Not all stress is bad stress

This is part of a series publishing portions of a research paper on How a Leader Maintains High Productivity Without Team Burnout.

Stress is a beneficial component of personal development; this is “good” stress. However, too much stress can also lead to distress, which leads to burn out. Signs of distress can be subtle, but early intervention can prevent burnout.

 How a Leader Maintains High Productivity Without Team Burnout

Learn to guard against distress and utilize stress as a tool to grow. (Literature Survey Principle #2)

“An organization cannot anticipate and avoid every situation in which employees may feel overworked, frustrated, or unappreciated.” (Maslach & Leiter, 1997, pp. 103) Any leader who is working with a high-performance team knows that this statement represents business reality. To quote Quick, et al., “stress is inevitable; distress is not…We contend, as we have over the last 20 years, that stress is an essential agent in an individual’s and an organization’s growth, development, performance and success.” (1997, xvii-xviii) They go on using a bell curve to illustrate that

Stress Bell Curve

performance increases with increasing stress loads up to an optimum point, and then the stress load becomes too great, resulting in depressed performance. The optimum stress load that maximizes performance varies by individual and by tasks, on the basis of several considerations. Individual considerations include susceptibility to stress, fatigue, psychological and cognitive skills, and physical capacity. Task considerations include complexity, difficulty, duration, and intensity. (Quick, et al., 1997, pp. 4)

Loehr & Schwarts agree saying, “Stress is not the enemy in [life]… it is the key to growth… Any form of stress that prompts discomfort has the potential to expand our capacity…so long as it is followed by adequate recovery.” (Loehr & Schwartz, 2003, pp. 11) Similarly, Cora says, “Stress is not new, nor is stress always negative…Acute stress in small doses can be exhilarating.” (Cora, 2010, pp. 11)

This does not mean that all stress is beneficial. There is a difference between beneficial eustress (using the “eu,” Greek root for good) and distress (using “dis,” the Greek root for bad).

Stress becomes a threat to a person’s health and well-being when (a) the stress response is elicited too intensely, for too long a period of time, or too frequently; (b) early warning signs of problems, disorders, and distress are ignored; or (c) the person does not have the skills and repertoire of behaviors to meet the challenges and demands an organization presents…Stress in an opportunity when it challenges people to be all they can be. Stress is an opportunity when it enables people to display the talents, skills, knowledge, and gifts with which they are endowed. Stress is an opportunity when one grows, learns, changes, and develops through the experience. It is a challenge when it leads people to transform themselves, adapting to changing circumstances, and live well. (Quick, et al., 1997, pp. 307)

Cora suggests that whether stress becomes beneficial or threatening is the result of an individual’s beliefs. The beliefs that can lead to burnout include: seeing everything as an emergency, overdependence on self, failure to effectively delegate, not seeing self-care as integral to performance, and failing to make lifestyle choices that increase healthiness (Cora, 2010, pp. 21-4).

 “Stress is inevitable; distress is not.” - Preventative Stress Management in Organizations by Quick, Quick, Nelson & HurrellWhile stress is inevitable, leaders need to prevent stress whenever possible, especially stress that extends over a long period of time. Five formal organization areas that can be adjusted as part of preventive stress management are: job redesign, participative management, flexible work schedules, career development, and the design of physical settings (Quick, et al., 1997, pp. 164).

Another key part of stress management focuses on “improving relationships at work” (Quick, et al., 1997, pp. 187). The topic of conflict and relational conflict was a recurring theme throughout many resources. Another recurring topic was that of intra-personal conflict; conflict within the individual worker. Casserley & Megginson suggest keeping an eye out for four behaviors that are signs that an individual is not in touch with what he or she is thinking or feeling: dysfunctional anger, desensitization, beating up oneself, and using humor to avoid discussions related to burnout (2009, pp. 92-5). They also show two personality traits that often lead to burnout: over identification with work and a desire for recognition. When these behaviors or traits become apparent this is an opportunity for a leader to intervene because these are signs that stress is leading to distress instead of growth. Burnout develops in stages and intervention is possible at several points along the way.

When it comes to utilizing stress to help an employee grow it is incredibly important to be aware of the individuality of each team member. After all, “it is not the situation that is the primary cause of burnout, but the way in which people interpret and handle that situation.” (Casserley & Megginson, 2009, pp. 36)

Job stress is triggered by a wide variety of job demands, including task-specific demands, role demands, interpersonal demands, and physical demands (Quick & Quick, 1984a). These demands may or may not be inherently or necessarily harmful. In line with Lazarus’s perspective, the degree of stress they elicit in a person depends in part on the individual’s cognitive appraisal of that demand. (Quick, et al., 1997, pp. 11)

 “Empowered employees—employees who have a sense of control over their job tasks—are resistant to burnout.” - Overcoming Job Burnout by B. PotterA third repeating concept in utilizing stress for growth and development involved an employee’s experience of control. In a chapter dedicated to how managers can prevent burnout, Potters refers to a Harvard Business Research project and a U.N. Labor report, both of which support the fact that with stress levels being equal, those with decision-making power reported “less frustration, more satisfaction and fewer illness.” (Potter, 1998, pp. 266) Potter emphatically states that “Empowered employee–employees who have a sense of control over their job tasks–are resistant to burnout…Employees who feel they can impact their work and can ‘win’ by doing a good job retain their enthusiasm and are more motivated.” (1998, pp. 268) In other words, they are engaged. When employees have some level of control over the stressors in their work, those stressors are more likely to be a catalyst to growth instead of a sentence to burnout.


The series

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