Stress may offer workplace benefits

stress
Photo by Thao Do.

Amidst midterm season, President-elect Peter Salovey has a message for students — stress can be good.

In a recent study to be published in the April edition of The Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences, Salovey collaborated with lead author and Columbia adjunct professor Alia Crum GRD ’12 and former Harvard researcher Shawn Achor to show that training employees to view stress positively can result in improved job performance. The team first began developing their plans in 2009 and started conducting tests in 2010, Crum said.

“Usually what the media talks about is how stress can be damaging for our health and performance,” Crum said. “But our research showed that stress can lead to enhanced psychological growth and productivity.”

In order to investigate the impact of stress, Crum and her team evaluated a group of 380 employees from a prominent investment bank. The employees were split into three groups — one watched a series of videos on the benefits of stress, the second watched videos on the damages caused by stress and the third was a control group that did not watch any videos. The videos contained anecdotes and facts that the researchers hoped would shift employee attitudes toward stress. Salovey, Crum and Achor then designed a measurement to quantify employees’ beliefs about stress on a 4-point scale, and found that employees with positive attitudes toward stress were more productive in the workplace and exhibited fewer physical symptoms such as headaches and fatigue.

The researchers also conducted a follow-up study in which they trained 200 managers at an investment bank, helping them channel their stress into improved work effectiveness and efficiency. Crum said the researchers were interested in contrasting the results of an in-person training session with the videos they showed employees in their first study. The results of the follow-up study have not yet been published.

“For research purposes, it is helpful to have subjects watch a three-minute video,” Crum said. “But in practice, we wanted to work with people in trainings to consciously and deliberately change their mindsets about stress.”

Putting their findings into practice, the researchers are currently developing an online program that teaches the public about the benefits of stress, Crum said. The course, called ReThink Stress, is being designed by corporate trainer Eric Karpinski.

“The ReThink Stress program can change the way one views stress from something to be feared to something that can be utilized to achieve important goals,” Achor said in a February press statement from ReThink Stress. “And managers can bring this training to their employees to help their entire team tap into these productivity benefits.”

Crum said she hopes the project will show the public that the debilitating effects of stress are primarily psychological — if people shift their mindset, they can use stress to their advantage, a lesson she believes is particularly relevant for students.

“Learning in schools is one of the biggest places where our research applies,” Crum said.

Though the researchers believe stress can be helpful to students in the classroom, a representative of the undergraduate meditation organization YMindful warn that stress also has its downsides. Though pressure can enhance efficiency, YMindful member Deena Gottlieb ’15 said it can detract from overall mental health and emotional stability.

“Stress shifts our focus from completing the task at hand to the fear and anxiety about not completing that task,” Gottlieb said. “Stress distracts us.”

Hoping to combat negative perceptions of stress, Salovey, Crum and Achor drew from the work of researcher Jeremy Jamieson, whose study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that students were able to raise their scores on the Graduate Record Examinations when taking the test under high-pressure conditions.

A 2012 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed 33 percent of Americans have never discussed stress management techniques with their health care providers.

Correction: Feb. 26 

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Crum, Salovey and Achor drew from the work of Yale researcher Jeremy Gray, whose study was published in the Journal of Psychological Science. 

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