Executive Education

The impact of stress in the workplace and the importance of harnessing positive stress

By Dr Jorgen Folkersen
Executive Education
Published: 27 June 2018

Every level of a modern company from boardroom to senior managers and colleagues requires honed social skills, to ensure efficient leadership, smooth cooperation and efficient coordination. The concept of “social capital” has been named and investigated in the work environment and denotes the individual feeling of social cohesion, solidarity and mutual trust. In general, the quality of social relations in the workplace has a significant impact on sick leave, performance and satisfaction among colleagues.

One of the greatest threats to the quality of social relations in a work environment is the presence of stress among one or more of the people in a team. Such stress may arise from a diversity of stress triggers both inside and outside the workplace. The stress may also be either a temporary condition like a specific social conflict among colleagues or it may be caused by a chronic stress condition in the single individual. If a specific person suffers from chronic harmful stress this has often been lifelong and caused by old trauma, which may be reactivated from time to time without the person knowing the exact underlying cause.

Stress may, however, not always be harmful or have a negative impact on the social environment. Stress may also be positive. So, what are the differences between positive and negative stress and why is negative stress harmful to harmonious social relations in the workplace?

There is no official definition of stress, but a growing amount of multidisciplinary research has focused on three perspectives:

  1. What kind of stress causes harm to the mind and body
  2. Which triggers causes harmful stress and
  3. Individual differences in resilience to harmful stress.

The accumulated key conclusions from this research are:

1. The same triggers or challenging events may create opposite effects in different individuals: i.e. harmful effects in some individuals and beneficial in others. The decisive factor causing this difference is how our minds perceive the potential challenge. If it is perceived as a threat, then it may cause harm, but if it is perceived as a challenge that can be overcome, then this will have a beneficial effect not only on the body but also the mind.

2. This type of “positive stress” is also called the “challenge response” as opposed to the harmful “threat response”. The two types of responses have different characteristic hormonal profiles that can be measured by analytical biochemistry.

3. The challenge response is often observed in professional people with demanding jobs, such as pilots, surgeons, sports people etc, and science importantly shows improved skill to overcome the challenges successfully, compared to people who do not show this response.

Another interesting aspect of modern stress research is the identification of which potential triggers may provoke potentially harmful stress-responses. These triggers include:

A. Threats to the physical body (physical trauma stress) e.g. life-threatening situations, violence or diseases.

B. Threats to the social inclusion and status (psychosocial stress) e.g. exclusion from social groups (job, family) or harasment, dominance and social humiliation.

Both these triggers may cause similar physical and mental stress responses, which include the production of stress hormone and physical signs such as sweating, and faster heartbeats. The mental effects include, among others, emotional numbness, impaired memory and reduced intellectual function. The psychosocial stress response however, also includes effects on general social functioning, such as reduced empathy, reduced self-confidence, and varying degrees of anti-social behaviour such as varying degrees of impoliteness and aggressive behaviour.

Such behaviour tends to create harmful stress in others as well and may thus generate a vicious cycle of more stress in the work environment. The negative impact of this type of antisocial behavior is particularly harmful if it appears in the senior leadership team. One complicating factor is that the antisocial behavior is expressed not only verbally, but predominantly by emotional signals, such as tone of voice and emotional facial expression that are not under conscious control.

These dynamics underline the strong and reverse relationship between harmful psychosocial stress and “social intelligence”. Social intelligence is generally believed to have two main components: social awareness and social facility:

I. Social awareness is determined by the individual level of empathy i.e. the ability to sense and attune to the feelings of another person.

II. Social facility is determined by the individual ability to smooth nonverbal communication and the ability to shape the outcome of social interactions in a positive way. Equally important is a general feeling of care for other people.

People with chronic or acute harmful stress generally behave with less social intelligence and are thus more prone to act as harmful “stress-generators” under challenging conditions.

Fortunately, there are effective methods, which can be used to improve the social quality in the work environment. These will be different depending on whether we are dealing with people with chronic harmful stress or people that are temporarily under acute stress. People with chronic stress primarily need professional therapeutic help. People with shorter lasting acute stress may benefit from training their positive stress response.

The latest research into stress shows that positive stress can be trained and developed in individuals. This constitutes one promising new avenue for skill development among leaders and employees to tackle the modern competitive environment in companies at all levels from the floor to the boardroom.

Training fundamental social intelligence
A key part of training a positive stress response is developing a fundamental level of social intelligence, especially if the individual in question has become a ‘stress generator’. Through training sessions and detailed feedback, leaders can learn both the intended and unintended impact of their own behaviour as well as skills to influence their colleagues without damaging a positive social relation. This also includes the ability to give negative feedback or follow up on performance in a socially positive atmosphere that maintains a high level of social quality and trust.

Training the positive stress response
People with a higher tendency to react with a positive stress response can deal with tasks and challenges that they feel are very demanding, awful or painful to perform. They are confident that the associated unpleasant feelings are temporary and tolerable because they go away when the task is done. They are also better placed to feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing a task instead of feeling self-pity because they had to “go through” the challenge. They are said to have a general feeling of “mastering” instead of constantly feeling that they are under the victimising or humiliating influence of others.

The basic principle of training and improving the positive stress response is to challenge yourself in areas where you are vulnerable. Performing tasks in these areas may also impose unpleasant mental reactions because it may remind you about earlier “social defeats” where you could not perform to the standard required. You may also have a history of “giving up” or lack of self-control in the areas you want to improve.

One only needs to look at the world of sport to see effective positive stress training in action. This is something senior leaders can emulate from a personal perspective, but also as the role of sports coach, in terms of nurturing a positive stress response amongst junior management.

A typical programme to improve a positive stress response will start with a “downscaled” version of the specific challenge and undertake it repeatedly until you feel confident with your own performance. This is not just performance training but foremost mental training to overcome fear and gain self-confidence. Let’s presume that you do not like to run and hate to run. You can then set yourself the goal to run a marathon after two years of planned training. In order to put a balanced level of social pressure on yourself and train yourself to deal with this, you can announce to friends, family and colleagues what your plans are and let them witness your progress. Your initial training may start with only 5 km of run two to three times a week under the guided supervision of a qualified coach. His role is not only to give you guidance about gradually increasing your training and mileage per week without developing injuries. His role is also to improve your spirit and witness your victories.

What your coach should not do is to set up a “performance culture” where you are punished or blamed if you are temporarily not able to follow the programme. Such strategy will have a negative impact on both your physical and mental development and destroy a nurturing and energising positive social relationship that is vital for your mental growth and improved physical performance. Instead he should teach you self-acceptance of temporary setbacks and inspire you to do your best at all times and encourage you to keep on setting new and higher goals.

In the same way, senior leaders can encourage both themselves and their wider teams to develop a fundamental level of social intelligence and a positive response when faced with stress. In doing so, they can help to enable a more efficient, productive and harmonious workplace.

About the author
Dr Jorgen Folkersen, MD, Sc. Is a renowned stress expert and author of new book Understanding Stress – The Good, The Bad and The Hidden