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Work stress: can you have the good without the bad?

Last updated on
September 4, 2021

In modern society, the word “stress” is latent with negative consequences. We know work stress can lead to burnout and all kinds of physical problems, and since it’s on the rise these issues are only set to become worse. But not all stress is created equal, or is necessarily “bad” – it all depends on the type of stress, how we deal with it, and how long it lasts. So what’s the difference between good stress and bad stress – and can we enjoy one without succumbing to the other?

The problem with bad stress

You probably know what bad stress looks like. It makes us feel anxious or overwhelmed, like the world’s on our shoulders, causes continuous worry, and can screw with our health and wellbeing. Our bodies respond to this stress by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol – hormones used to tackle a perceived threat. Once the threat disappears, our bodies return to normal. But when you’re consistently stressed, these hormones remain at high levels for long periods, impairing our respiratory, cardiovascular and endocrine systems. This is bad stress – chronic stress.

Human beings simply aren't built to experience chronic stress, and if we experience it for significant periods of time, it takes a serious toll. We might lose our appetite, have trouble sleeping, suffer from panic attacks, gain weight or increase our risk of heart disease. Just from a business perspective, the impact of stress can be huge. In the UK, 12.5 million working days were lost in 2016–2017 due to work-related stress – and in the US, a 2015 study found that workplace stress can cost businesses from $125 to $190 billion dollars a year.

What’s the deal with good stress?

But stress isn’t always bad. In its simplest form, stress can actually contribute to satisfaction. Freud cited “work and love” when asked to define happiness, and that’s because humans need more than love to feel content. We need to have meaning too – to be part of something that gives us fulfillment and allows us to feel engaged. Many of us find this through our work, and when we feel (mildly) stressed, it’s a way of knowing that we care about things; that we’re invested in our lives. If we didn’t feel some sense of stress, we’d feel rudderless and empty.

Stress can also bring out the best in us. When we’re alert – but not feeling actively threatened – our hormones rise and our pulse quickens. This can actually help us focus on the situation in hand, stay aware of any changes in circumstance, and make better decisions. “Stress is highly functional, which is why it’s importantly implicated in performance and in health,” says James C. Quick, a management professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. “It’s very helpful for legitimate emergencies, and to achieve peak achievement in high-performance events.”

This type of stress can act as both a motivator and reward. Think of how you feel before an important competition, job interview or deadline – as well as the resulting buzz you feel after; this type of stress keeps us feeling alive. In addition, science suggests that moderate stress may be good for our brains. A 2013 study by the University of California–Berkeley found that rats who experienced significant but brief periods of stress showed enhanced alertness, learning and memory. Stress can help keep our brains alert, which in turn leads to better performance.

If that weren’t enough to convince you that stress can be good, consider how it helps with flow. Flow is a state of heightened attention towards one task, and entering a flow state can help you become a staggering 500% more productive. As flow expert Steven Kotler explains, “Action and awareness merge. Our sense of self vanishes. Our sense of time distorts. Performance goes through the roof.” But in order to achieve flow, we must experience stress, which is, according to a 2016 neuroscience paper, the “behavioral counterpart of flow”. Flow simply cannot exist without stress.

A balancing act

So, stress isn’t inherently bad – and it can be actively good. The problem many of us face at work is trying to have good stress without bad stress – especially if we know how easy it can be for good stress to turn bad. The thrill you might feel at being given a demanding task can soon turn to anxiety when it’s paired with financial worries, trouble at home, ill health or other challenging work tasks. Aside from impacting your health and wellbeing, this type of stress also “impinges on reaching the flow state”, consequently having a major impact on productivity.

So how can we find the balance between good work stress and bad work stress? As managers, it can be helpful to only ever assign one big task at a time, so people don’t feel overwhelmed and are clear on what they need to focus on. This way, employees can set attainable goals and understand their priorities, while using small amounts of stress to help develop their skills and boost their performance.

Another way to avoid bad stress is by ensuring people feel in control. A common cause of bad stress is insecurity: worrying that deadlines won’t be met, that workloads will pile up, that priorities will be changed. If people know they’re in control and have a say over things like timelines, bad stress is less likely to materialize. Stress might still occur but the pressure will feel constructive, not consuming – which is a pretty good target for stress in general. To avoid bad stress taking over, let employees know they’re in the driving seat; that some stress is par for the course – but it should be constructive, not consuming.

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