The Power of Stress To Improve Work Performance

A number of recent studies suggest stress, when harnessed properly, can be beneficial to increasing workplace productivity but the key is the anxiety must be acute, meaning short bursts; rather than lasting for prolonged periods. A Berkeley study on rats, “found that significant, but brief stressful events caused stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rats’ mental performance.” Acute stress helps to “prime” the brain for better performance.

To be sure, repeated exposure to acute stress can be harmful to one’s productivity. People subjected to this form of ongoing repeated stress can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies show the relationship between being productive and enduring stress follows a bell curve. This measurement is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that stress can improve productivity but only to a point before it becomes harmful.

Research has also shown that how one views stress has a major effect on how that person is impacted. For instance, when people adjust their mindsets to looking at stress as helpful rather than deleterious their ability to handle the stress greatly improves. Alia Crum, professor of psychology at Stanford University, performed an experiment on 350 employees of a company that was laying off 10 percent of its workforce. One-third of the people watched videos emphasizing the positive effects of stress; another third watched videos of the downside of stress; and the last third did not watch any videos. According to the results, those who watched the first set of videos about the positive impacts of stress showed better performance results under pressure.

Approaching stress with a more positive outlook could do more than just save your job – it could save your life. “Research published in The European Heart Journal last year, using data from a 29-year health study of thousands of London-based civil servants, found that those who believe stress affected their health ‘a lot or extremely’ had 50 percent greater risk of dying from a heart attack – even after adjusting for biological, behavioral and psychological risk factors, the New York Times reports. The news may be a little better for people on the other side of the pond in America, where according to a study on perceived stress, workers were relatively healthy and productive. Findings discovered stress becomes less harmful with age as people learn to cope and manage setbacks with experience.

While all of these studies suggest stress could be beneficial to performing better at our jobs when leveraged properly and with age, it is not necessarily an inherently good thing. “’This doesn’t mean we need to seek out more stress or simply accept the stressors that we face,’” Crum says. “But neither should we assume that the effects are always harmful. ‘The true nature of stress is not so simple.’”