When we think of stress, especially workplace stress, our mind goes immediately to negative side effects and causes—too many emails, long to-do lists and packed schedules. There’s no doubt that too much stress, especially over long periods of time, isn’t healthy. But at some level, stress is necessary (keeping us alert and out of harm's way) and in some cases, positive (so we can do and become our best, both in our personal and professional lives). To understand how stress can impact us positively, let’s start by defining what stress is.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s physical, emotional and intellectual reaction to changes or challenges (stressors) that causes us to evaluate our capacity to respond to the challenge. It’s important to note that everyone’s tolerance and perception of stress are different. What may send you into a feeling of overwhelm may not be perceived as a challenge for someone else.
Just like our to-do lists, stress comes in several forms. ‘Distress’ is what we typically think of when we think about stress; it includes the negative parts of our stressful experiences. For example, distress may be what you feel when you find out a loved one has lost their job. In contrast, ‘eustress’ is a normal or moderate amount of stress that can be beneficial. You may be experiencing eustress right before you ride your favorite roller-coaster or walk into a job interview. We’re aiming for more ‘eustress’ and less ‘distress’ in our lives. But first, what can stress even do for us?
Why Do We Need Stress?
Sometimes it’s difficult to think of any reason why stress could be helpful, but that’s where we’re wrong. Stress that lasts for a short time can boost job performance while increasing alertness. Healthy amounts of stress can even help build relationships essential for our health. Stress is also vital for our memory. It allows us to recall the inevitable consequences of our actions to help us avoid them again in the future. For example, if you accidentally touch a hot pan while cooking, our stress response helps us remember the encounter, so the next time we’re in the kitchen, we are more careful.
Not only can stress boost performance, but it also increases motivation. That race against the clock feeling you get when chasing deadlines can provide a needed burst of focus and attention. Experiencing stress and responding to it in a healthy way can build up resiliency, one of the many tools that can quell fits of distress.
When thinking about where stress benefits us in the workplace, stressful situations can better prepare us for future tasks. Moderate amounts of stress build confidence and problem-solving skills, which are essential for the world of work.
We’re not recommending trying to get the entire quarter’s worth of work done by Friday, but some good can come out of getting some friction in our routines. Although stress helps us adapt to new situations, knowing when it becomes too much is crucial to our well-being.
When Does Stress Become Harmful?
We’re familiar with how stress can quickly turn into feelings of anxiety and panic. When life's challenges pile up or become overwhelming, the autonomic nervous system takes over, increasing our heart rate and breathing and activating our ‘fight-or-flight response, which can become exhausting.
As we know, small to medium amounts of stress that last for a short time may benefit us in the right scenarios. But stress that turns chronic, meaning the stressor or stressors require mental and physical effort to manage for extended periods of time, can have real ramifications on our health and well-being. In terms of affecting physical health, stress can increase heart disease while doing no favors for the immune system.
What's The Difference Between Stress and Burnout?
It’s no surprise that a lot of the stress we experience originates from work. But when symptoms of stress are coupled with symptoms of burnout, it can quickly have detrimental effects on productivity, employees’ happiness with their job and physical and mental health. Before we dive into some strategies to manage stress, let’s define what burnout is and how it differs from stress.
Officially recognized as a medical diagnosis by the World Health Organization, burnout is more than feeling overwhelmed by work. Burnout is characterized by chronic, work-related stress that results in feelings of despair and hopelessness about the present and future. When people feel stressed at work, they typically still struggle through managing their workload. But those experiencing burnout may feel completely worn out physically, mentally and emotionally. Their job becomes unfulfilling and distant. Tasks that were once manageable become nearly impossible to complete. Contrary to popular belief, burnout can’t be solved by taking a few PTO days. The American Medical Association says treating employee burnout is more about fixing the work environment—not the individual.
It’s important to note that burnout has more significant effects on stress than stress does on burnout. For example, because burnout can cause employees to distance themselves from work, this adds stress to work because now employees have to make up for the lost time.
As an employer, it’s essential to keep your employees happy, healthy and far from burnout. Knowing the signs and symptoms of burnout can help your employees reverse or avoid burning out in the workplace so you can get back to what’s most important.
It’s clear that too much stress, especially over long periods, doesn’t help our physical or emotional health. So how do we ensure we’re using stress to our advantage?
Tried and True Strategies to Manage Stress
Research shows that eustress can help us decrease oxidative damage, which ties to aging and disease onset. But how do we get more of the good stress and less distress?
For employers, of the most important things you can do is ensure you have a healthy culture that measures and manages capacity and employee engagement to reduce instances of burnout. Be sure to know the signs of burnout and take conscious steps to prevent it in your workplace.
For individuals, the fact is that sometimes, we can’t get the best out of our stress. Stress is a normal reaction to life's ups and downs and your body is designed to experience it. But there are some best practices to manage it more effectively to prevent it from becoming chronic. Here are a few tips that can help:
1. Know your limits.
Sometimes saying ‘no’ is necessary if you're already at full capacity.
2. Participate in a stress management online course or coaching program.
Many employers now include emotional and mental health programs in their corporate well-being benefits to meet employees' needs. Ask your benefits team what programs and resources may be available to you at low or no cost.
2. Consider your confidence.
If you can visualize yourself getting through a stressful situation, it’s more likely that the stress you are experiencing won’t be enough to overwhelm you.
3. Get moving!
Research shows that those who regularly exercise are better at squabbling stress. Even exercising after a stressful event can help soothe the negative parts of stress.
4. Phone a friend or two.
Having a support system to turn to when you’re feeling bogged down will allow you to handle the situation with more grace while helping you gain greater peace of mind.
5. Flip the script.
When faced with a stressful situation, put it in perspective and ask yourself, ‘how can I turn this into a positive?’ you might be surprised at what you find. However, research shows that trying to calm down after feeling anxious can only lead to more anxiousness. Instead, we should try to combat our anxiousness by shifting to feelings of excitement, which is often easier said than done. Pivoting will help boost productivity and allow more energy. Since anxiety and excitement are both tied to our states of arousal, framing the event in an exciting way can help soothe our emotions. Essentially, shifting the way our emotions control us can set us up to reap the long-term benefits of stress. The next time you face a work project you feel anxious about, make it an event. Try to schedule some time in your calendar only dedicated to that project so that you can get excited about making a dent in your to-do list. Include the location as well. Do you need to tackle this project in the office? At home? Decide what works best and get to work. Shifting the way we perceive threats can make them easier to handle when they appear again and builds our resiliency to tackle even more in the future.
6. Remember that most challenges are temporary.
When faced with stressful events, we often wish we didn’t have to experience them ever again. But stress is an inevitable part of the human experience. Some of the projects, events and obstacles we’ve faced that are the most important and worthwhile to us are also the ones that have brought us the most stress. Don’t take your stress for granted; it could mean you are on the edge of the next best thing.
The next time you’re in a stressful situation, think about what kind of stress you’re dealing with right now. Is it distress, or is it a small challenge you know you can overcome that can even give you a taste of that eustress feeling?
What’s Next for Our Relationship with Stress?
We now know that stress can de-rail both our physical and emotional health. The effects of stress show that a holistic approach to wellness is needed to manage it, alongside a healthy corporate culture.
A wellness program that gives employees the tools and support for emotional and physical well-being will help them be more productive, miss less work and stay engaged in their jobs.