Published on April 19, 2019
Take a moment to remember when was the last time you took a deep breath before having an anger attack, or the last time you spent a day enjoying yourself without feeling guilty, or even the last time you took a seat on a branch to appreciate life as it happens? Difficult to remember? Big chances are that you are one of the 488.000 cases reported in the UK last year with work-related stress, anxiety and depression.
In the CIPD’s 2016 Absence Management Survey, stress was named as the leading cause of 53% of long-term absence and 47% of short-term absence. Data from the Health and Safety Executive shows that the total number of working days lost due to this condition in 2015/16 was 11.7 million days (an average of 23.9 days lost per case); that stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill health cases.
When stress is experienced at work it can create counterproductive work behaviour, a behavioural strain characterised by negative acts such as aggression, theft, purposely failing to follow instructions, and doing work incorrectly; or burnout, a complex physical, mental, and emotional reaction related to feelings of inadequate capacity to manage tasks, feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, cynism, resentment, failure, stagnation and reduced productivity.
As you can see stress is a big issue in our daily lives. Fortunately, organisations are giving more attention to it, with an increase in human resources support.
Stress: the good, the bad, and the optimum
By definition, stress is “a real or interpreted threat to the physiological or psychological integrity of an individual that results in physiological and/or behavioural responses’ (McEwen, 2000), being a process that involves perception, appraisal, and response to harmful, threatening, or challenging events.
Back in 1908, two researchers named Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson created what is today known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. This bell-shaped curve helps us understand how different levels of stress arousal can lead to different performances.
The bad stress
People are less productive at low and high levels of stress arousal. At low levels, people tend to feel less motivated and more lazy and complacent. At high stress, people tend to feel impaired due to high levels of anxiety. This type of stress is called distress and is known as the bad stress, the one that, through long periods of time, can cause severe illness.
Distress is particularly harmful because it is continually activating our “fight or flight” autonomous response. For example, distress increases blood pressure, causes shallow breathing, increases cholesterol and fatty acids in the blood; increases inflammation; and increases stomach acids.
The good stress
When arousal increases, performance tends to get better. This explains why some of your most productive days are those when the clock is ticking for you to wrap up a big project.
Moderate levels of stress are called eustress. This type of stress is considered healthy stress and refers to the presence of positive psychological states. Individuals experiencing eustress describe the experience as being totally focused in a mindful state of challenge, a healthy state of aroused attention on the task, exhilaration, and being fully present. Positive levels of stress increase levels of commitment, mental health, physical health, self-confidence and self-esteem.
The optimum stress
Each person has an optimum level of stress. While people that tend to be more distressed find their ‘sweet spot’ when their levels of stress decrease, people that tend to be low-arousal, on the other hand, will generally benefit from higher levels of stress to gain energy. Furthermore, the level of stress is also dependent on the type of stressor you are facing.
The secret is trying to pause and analyse each stressor. Feel how it affects you not only psychologically, but also what kind of bodily sensations it activates.
A helpful exercise includes keeping a list with what you got done each day and rate yourself on a scale of 1-10 for the amount of stress you experienced and the type of feelings you felt. By doing this exercise, you may notice a trend towards some stressors and you will gain more consciousness about your acts and feelings, consequently, gaining more control over your reactions.
5 simple ways to increase productivity with positive stress
An article published by Alan Kohll, on Forbes, describes 25 simple ways you can apply to reduce the impact of stress in your office. Some of these tips include very simple ideas such as walking groups, switch to decaf coffee, let doors open, clear communications, organise shared space and inspirational quotes.
Apart from using these techniques to fight bad stress, there are also ways to cultivate positive stress. Positive stressors promote positive attitudes and desirable organisational outcomes, such as organisation commitment, motivation to learn, supervisor support and employee loyalty. Increase positive stress in your office with any of these 5 workplace eustress busters, based on the work of Blake Hargrove.
- Identify which aspects of work employees see as most engaging
By identifying these, managers can design ways to enhance the positive aspects of work. There are four specific dimensions of stressors that have been identified as challenging: work load, work pace, job complexity, and job responsibility. Managers who wish to build healthy and happy workplaces are advised to concentrate their demands into these four dimensions.
- The initial reaction to a stressor must be positive and practical
When exposing employees to potentially stressful stimuli, managers should attempt to frame the stimuli using positive terms, in a positive emotional state, and in a pleasant environment
- Demonstrate the meaningfulness of the demands placed upon workers
Take the time to explain how these demands are connected and related to significant outcomes. Good managers orient their employees within the broad context of the organisation’s mission, investing the resources and effort necessary to demonstrate that work demands have a broader purpose of value to both the organisation and the individual.
- Give employees demanding workloads
Employees can savour their work if they have managers that assign work that neither under stimulates nor overextends their capabilities. The stress resulting from having one’s capabilities pushed, but not overwhelmed, has long been recognised as an important predictor of success.
- Explain time requirements
Perhaps the most prevalent challenge stressors presented to workers involves pace. Managers need to communicate the rationale behind time requirements. In general, workers are prepared to accept the necessity of time constraints as long as they understand that those time constraints are not arbitrary. Additionally, set reasonable and achievable time restrictions on work. Managers who place unrealistic time stressors on their employees will not challenge these employees but demoralise them.
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