The Healthy Side of Workplace Stress
You know the feeling. Maybe it’s butterflies in your stomach, the worry that it won’t all get done in time. Your palms may sweat and your head may ache, and you may even lose your appetite. You might have trouble concentrating and your neck muscles may tense up. The culprit of your woes? You know it all too well. Yep, it’s stress.
Stress needs a new publicist. It sure has gotten a bad reputation over the years. Just think of its portrayal in film and how your coworkers reference its impact in their lives. All negative, right? There have been hoards of studies done to prove it can cause weight gain, multiple health issues and can interfere with our relationships outside of the office. We know from personal experience too much workplace stress also lessens our productivity, and makes the work we do less accurate. That’s a lot of bad press. No wonder it gathered such a negative reputation. However, there actually is an upside to having a healthy amount of stress in your life and at work, the key is to finding out just how much is too much.
Stress is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish.
Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.
– Donald Tubesing
The Difference Between Good & Bad Stress
A little stress can propel us to peak performance, but too much can quite literally shut down the brain. Humans were designed to handle life’s difficulties, within reason.
The stress you think of when something exciting happens, a first kiss, promotion hints from your boss or the thought of planning for an upcoming vacation are all under the “eustress” category. Stress that has a positive effect on your life. This type of stress keeps us excited about life, and motivates us to keep moving forward.
The next type of stress is “acute” stress, the type that quickens your pulse and forces you to think quickly. It’s the type of problem that needs a resolution quickly, and engages the body’s heightened stress response triggers. When dealt with quickly, this type of stress doesn’t cause any damage if the host returns to their normal stage of function immediately following the solution.
The final category of stress is the most harmful. “Chronic” stress takes over when we repeatedly face stressors that take such an intense toll on our lives that we feel we can’t escape them. This can possibly stem from a consistently stressful job or unhappy situation at home can bring on chronic stress. Our bodies aren’t meant to handle this, and we often suffer negative health and performance effects when we deal with chronic stress for extended periods of time.
The Positive Effects of Workplace Stress
It’s not all bad, stress can actually make your life better! Here are a few ways:
It helps boost brain power
Stress boosts the neurons in your brain that may improve performance. The body has an involuntary reaction when it is faced with a task where performance matters. A person’s sympathetic nervous system pumps stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream which helps our heartbeat increase and tenses our muscles. This helps your brain and your body think and react more clearly for short bursts of time.
It makes you more alert
This stems from your body’s caveman “fight or flight” response to certain situations, since there were many imposing threats during that time. Stress can help you make fast decisions or recall important information when you need it most, like where the nearest cave is. While thankfully risk of death by being mauled by wild animals is no longer a serious daily issue many of us face, stress can still help you stay more alert, like when you need to retrieve someone’s name when you meet them a second time or when your boss asks you an important question.
It can increase immunity
Short-term stress can enhance the acquisition and expression of immunoprotective responses in the body, which include; wound healing, anti-infectious agents, and anti-tumor antibodies while also increasing autoimmune and pro-inflammatory responses.
It can sharpen your memory
Your brain is wired to recall information more readily when under stress, and it can help you stay focused on retaining important information when you need it most. However, it can go too far in one direction. Ever wonder why 9-1-1 was the chosen emergency number? Studies showed people could only recall three numbers when under severe stress.
Fixing the Stress in Your Day
Okay, good. We know that moderate amounts of stress can have a positive effect in our lives. So, how do we limit our stress to the positive kind? This is where things get a little sticky. Individuals vary widely in how they respond, so your body’s definition of what constitutes as “moderate” may be completely different from even members of your immediate family.
What we do know is this: people who feel more confident at work and resilient to issues are much less likely to be overwhelmed when stress does come their way. Feeling a sense of control over the situation also plays a role, considering when individuals feel in control they’re more likely to process the experienced stress positively. For example, if you’re given a tight project deadline but reasonable time to complete it, you’re less likely to fall into the chronic stress category. Now unrealistic deadlines? They’re practically made up of the bad type of stress.
One of the biggest things you can do to fix the stress in your day? Change how you perceive it. Try seeing things as a challenge rather than an issue. You also now know that some affects of stress are good, and can keep you healthy and a high-performing employee. So allowing yourself to feel under pressure a moderate amount at work can increase the quality of the work you do. Also, consider really making an effort to let go of the stressful things you cannot change in your life (like traffic). Remember, the more perceived control we have the less overwhelming stress can be.