I had gone to bed at midnight. It was now 2 in the morning. I was still awake, stressed thinking about my book, which—ironically—is about happiness. Trying to unwind, I opened my laptop and started watching clips from The Daily Show. An ad for a popular sleep aid came on that I thought was still part of the satire; while the first 20 seconds promised me that if I took it, I could go right to sleep, for the next 40 seconds a soothing voice told me that if I took the pill, I would also risk seizure, sudden heart attack, hallucinations, extreme levels of anger, swallowing my tongue and might commit suicide. After an ad like that, I knew if I took that pill I’d be much too stressed about the possible side effects to ever fall asleep.
I realized this was no joke—it was a real ad. And I realized this is exactly how corporate trainings talk about stress at work.
Handle it right : Stress can cause the brain to use more of its capabilities and increase productivity.
In order to get companies and employees to take stress seriously, for the past 30 years, most trainers and coaches have highlighted research that shows that stress is the No. 1 health threat in the US (World Health Organization); that 70-90% of doctor visits are due to stress-related issues (American Stress Institute); and that stress is linked to the six leading causes of death (American Psychological Association).
But what if focusing on the negative impact of stress only makes it worse—just like thinking about the side effects of a sleeping pill would keep me up at night? And what would happen if we reframed the way we thought about stress?
To test that question, Yale researcher Alia Crum and I teamed up with senior leaders at financial services firm UBS to research 380 managers to see if we could turn stress from debilitating to enhancing merely by changing mindset at work.
As a Harvard man myself, I usually make it a rule to not work with people from Yale. But Crum is well-known for her mindfulness research with Ellen Langer and has studied how our mindset changes our health. One of the first things we uncovered was that the typical corporate training on stress seemed to unintentionally raise stress.
Think about it: How did you feel after reading the statistics above on stress, health and death? First, even if you weren’t stressed, stats such as these cause you to respond to stress with a “fight or flight” mentality. Stress is portrayed as a threat, so we either need to fight it or flee from it, overactivating our sympathetic nervous system. And second, if you are already feeling stressed, now you have even more reason to feel distressed as you know your stress is literally killing you.
There is an alternative approach which we found to be much more successful. Crum and I showed different 3-minute videos to two groups of UBS managers. The first group watched a video detailing all the findings about how stress is debilitating. The second group watched a video that talked about scientific findings that stress enhances the human brain and body. The latter information is less well known, but equally true. Stress can cause the human brain to use more of its capabilities, improve memory and intelligence, increase productivity, and even speed recovery from things such as knee surgery. Research indicates that stress, even at high levels, creates greater mental toughness, deeper relationships, heightened awareness, new perspectives, a sense of mastery, a greater appreciation for life, a heightened sense of meaning and strengthened priorities.
The findings of our study were significant: When an individual thought about stress as enhancing, instead of debilitating, they embraced the reality of their current stress level and used it to their advantage. The negative parts of stress (distress) started to diminish, because the fight-or-flight response was not activated, and the individual felt more productive and energetic, as well as reporting significantly fewer physical symptoms associated with distress (such as headaches, backaches, fatigue). In addition, on a scale of 1 to 4, productivity assessment moved from 1.9 to 2.6—a significant shift. Life satisfaction scores also increased, which in previous studies has been found to be one of the greatest predictors of productivity and happiness at work.
Encouraged by these results, Crum and I then trained 200 managers in a programme called Rethinking Stress, focusing on how to use current stress to their advantage at work. The process involved three steps: awareness of the stress, determining the meaning behind why you feel stressed, then redirecting the stress response to improve productivity behind that meaning. The effects of this second experiment were even more dramatic. Not only did distress decrease, but the stress these managers experienced actually became more enhancing, raising work effectiveness and improving health.
Our intention is not to make the case that stress is fundamentally enhancing or try to debunk the literature that stress does indeed have deteriorating effects. Rather our intention is to balance out the stress research and to point out that one’s mindset regarding stress may determine which response will be produced.
Stress at work is a reality. And this study does not indicate that someone should actively seek to increase one’s stress load. But, as Bill Belichick, head coach of US football team Patriots, says, “It is what it is.” Some stress is inevitable. When stress happens, thinking of it as enhancing rather than debilitating can lessen the risk to your health and materially improve your productivity and performance.
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