Trying to avoid stress at work? No need. Make it work to your advantage

Research since the 1980s has illustrated the potential positive effects of stress (e.g. physiological thriving Dienstbier 1989, Epel et al. 1998, and ‘stress-related growth’ Tedeschi & Calhoun 2004). However, the hefty bank of research on the negative effects of stress ultimately led us to conclude for some decades that stress is bad. It’s only since the publication of a landmark study in 2012 that we’ve sat up and paid attention to the idea that, with the right mindset, stress could be a good thing.

Of the 30,000 people studied, high levels of stress increased death rates by 43% but only if stress was perceived to be harmful. This introduced the notion of a ‘stress mindset’. Is stress our enemy or our friend? How we answer that determines whether we suffer the detrimental effects of stress or reap the benefits.

This is nothing new. We know we should be trying to change how we perceive life’s stressors if we want to harness the beneficial outcomes for wellbeing and performance. But what does this mean for handling stress at work? And what are the specific tactics we can employ to make stress work to our advantage?


How a positive stress mindset helps employees perform better

On my way to running a series of small focus groups for a public sector organisation, I received a call from the client to enquire as to whether I could make some small tweaks to the day. Would I mind running the focus groups for 40 people per session instead of 8? And on a different topic? And by the way, the attendees are unlikely to be receptive because half of the workforce are on strike. Expect crossed arms and surly silence. Small tweaks indeed.

A few years back, I may have just mumbled something about not being able to change the scope of delivery at such short notice and turned the car around. That would count as an avoidance tactic I believe. Instead, I agreed to revise the scope of the day’s delivery. I acknowledged the adrenalin surge as being to my benefit to help me think on my feet and viewed the day as an exciting challenge.  It’s knowing what I know about stress mindset that helped me to re-set my mental scripts.  

So ask yourself, do you have a “stress is good” or a “stress is bad” mindset?

Employees with a positive stress mindset are more successful at tackling high workloads because they adopt more effective coping strategies, such as planning and prioritising and viewing the work as a learning opportunity. At the end of a busy day, they’ve performed better and are left feeling more energised than those with a negative stress mindset, who are more likely to employ avoidance tactics. These are the findings of a new diary study, led by Anne Casper at the University of Mannheim, which investigated how stress mindset influences our anticipatory reaction to high workloads.

To be clear, we’re talking about singular days and not prolonged periods of high workload here. The latter being cited as one of the strongest predictors of employee exhaustion (Alarcon, 2011; Lee & Ashforth, 1996). So no, this is not an excuse for leaders to pile on the work under the guise that it’ll be good for employee development.

Nevertheless, it’s clearly beneficial to reflect on stress mindset and to consider the coping strategies employees could use to manage stress more effectively. I’ll leave you with these five suggested strategies to consider to support employees in developing a more effective approach to stress.

Stress management tools: Organisational support for employees

  1. Coaching and personality psychometrics. We utilise personality psychometrics in our coaching offering to enable employees to really delve into the things they are likely to find stressful and importantly, what they could do differently to ensure a more constructive approach.
  2. Resilience workshops. Demonstrate organisational commitment to wellbeing and stress management by running workshops that enable employees to explore and build their resilience. I wholeheartedly recommend Feel Good’s Resilience workshops – punchy, interactive and practical.
  3. Enable support networks. It’s not just adrenalin that gets released as part of the stress response, but also oxytocin (a neuro-hormone that makes us crave social contact). Why? Kelly McGonigal tells us it’s a hint to seek support from others. Weekly team round-ups and manager 121s are the obvious platforms for providing support to employees. Just make sure they happen, as they tend to be the first thing to drop off the calendar in busy periods.
  4. Foster a feedback culture. In research by Crum etl al (2013), students with a positive stress mindset were more likely to ask for performance feedback – an important behavioural distinction from those with a negative stress mindset that leads to self-improvement and better task performance. Encourage employees to understand the benefits and importance of seeking in-the-moment feedback for personal growth.
  5. Lead by example. Leaders play a critical role in creating a culture that ensures employees are comfortable discussing stressful events and their wellbeing. This is a great blog example from the Commercial Director of VINCI Facilities, encouraging wellbeing to be discussed openly.





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