By Steve Kelman

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The secret to handling stress

Shutterstock image: job stress.

Stress is a fact of life. Research shows that the most common causes are problems relating to money, work and family. Women report being more stressed than men, and are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders. In 2015 half of Americans starting university reported being stressed most or all of the time. Stress has been linked to high blood pressure, headaches, upset stomach, and insomnia, as well as increasing unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking and smoking.

In other words, stress is a big deal.

Yet there is also some research evidence that some stress might be a good thing. A moderate amount of stress, such as a deadline or race, might be not just harmless but beneficial. (Above a certain threshold, of course, people -- like metal bars -- would break.) Many if not most bosses believe that employees who feel some performance stress on the job will perform better than those feeling none.

A recent article in the always-interesting Economist from London discusses a new body of research suggesting that whether stress helps performance depends not only on the level of stress but, importantly, how people interpret it. What may matter is not just the level of stress, but how individuals think about it. The same stress, perceived differently, can trigger different physical responses, with differing consequences for both performance and health.

A number of studies point in this direction:

  • People who have a more positive view of stress are more likely to behave in a constructive way. Students who believed stress enhances performance were more likely to ask for detailed feedback after an uncomfortable public-speaking exercise.
  • In another study, subjects who would be having a job interview were shown one of two videos. The first extolled how stress can improve performance, the second explored its dangers. In the interviews, the participants were subjected to biting criticism. Those watching the upbeat video had released more of a hormone associated with brain growth.
  • An investment bank, at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, split 400 bankers into three groups. The first was shown a video that reinforced notions of stress as toxic, the second saw one highlighting the argument that stress could enhance performance, and the third group was shown no video at all. A week later the second group reported greater focus, higher engagement and fewer health problems than before, while the other two groups reported no changes.
  • One group taking a graduate school entrance exam was told that stress during practice exams was natural and can boost performance; the other got no such pep talk. Students who received the intervention went on to score higher on the practice test than those who did not.

This is one version of a phenomenon that turns out to have really wide application for human behavior. Known most-broadly under the rubric "self-fulfilling prophecy," the basic idea is that if somebody believes something will happen, they (often unconsciously) take steps that make it more likely that said something does in fact occur.

One classic example is that the performance of elementary school students, chosen at random, whose teachers had been told as the school year was beginning that the student was likely to experience a "learning spurt" that year, ended up improving their performance more than those whose teachers had not gotten this message. (Here the effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy was on the behavior of the teachers towards the students.)

I discussed this in a very different, government-focused context a while ago in a blog post, reporting on an experiment showing that when participants in a task were given the one-sentence instruction, "Your participation will help ensure the development or society and thus serves the public interest," the amount of time they spent on the task increased.

The basic message for us: changing your mindset can change your results.

One researcher compares stress to going to the gym. You get stronger only if you push yourself beyond what feels easy, but afterwards you need to recover. The analogy suggests stress at work may improve performance, but should be followed by rest, whether that means not checking e-mails on weekends or going for a stroll in the middle of the day.

"Since much stress is unavoidable," the article concludes, "working out how to harness it may be wiser than fruitless attempts to banish it."

Good advice.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 01, 2016 at 12:50 PM


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