Growth and Stress: A Delicate Balance For Any Manager
Whether professionally or personally, growth and challenge are key components in our engagement. Stagnation is one of the key drivers of disengagement in an organization, and one of the greatest causes of attrition today. When we are growing, we are far more likely to engage in what we do.
Often the push for growth comes at a price: increased levels of stress. During today’s era of process efficiency initiatives, increased internal and external regulation, reorganization or restructuring, job consolidation and mergers and acquisitions, many employees find themselves doing jobs that were once done (or should be done) by two or more people. Often, these increased duties are taking people into areas where they feel they are in over their heads, and that has taken its toll on workers’ health, motivation and performance.
Check the data.
I regularly ask questions about stress when I work with organizations. Through employee engagement surveys, I ask them to rate their levels of agreement with the following statements:
- My job requires me to be efficient.
- The amount of work I am expected to do is reasonable.
Our team has amassed a database of over one million responses from across the globe to the statements above, and their responses provide interesting insights into today’s levels of workplace stress. For one, there has been a steady increase in affirmative responses when rating the first statement; over the past decade, employee ratings for this statement have increased by over 17 percent.
During the same time period, employee scores for the second question have decreased by 14 percent. That’s a 31-point spread. The bottom line? We’re asking employees to do more with less (at least, in their minds).
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. According to employees, we are working more efficiently. In fact, according to our 2017 survey database, 82 percent of employees say they regularly feel they are being stretched and challenged in their current roles.
Positive vs. negative stress.
When we regard the source of stress in a healthy, positive way, blood vessels dilate, which increases blood flow. Studies from the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that the effects are similar to those found with aerobic exercise. This increased blood flow allows our brain and muscles to step up to the challenge. We engage. But can the challenge go too far?
When we regard the cause of stress as negative, our response is potentially harmful. This kind of stress causes blood vessels to constrict, elevating blood pressure. This results in symptoms similar to those you feel when you are angry, such as clouded thinking and an erratic heartbeat. Further, this may result in changed behavior, raised voices and lapses in judgment.
Picture a balloon at a birthday party. In order to keep this balloon inflated, pressure must be applied in order to expand its elastic boundaries. Exert insufficient pressure and you get a collapsed balloon (and a ticked-off little kid). Put in too much air and bang! You get a scary pop, flying latex, and a ticked-off mom.
From balloon to bloodstream.
The balloon is the mind of the employee under pressure in the workplace. Growth and challenge cause us to stretch and expand. This expansion can bring stress with it, which can be positive or negative. When we experience stress, the brain instructs the adrenal glands to deliver powerful hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to the bloodstream, causing muscles to tense and heart rate and breathing to increase. But our own reaction determines whether this reaction becomes healthy or harmful.
Beneficial stress challenges us to achieve and deliver. We grow. On the opposite end, unhealthy stress damages interpersonal relationships, impairs logic, and causes us to underachieve. We stagnate. We disengage.
Endocrinologist Hans Selye refined these concepts of healthy and harmful stress when he coined the terms eustress and distress to differentiate between the two. Eustress is healthy stress, such as that experienced by an athlete as she approaches the starting line of the 400-meter finals, or a salesperson approaching a new client for the first time. They feel capable, excited and fully engaged.
Related: Stress and the Entrepreneur
On the other hand, employees in constant distress are likely to express it in one of two ways: continual high levels of anxiety, or withdrawal and depression (the slow hiss of air escaping from the balloon). They are more likely to become mentally or physically ill. At the very least, they will disengage.
It's how you look at it.
Eustress and distress are not actually a result of the specific stressor or situation, but by how the stressor is perceived. In other words, one employee may perceive a challenge as a growth opportunity with which he can fully engage. For that employee, the stress is healthy and causes his balloon to inflate. This is eustress. For another employee, that same challenge may cause frustration, anger, and disengagement. The balloon either pops or deflates. This is distress.
For the manager, the challenge of growth is finding that zone where the balloon is perfectly inflated, where each employee feels energized, but not overwhelmed, by the opportunity to learn new things and develop new skills.
And that managerial responsibility, in itself, can be stressful.