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Stress and performance

Stress, at an appropriate level and duration, can be a positive influence in the workplace. However, when stressful influences are poorly managed, they can cause us to feel like we are 'treading water'. How can we use workplace pressure to our advantage?

Using workplace pressure to your advantage

Stress — of the right kind, at the right time, and in the right amount — can help you in your job, by stimulating your thought and creativity, and by giving you the energy boost you need to improve your performance.

But if work-related stress is maintained at a high level for too long, the exact opposite happens. When you start being adversely affected by your stress, you may try to plug the gaps in the quality of your output by working harder…and becoming even more stressed, which actually leads to a poorer performance over time.

The impact becomes more and more marked, as you continue to work longer and apparently more intensively, while at the same time, you become increasingly less effective. It’s as if the harder you work, the less you achieve.

A little pressure can be a good thing, but too much inevitably leads to collapse

This sort of accumulated and unrelenting stress can lead to serious physical and emotional / mental effects. Colloquial phrases like ‘cracking up’ and ‘having a breakdown’ describe them well, and remind us of the similar effects of stress on a building. The right amount is ‘right’ for a bridge or a joist or a door frame. But too much of the wrong sort eventually leads to collapse.

Performance increases arousal . . . to a point

The ‘Yerkes—Dodson law’ which first neatly summed up this concept dates from 1908, ?and was developed by two ?psychologists to show the ?relationship between arousal and ?performance. Yerkes and Dodson ?had observed that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a certain point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. Behaviour and management ?researchers developed and refined ?the Yerkes-Dodson Human ?Performance Curve on this ?law, and it forms part of ?management theory and practice? in several fields.

Yerkes-Dodson Human Performance Curve

The curve shows in a graphic form how the ‘best’ stress allows you to see a match between targets and your ability to achieve them, when what you have to give is more or less the same as what’s expected of you. This creates a ‘comfort zone’ where you are performing well, and likely to be gaining satisfaction. Different individuals have different comfort zones — there’s no one size fits all, and good management allows for this.

The need for ‘restorative gaps’

You can work at an intense level for short lengths of time, and after you meet the desired objectives you’re likely to need restorative gaps. A period of lower intensity between these high-performance periods allow you to gather your physical and emotional resources once more.

‘Negative’ stress happens when there’s a discrepancy between expectations and resources / ability — and most of us aren’t able to sustain a good performance under these conditions. Good management and effective working practices allow you to have ups and downs — with the ‘ups’ being the more important, more highly-valued part of your work, leaving the ‘downs’ for more routine tasks which are likely to be less demanding.

The curve also shows that where there’s too little stress, performance suffers, too. We need to be ‘aroused’ to work well — and we tail off if we don’t get that boost. In fact, stress builds up not because we have too much to do — on its own, simple overwork is less to ‘blame’ than the level of uncertainty we experience.

Difficult decision-making creates stress, conflict at work — perhaps between expectations and resources, perhaps because our role is not clear, feelings of failure and the pressure this creates… all this adds up to a stressful burden.

The House Partnership, 13th December 2014

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