The science of converting stress into employee productivity.

March 24, 2017 - 5 minute read - Posted by

Image Credit: Nadzeya Dzivakova | iStockPhoto

When leaders talk about stressed employees we think of burnouts, absenteeism, and declining productivity.

“73% of employees regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress.”

—American Psychological Association

While a lot of discussion goes into finding ways to reduce stress in the workplace, we tend to shy away from considering the hard truth—stress is sometimes unavoidable when we push to be outside our comfort zones and achieve goals.

As a leader, consider the times you felt your team was performing to their utmost potential. Was performing at this level at all stress inducing?

The common answer will be ‘Yes’—and it’s not a bad thing.

Despite our human tendency to rid ourselves of stress inducing triggers, researchers at Harvard have been studying how we can actively embrace stress in the workplace to reach greater productivity.

Much of this new research indicates that stress can be a positive addition to teams when harnessed in the right way and here’s what you can consider:

Learn to recognize stress in your team.

A healthy amount of stress is an inevitable side effect for teams that always take on new challenges in stride.

But rather than ignoring the stress amongst your employees, take the time to recognize stress as a motivator.

Whether your team does daily stand-ups, weekly check-in’s or monthly 1-on-1s to assess progress and performance, you’ll likely find some clear indicators of stress as a motivator in these conversations.

For instance, a manager may ask an employee, “what are you most proud of achieving since the last time we spoke?”. A clear indicator of stress being a positive motivator is if the answer to this question was a challenge this individual indicated they had yet to overcome during the last check-in.

The discomfort of a challenge can pose stress, to any employee, but it’s the recognition that this discomfort is a byproduct of success that helps teams achieve more.

Address the elephant in the room early on.

Once you’re able to recognize the triggers of stress in your team, acknowledging the elephant in the room is the next logical step to take. This acknowledgment can come in many forms.

For some teams, this acknowledgment starts from the very beginning: setting stretch goals.

In many ways, leadership design stretch goals that are both as complex as they are challenging with full knowledge that expectations may not be 100% met.

But as designers of the obstacle course, acknowledging stress means acting as the main pillar of support for the team.

For a manager or CEO that sets out expectations for employees, you can do so by communicating clearly that these expectations are meant to put the team outside their comfort zone early on.

“…purposefully acknowledging stress lets you pause your visceral reaction, allowing you to choose a more enhancing response.”

—Alia Crum & Thomas Crum

This shows the team you understand stress will be a factor in achieving these goals but you will not only be their leader but greatest support as well.

Practice leveraging stress as a motivator.

It doesn’t matter how many studies we read on how to boost employee productivity because at the end of the day it comes down to practice. Practice leveraging existing resources and motivators within your own team.

Stress as a motivator is best leveraged with goals and expectations that have employee buy-in. When employees are handed expectations without explanation, it’s difficult for them to view their stress as a worthwhile.

“When the stress of the training seems unbearable, we can own it, knowing that ultimately it is what we have chosen to do—to be a member of a team that can succeed in any mission.”

—Navy SEAL Commander Curt Cronin

The act of having employees be able to set individual goals to achieve a high-level expectation for the team, not only promotes more accountability but also frames stress as a worthwhile performance enhancer rather than something they are not invested in.

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