Back in the early 1980s when the connection between stress and illness was still a new paradigm I was on one of the first NIMH-funded research teams investigating workplace stress. More specifically, we were testing the effectiveness of training executives at a high transition, high-stress Fortune 500 company in stress mitigation techniques. The scientific research results demonstrated that the stress mitigation techniques were a success in significantly reducing adverse outcomes (namely, emotional and physical illness) stemming from workplace stress among those receiving the training. Just as important, the research results revealed a number of critical factors surrounding the type of people most likely and least likely to experience adverse outcomes from stressful work environments.
As it turns out, not everyone experiences negative outcomes from workplace stress. In fact, some people actually thrive from the stress, feeling exhilarated and energized from the tensions. These people are often able to hone their focus and energy best when the pressure is on. But of course as we now know, some people are adversely affected by stressful conditions in the workplace. While many people’s reactions to workplace stress lie somewhere in the middle, some employees tend to be especially susceptible to experiencing negative consequences in response to high levels of stress in the workplace. If high stress levels continue it can begin to take a toll on the emotional and physical well-being of stress adverse employees—those people who work best in calmer, less pressured environments.
Stress Thrivers vs. Stress Adverse
When examining the differences between those professionals who thrive in high stress conditions and those who are stress-adverse, several key differences emerge. These differences are just trends or tendencies (they may not appear a hundred percent of the time), nonetheless, we begin to see that Stress Thrivers and the Stress Adverse have very different reactions and coping styles to high levels of stress in the workplace. Let’s take a look at a few of these key differences:
Stress Thrivers and Stress Adverse employees tend to have different ways of perceiving or viewing stressful conditions and events in the workplace. Stress Thrivers tend to see shifts, transitions, and the need for immediate changes as challenges. They may find the pressures to turn on a dime and the constant changes exhilarating and exciting. Stress Thrivers tend to be the people who spring into action when the heat is on and may actually be energized by the pressures. Stress Adverse employees on the other hand tend to become cautious and guarded under high-stress conditions. During times of dramatic shifts or transitions they may take their time in evaluating all the possible options and tend to avoid taking risks or using new approaches to problem-solve—even when that may be the best course of action.
Work styles tend to differ between these two types as well. Stress Thrivers tend to take control and become highly focused and directed on solving the problem at hand. Stress Adverse employees may have to work at blocking out the distractions and remaining focused in the face of chaotic environments and therefore may come up with ways to problem-solve more slowly and deliberately in order to avoid errors.
Stress Thrivers and Stress Adverse employees also tend to differ in their approaches to solving problems, completing tasks, and meeting the demands of bosses, customers and other major players during the high-stress conditions. Stress Thrivers tend to adopt a take-charge approach to solving the problems at hand, while Stress Adverse employees tend to follow directions for problem-solving but may express doubt or reservations about the efficacy of the efforts. Stress Thrivers frequently create a plan, prioritizing which issues are to be the primary focus, which problems should be worked on first and which can wait. Conversely, Stress Adverse employees may become overwhelmed by the chaos and react to every problem that comes in as an emergency (sometimes alerting coworkers of each new development by labeling every email as “Urgent!”).
While Stress Thrivers may flourish in high-transition/high stress work environments, their Stress Adverse counterparts may suffer. There are potential hazards of prolonged high stress in the workplace for the majority of workers but this is especially true for Stress Adverse employees. We know from the data that Stress Adverse employees may experience increased incidence of emotional and physical illnesses, time away and days off, and increased healthcare claims. Additionally, Stress Adverse employees may experience more strain on their interpersonal relationships in the workplace, affecting teamwork and team functioning. These factors may place them at an increased risk for feeling helpless about improving their situation, which in turn can lead to decreased productivity, negative impacts on performance, and may even lead to increased likelihood for turnover.
Conversely, Stress Thrivers tend to perform quite well during high transitions/high stress work conditions. Their tendency for proactive problem-solving and to become energized to plan and prioritize the problems at hand while remaining calm, focused and flexible to adapt to fluid situations make them natural leaders under high stress conditions. Even when they hold entry-level positions, Stress Thrivers can have a significant positive impact on their Stress Adverse colleagues. When Stress Thrivers are team leaders their approach to volatility allows other employees, especially those who are Stress Adverse, to perceive a sense of control over the chaos.
In summary, Stress Thrivers tend to own perceptions that promote a proactive approach to problem-solving during high stress, while their Stress Adverse counterparts tend to have perceptions that favor a reactive approach to each new problem that develops. These differences in perceptions and approaches not only impact the work environment in terms of efficacy and productivity, but can potentially affect the level of personal risk for experiencing adverse outcomes to well-being.
Helping employees become Stress Thrivers
Scientific research has demonstrated that training employees to become Stress Thrivers is possible. However, teaching the strategies, techniques and tools for developing healthy coping skills is complex and multifaceted and therefore beyond the scope of this article. That said, below are some simple techniques that HR professionals can use for in-house stress mitigation workshops to help employees respond better to high stress work conditions.
Manage Perceptions: The goal of this Goldilocks exercise is to help employees get stressful work conditions into perspective. Ask workshop attendees to give examples of stressful work scenarios. Write them down for the group to see. Focusing on one stressful situation at a time, ask attendees to give you three ways the situation could be better. Write them down for the group. Now ask them to give you three ways the situation could be worse. Write those down as well. Next, open the matter up for discussion. The goal is to help employees get their stressful work conditions into perspective—though things could certainly be better, they could also be a whole lot worse.
Manage Expectations: The goal of this exercise is to help employees realize they still have control despite volatile work conditions. This is accomplished by playing “And then what happens?” Ask attendees to give an example of a possible stressful situation that could adversely affect them. Write it down and draw an arrow to the right. Now ask, “Let’s say this occurs. What do you do?” Write the response down for the group and draw another arrow. Now ask, “And then what happens?” Write the response down for the group again and draw another arrow. Repeat the process until the problem has reached its logical resolution. Next, lead the group in discussion on the options, level of choice and personal control employees have within the work environment.
Manage Responses: The goal of this exercise is to help employees consider healthier, more productive options for dealing with the problems that arise in stressful work environments. This is accomplished using the Two Paths exercise. The two paths will be Proactive vs. Reactive problem solving. Ask the group to give a stressful work scenario that might arise. Write it out for the group and draw a box around it. Now draw two paths leading from it. Label one “Reactive” and the other path “Proactive”. Now guide the group step at a time through how reactive problem solving might play out, writing the key points down on the path. Next, guide them through the steps of how proactive problem-solving might play out, again writing the key points down on the path labeled “Proactive”. Finally, lead a discussion on how prioritizing, remaining flexible and taking a proactive problem-solving approach can lead to far less stress than simply reacting to problems as they arise.
Effective stress mitigation training that teaches employees adaptive coping strategies will produce measurable results—not only in terms of employee well-being, but in areas that directly impact the bottom line. Decreasing days off, health insurance claims and turnover and increasing morale and productivity means that offering employees stress mitigation training is one of the more fiscally sound investments that companies can make. And in workplaces under pressure, it not only is the best financial choice, it is a human resource imperative.