, insomnia, or increased reliance on alcohol, smoking, caffeine, and/or recreational/illegal drugs.
Obviously, some signs are more severe than others, with 75 percent of Americans report experiencing at least one of the following symptoms of stress in the past month:
- irritable/angry: 37 percent
- nervous/anxious: 35 percent
- lack of interest/motivation: 34 percent
- fatigued: 32 percent
- overwhelmed: 32 percent
- depressed/sad: 32 percent
The Mayo Clinic has identified two types of stress triggers: acute and chronic. Acute is the basic human “fight or flight” response, the immediate reaction to a perceived threat, challenge, or scare. It typically is immediate and intense, and in certain instances (skydiving, roller coasters, etc.) it can be a positive and even thrilling thing. Chronic stress is a more long-term variety of stress that, while it can be beneficial as a motivator, can pile up and become negative if left unchecked. Persistent stress can lead to health problems, and while it generally is more subtle than acute stress responses, its effects can be longer lasting and more problematic.
Signs of workplace stress can include a change in the employee’s normal behavior, such as irritability, withdrawal, unpredictability or generally uncharacteristic behaviors, a sudden change in appearance, a sudden lack of concentration/commitment, lateness or even absenteeism. Healthy amounts of stress are difficult to aim for, as stress is an individual issue, but there are some management methods that could lead to too much stress in the workplace. Helpguide.com says that unequal delegation of work; giving out unrealistic deadlines; listening to employee concerns, but not taking action; inconsistency/indecisiveness in approach to employees; panicking and not forward planning, and not being aware of pressures on the team can all lead to a high amount of stress in the workplace. Additionally, job insecurity can lead to a 50 percent increase in the odds that someone reports poor health; high work-related demands increase the odds of having an illness diagnosed by a doctor by 35 percent; and long work hours have been shown to increase mortality by 20 percent, all according to FastCompany.com.
Companies, however, are trying to find ways to combat workplace stress. Appster regularly funds employee outings and even has a workplace dog to help relieve stress, but the company realizes that perks alone often don’t do enough to effectively relieve stress. The company has instituted a “weekly vent report,” an online board where employees can anonymously, but publicly, post complaints and concerns. These are followed up by monthly town hall style meetings where issues raised on the vent boards are addressed openly. There also are monthly one-on-one check-in meetings for all employees so that they have a chance to talk about themselves on an individual basis.
Google also recognizes that perks are not the be-all-end-all of stress management. To further combat stress, the company offers classes to employees such as Meditation 101, Search Inside Yourself and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Google also has created a combination virtual and in-person community called gPause to help support and encourage the practice of mediation through methods such as daily in-person meditation sits at more than 35 offices, “mindful eating meals,” and occasional day meditation retreats.
FastCompany.com reports that stress relief is about more than offering employees an increasing number of perks; there must be active efforts specifically targeting stress, rather than avoiding the issue and hoping employees remain happy. In fact, people who reported having emotional support during times of stress, according to APA.org, reported an average stress level of 4.8/10, and only one-third reported being depressed or sad due to stress in the past month, compared to those who report not having emotional support. They report an average level of 6.2, with one-half reporting that they have felt sad or depressed in the last month.
If your employee has eustress, then he or she could potentially be showing signs of being at their most productive state. Eustress means “good stress,” as opposed to distress, which is negative stress. Signs to look out for in the eustress state include focusing on the task at hand, using time most efficiently, self-managing his or her work and increased motivation. Positive personal stressors could include receiving a promotion or raise at work, marriage, moving, taking a vacation or learning a new skill. However, sometimes it can be difficult to differ between eustress and distress. Here are some key characteristics to distinguish between the two:
- short-term vs. long-term
- perceived to be within our own coping vs. perceived to be outside our own coping
- motivates and focuses energy vs. demotivates and focuses energy
- feels exciting vs. feels unpleasant
- improves performance vs. decreases performance
Distress doesn’t necessarily have to stem from the workplace; it also could be the result of multiple life factors. Ask if there is anything you can do to help alleviate the stressors, such as simple modifications to the employees’ workflow for a short period of time. Perhaps Appster Co-Founder Mark McDonald said it best: “The cheapest, most effective way to help stress is simply listening to staff.”
A version of this post was first published on bryan.edu.