Recognize the different types of stress

Stress is a fact of life (and business!).  It is necessary to grow and evolve. So some amount of workplace stress in normal and even necessary.   But we all know that too much stress can have detrimental effects on human beings.  As managers, we need to find a balance in our workplace.  We need some level of normal, performance enhancing stress.  But we want to avoid damaging levels of stress that overload our employees to the point of burnout.

In fact, employers have an obligation to provide a safe work environment.  And it is now recognized that this includes not just physical safety, but also consider mental health and wellness.  Employers will need to ensure that employees are not exposed to ongoing, damaging levels of stress.   But how do we determine what level of stress is “normal” and what is damaging?  And how do we monitor to ensure we reach the right balance?

I’m not sure there is any one clear answer, but I thought it timely to start some discussion on this topic.  Perhaps we can first start by examining – What IS Stress?  And in particular, what IS workplace stress?

What IS  workplace stress?

Currently, the word carries a negative connotation.  We tend to associate stress with the damaging effects to humans, animals and our world.  But stress is really just a force that acts upon an object.  This article by the American Institute of Stress provides some good background.

As the chart in this article shows, a certain level of stress actually increases performance up to a certain point.  When the level of stress exceeds that point, then performance deteriorates.

Different types of Workplace Stress

During my research into the performance of culturally diverse teams, I looked at a number of factors that influence team performance.  With regard to stress, I found through literature review that:

There are mixed opinions on both the positive and negative effects of stress on team effectiveness.  Drach-Zahavy and Freund (2007), in their study of primary care teams, examined whether there were differences between qualitative and quantitative stress.   Results indicated that there was a positive relationship between team structuring and effectiveness under stress, with mechanistic (controlled) structuring of teams working under quantitative stress, whereas organic (flexible) restructuring was more effective for qualitative stress.  Quantitative stress, referring to role overload such as too many commitments, was shown to have a negative impact on team effectiveness.  Qualitative stress, such as role ambiguity and uncertainty,  had a positive impact on team effectiveness (Drach-Zahavy and Freund, 2007). 

What does this mean for managing workplace stress?

First, we need to consider the negative connotation of the word “stress” in our society.  How can we have conversations about “positive stress” without unleashing the emotions that are associated with the word?  Eliminating all types of stress is neither feasible or even desirable.  Most human beings desire a level of challenge to improve themselves.  Without some workplace stress, we would all be bored and unproductive!

Perhaps it is time for some new terminology?

Let’s continue the discussion on workplace stress

I will continue with research on this topics, and follow up with additional articles.  But please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Debbie Narver, BSc, MBA, MScIB

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Strategic Management & Cross Cultural Leadership Specialist