Research shows some stress can lead to better performance

Some of the stress in organizations is inherent to today’s market conditions and customer expectations, but leaders must constantly be wary of self-inflicted wounds.
While challenge stressors can lead to increased work performance and engagement, hindrance stressors like negative office politics, job ambiguity and a lack of key training can contribute to burnout. Photo credit: Getty Images/BrianAJackson

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed at work that you feel unable to perform your job well? Most employees experience this type of feeling at one point or another. Job stress can eventually lead to burnout, which has just been recognized as an official occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization.

Burnout can be one of the biggest challenges faced by managers. It leads to disengaged employees, which ultimately results in high turnover and potentially worse customer service.

As we learn more about the connection between stress and burnout, managers have been searching for new ways to make their work environment stress-free. In my research, I’ve found that not all stress may lead to burnout. In fact, some types of stress can increase employees’ work engagement and career growth.

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Avoid Hindrance Stressors

The first thing to understand is that there are two types of stressors in the workplace: hindrance stressors and challenge stressors. Hindrance stressors include negative office politics, job ambiguity and a lack of key training to complete a job. These types of stressors are never useful, often leading to anxiety, decreased performance and burnout.

Challenge stressors, by contrast, are pressures, like an increase in roles and responsibilities, that can lead us to increased work performance and engagement. They take us out of our comfort zone and motivate us to do our best or learn something new through demands or circumstances that include potential gains or growth.

The major difference between these two types of stressors is control. When we feel in control over our responsibilities, we are working with challenge stressors and are motivated to keep moving forward. However, we don’t have much control over hindrance stressors, so we feel frustrated and even discouraged to work. 

Managers can improve work environments by avoiding hindrance stressors and increasing challenge stressors as much as possible. Offering incentives such as promotions or small rewards to those who take more responsibilities, ensuring employees don’t have too much on their plate and making sure their duties are understood with necessary training are a few ways to reduce the feeling of stress and enhance work engagement. 

Consider Different Personality Traits

Not every employee handles stress in the same way. When managers hire, they consider different personality types. While they may often be drawn toward candidates that are agreeable, extroverted and social—as these personality traits are perceived to have a better handle on stress—there are still qualified candidates who may not outwardly possess these characteristics.

Though personality is a fixed trait that managers cannot change, they can have a significant impact on employee performance by developing “psychological capital” over time through motivation and encouragement.

Psychological capital contains four pillars: hope, self-efficacy, optimism and resiliency. Employees with higher psychological capital respond positively to challenge stressors. These employees tend to be more engaged and hold greater potential to be innovative in their work. Thus, it is in a manager’s best interest to leverage psychological capital for the benefit of both their employees and the organization.

Develop Employees’ Psychological Capital

Managers can expand the hope, self-efficacy, optimism and resiliency of their employees in several ways.

To build hope and optimism, managers should encourage goal setting and help employees break objectives down into smaller, manageable goals. To go one step further, encourage celebrating small milestones! Recognizing achievements, even small ones, will motivate employees to meet their next goal.

Communicating possible benefits, like a promotion, is another great way to develop hope. Having clear, attainable goals allows people to shift their focus to actionable behaviors and stress becomes easier to handle if it is believed that the hard work will pay off. As a manager, make sure you follow through on the benefits you promise.

Self-efficacy is our belief in our capability to handle a task. When self-efficacy is high, we’re more likely to be able to tackle challenges that present themselves. Creating situations where success is likely is an easy way to develop both self-efficacy and resiliency, which is the ability to bounce back from making a mistake.

Stress Can Be a Good Thing

Everyone will experience stress at some point during their career. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around it. The key to avoiding burnout and high employee turnover lies in a manager’s ability to help employees develop psychological capital and to keep stress levels low by avoiding hindrance stressors.

These strategies will assist in motivating employees to perform at their best and to possibly build a culture of innovation. By shifting from hindrance to challenge stressors, considering different personality traits and enhancing psychological capital, employees can work with a greater sense of purpose and wake up excited to come to work in the mornings.

Jenny Kim is a professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Washington State University.

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