This may come as unpleasant news, but all stress isn’t bad. That doesn't mean that feeling overwhelmed and exhausted at work isn't a problem—it is. But some stress, in short bursts, can actually drive your performance on the job if you know how to use it.
And that's a bit of a balancing act. You don't need to be told that too much stress can hurt your health and productivity. But many people don't quite grasp how to use a certain degree of work-related stress to help them. Here's a look at the different kinds of stress you're likely to experience and how to strike that delicate balance.
Research from the University of California–Berkeley hints at how some stress can actually be helpful. In the 2013 study, researchers subjected stem cells in the brains of rats to significant but brief periods of stress (in other words, "acute" stress), which caused them to generate new cells. Two weeks later, after these new cells had matured, the rats’ alertness, learning, and memory had improved.
The researchers inferred that acute stress may help keep the brain alert, and that better alertness equals better performance. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense: Stress is what helps animals adapt and survive, and that's no less true for modern humans. In another study, scientists at UC San Francisco analyzed this effect on a cellular level in humans. The results indicated that while chronic stress is damaging, small bouts of acute stress keep our brains resilient and can condition us to persevere under pressure.
So what does this research mean for the workplace? Simply that stress isn’t inherently bad and that some of it can actually be good. It can push employees forward and help them perform at their best. Think about delivering a presentation, landing a big account, or meeting a tight deadline. During each of these stressful events—which are limited in length and can feel intense but not life-threatening—employees kick into high gear and push themselves to get results.
Just because some stress is good doesn’t mean it all is, though. We’ve heard over and over again that stress can have a negative impact on our health and well-being. And that’s exactly what chronic stress does.
As the Mayo Clinic explains, when we feel stress, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are released. Once the stressful event is over, our hormone levels go back to normal. But when we constantly feel stressed, our response system stays active, which means our hormones remain at unhealthy levels for extended periods of time. This type of chronic stress impacts every system of the body, including the respiratory, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems. That can lead to changes in appetite, loss of sleep, panic and asthma attacks, heart disease, weight gain, and more, according to the American Psychological Association.
Unfortunately, many professionals experience chronic stress on an daily basis. And when it takes a toll on the employees' health, it can hurt the health of a business as a whole. A 2015 study published in Management Science found that workplace stress causes additional expenditures of anywhere from $125 to $190 billion dollars a year.
So if occasional stress helps employees grow, but too much stunts them, the challenge is finding the right balance. Here are a few ways to do that.
When employees get comfortable with their regular tasks, it’s time to push them outside their comfort zones with new responsibilities. Those unfamiliar tasks can introduce the right amount of stress that pushes them to take on new challenges and learn new things.
If you’re going to give employees new tasks, though, you first need to remove some of the older responsibilities they’ve already mastered. Otherwise they’ll feel overloaded, which can lead to chronic stress. Many professionals feel they have an unrealistic amount of work to do already, so if you aren't careful to keep your team members' workloads in check, assigning that "stretch" assignment can lead to burnout, not growth.
Give employees a large task, like delivering a presentation, leading a meeting, spearheading an initiative, or taking the lead on a major project. Whatever the project is, only assign one at a time. That way, employees are clear on what their priorities are and what they need to focus on.
Unclear expectations can be a huge stressor. Focusing on one project at a time will help clear up what needs to get done and allow employees to set realistic goals to complete them. At the same time, each new project will introduce small amounts of stress to steadily improve employees' performance and skill sets.
Many professionals feel they don't have enough control over the timelines for completing their work, a feeling that chronic stress tends to exacerbate. And when their managers constantly change their priorities, team members are left scrambling to stay on track—and chronically stressed out.
Instead, work with employees to set realistic goals and deadlines. That doesn't mean getting rid of deadlines altogether—timetables can still help apply small amounts of acute stress, which can be useful. But it's important to give your team members some say over what deadlines make sense. That will help control stress levels to ensure that the pressure remains productive, not overwhelming.
Chronic stress is rampant among employees, and employers need to do their part to help create healthier work environments. At the same time, they should challenge employees to reach their potential. So banishing stress from the workplace probably isn't a feasible solution any more than a desirable one. The right balance is tough to strike, but it's achievable. In fact, that's a pretty good target for work itself—tough but achievable.
Tim Cannon is the vice president of product management and marketing at HealthITJobs.com, a free job search resource that provides health IT professionals access to more than 1,000 industry health IT jobs at home or on the go. Connect with Tim and HealthITJobs.com on LinkedIn.