How to Harness Workplace Stress

You’ve probably heard some version of this saying: “it’s not what happens in your life that determines your [mood, success, happiness, etc.], it’s how you react to what happens.”

Turns out, this even applies to stress. According to an eight year study that tracked 30,000 adults in the U.S., those participants who experienced a lot of stress in their lives and believed stress was bad for their health had a 43% increased risk of death; but those who did not consider stress harmful had no increased risk of death, regardless of the amount of stress they experienced.[1] In fact some of these “stressed but not distressed” types were in better health than the least stressed of the participants.

Photo by mulveyraa2, Flickr

Apparently, embracing stress as a positive (or at least neutral) factor can prevent its debilitating effects. These findings were reinforced by research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which found that “stress mindset is a distinct and meaningful variable in determining the stress response.”[2]

Perhaps Shakespeare’s Hamlet got it right when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The Upside of Stress

In The Upside of Stress, author Kelly McGonigal shares her growing belief that, with a simple shift in perspective, stress can be a powerful positive force. The signs we have traditionally interpreted as negative are actually our bodies arming us to take on a challenge. Her Ted Talk on the subject is illuminating.

Of course, that’s not to say that all stress is good. When stress becomes chronic, or we have no control over the situation or there are simply no options for resolving the challenges we face, it is still harmful. Here are some pointers from McGonigal for differentiating between good stress and bad stress

Good Stress, Bad Stress, Pressure

  • Good stress is acute, lasting minutes or hours; bad stress is chronic, lasting days to years.
  • Good stress features high accountability and autonomy; bad stress features low status and lack of control.
  • Good stress can result in increased efficiency to maintain physical exertion; bad stress can result in hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Another way to look at the difference is by considering stress versus pressure:

Stress (Hans Selye, 1936): “The non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

In other words, the stress response is simply a mechanism that prepares the body to respond to those external demands. How we then respond to reduce the stress is a matter of choice.

Pressure (Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry, 2014) “a situation in which you perceive that something is at stake and is dependent on the outcome of your performance.”

When under pressure, we typically feel there is no choice:  the successful accomplishment of the goal is the only acceptable outcome and we will be held personally responsible for failure.

Stress is Here to Stay

You know that life, the world and the workplace are not likely to become less challenging or less stressful in future. Fortunately, you now also know that the impact of most stress can be transformed by changing the way you think about it.

Here’s how to start making the shift:

  • Recognize the physical response to stress as your body’s way of preparing you to take on a challenge. It’s giving you the resources you need to succeed (a burst of adrenaline for energy, increased heart rate to send more oxygen to your brain, etc.).
  • Acknowledge that your stress response means something has to change—and then use it to take charge of the change and move things forward.
  • Start thinking about stress as a motivator instead of an inhibitor. When you feel it coming on, ask yourself “how can I use this excess energy to make progress?”
  • Learn to identify the difference between good stress and bad stress. If you feel you have no options or that the stress just never lets up, it’s time to break free.

Your natural stress response is a survival mechanism designed to help you overcome obstacles. With the right perspective, you can harness it for enhanced performance and well-being. Stress only hurts your health when the stress response is triggered chronically by unrelenting pressure—or when you believe it will.


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[1]Keller A1, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, Maddox T, Cheng ER, Creswell PD, Witt WP.Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality.
[2] Crum AJ1Salovey PAchor S. Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.

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