Stress is not a Four Letter Word

November 3, 2016

While sometimes it is hard to believe, particularly when you are in the moment, not all stress is bad. And in fact, under the right circumstances stress (eustress) can be a good thing. Experiencing stress is just a warning system and helps us produce our fight-or-flight response. It is a natural biological response that has kept many creatures, including us humans, alive!

Eustress is the word for POSITIVE STRESS.  “Moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer”. So in the workplace when is stress good? When we find ourselves in situations that require us to have greater focus and a need for us to react quickly. So when your colleague spills that hot coffee and it is coming your way and you manage to jump aside, that is a good thing. When there is a change in deadlines or deliverables and suddenly you have to do something else in a tighter time frame but feel you can handle it, it is part of our coping mechanism. In both the workplace and in our personal lives, eustress helps motivate us, improves our performance and our ability to focus, gives us an adrenaline rush, but is short-term.  

Distress is the word for NEGATIVE STRESS. "Extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain”. Unlike positive stress, distress decreases performance, causes anxiety, makes us feel like we can’t cope and may be both short or long term. So when do you and most people feel distressed in the workplace? Here are some five examples:

  • Terrible commutes and excessive travel: It is the exceptional person who can stay mindful and calm during traffic jams or when there are airport delays which cause them to miss their flight connections.
  • Excessive job demands: we are not talking about the one off business emergency situation, but the constant requirement of being asked to do more work than one can comfortably handle. So it is when there used to be three people doing a job and two have been laid off and you are still required to handle the workload. Or the company is growing like crazy but recruitment is still six months behind filling the needed positions. You want to do a good job but you can’t keep up and no one is helping you to develop either short term or long-term solutions.
  • Job Insecurity: even if the business is doing well, individuals may be uncertain regarding the viability of their particular position or how they are doing in their position or with their new boss. Feedback and communication does a lot to rectify those situations, but companies are notorious for not communicating enough and keeping things “close to the vest”.
  • People Conflicts: whether it is your boss or your co-worker, having ongoing conflicts with them are distressing particularly if no resolution is in sight. Who wants to deal with that every day or even every week?
  • Inadequate Training: Being put into a job where you don’t have the right skills or knowledge is a terribly frustrating experience if you want to be successful. Sometimes companies are well meaning and put existing employees into positions and hope that they “will pick it up” through osmosis.

So does it really matter that people and organizations differentiate between the two types of stresses? I think it does because organizations should do everything in their power to ensure that their employees are not experiencing distress, i.e. negative stress, due to something the company is doing whether consciously or unconsciously. It is management’s responsibility to understand the consequences of actions they take or don’t take and that effect on their employees.  Figure out what is most distressing at your organization. You may be surprised.  Then systematically address those issues to the best of your ability.

We have, and do help organizations both proactively by pointing out how employees are likely to react to certain changes and how to address those concerns before they become distressing. But also we hold employee discussions to figure understand their stressors and suggest action plans to remedy them if they are having negative impact on the business. We want everyone to THRIVE! 

The Mackenzie Consulting Group

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