good stress and bad stress at work

Photo courtesy of Helga Weber(CC No Derivatives)

We’ve talked a lot about well-being at work in other blogs, and have identified stress as one of the major contributors when it comes to mental health issues and burn-out. But stress isn’t all bad is it? Some people think a bit of stress can actually be good for your health and wellbeing. Others – particularly leaders- are reluctant to acknowledge stress even exists in their organistion.

Where do you stand on stress?

Let’s take a look in more detail to help you make your mind up.

You’ve probably come across people in your organisation, or have worked in a place where at least one person has said they work best under pressure, and even thrive when things get stressful. Other people will be the polar opposite and only like working somewhere where there’s very little or no stress.

They may both have a valid point – at least partly anyway.

There’s lots of evidence that appears to show that, in most cases, when you’re working on a project or piece of work with a deadline that’s a bit close to the wire, but still do-able, you tend to do a great job. Especially if it’s something that needs a particular skill only you might have. If you compare that to a project where what’s proposed is completely impossible, you’ll more than likely fail because the pressure’s too much. Likewise if you’re unchallenged, complacency creeps in and sloppiness takes over.

That sweet spot in the middle, where there’s pressure to perform but the stress levels are just enough to drive you, is what can be called ‘good stress’. And it’s been proven that people in organisations generally perform best when they’re in this zone.

The secret to managing stress in an organisation is to make sure everyone sits somewhere in the good stress zone. The bad stress zone, where people are anxious and unhappy, like the impossible situation mentioned earlier, is too be avoided as much as possible. This form of stress could really be called ‘distress’ as that’s what people will quickly feel if left there too long. In the worst case, it can lead to a breakdown.

One of the ways to make sure you have people in the good stress zone is to look at where in your organisation they work and the job they do. Do they have the right skill level to cope with tasks they’ve been set? If not, they’re more likely to suffer from bad stress. Also assess their personality – more extroverted people generally perform better in more stressful situations (according to some psychologists anyway). The same goes for the more self-confident.

It’s also worth thinking about the complexity of the tasks people are performing in your organisation too. Simple tasks can be performed under high-pressure more effectively than those that are more difficult, where it’s better to have a calmer, less-pressured environment.

So it would seem fair to say it’s really okay to say some stress is good, or too much is bad. If you think of stress as a curve shaped like an upside down letter U, where the pressure levels rise towards the peak is where the ‘good’ stress is. Anything on the upward or downward side, particularly the downward side, of the U is bad stress and negatively affects performance.

Getting to grips with well-being, and particularly stress, in your organisation is all about recognising when someone’s teetering on the edge of the upside down U and stopping them toppling over the edge. Keeping them around the peak is a difficult balancing act, but one that’s vital to master.