How to harness positive stress in the workplace

If managed correctly, a little stress can be a good thing, says Dr Jorgen Folkersen.

Over the last few decades research into stress has revealed how high performing individuals like pilots, surgeons and professional sportspeople often demonstrate a beneficial stress response, as opposed to the well-known harmful chronic stress response with its proven long term negative effects on mental and physical health.

Positive stress seems to counteract all the negative consequences of harmful stress and, in addition, results in better performance of challenging tasks. Today’s job market and job requirements are becoming increasingly demanding and competitive, resulting in an increasing frequency of harmful stress, also called toxic stress, which may lead to severe burnout and long-lasting sick leave.

People with chronic toxic stress also have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a shorter lifespan and a series of mental afflictions such as depression and compromised social skills.

Today, there is still no official definition of what stress is from either a medical or a psychological perspective, but the latest stress research has revealed new important clues that paint a different picture of what stress is.

Important parts of this new understanding are practically applicable in every day life, not only to prevent stress, but also improve our performance through specific training that can increase our stress resilience without the damaging effects of toxic stress.

The way to train positive stress is – in a supportive environment – to gradually help employees to master important challenging duties that they feel most stressed by.

The new understanding enables us to not only to discriminate between positive and harmful stress, but the scientific discoveries also indicate what we can do to promote and train positive stress and better performance.

Most significant are five discoveries:

  1. Harmful toxic stress is not only triggered by threats to our physical body but also by treats to our social life, the so-called ‘social stress’. Harmful social stress happens when we experience threats to our social inclusion or acceptance in groups of people we want to be part of e.g. exclusion from social groups (job, family) or harassment, dominance and social humiliation.
  2. The same stress triggers or challenging events may create opposite stress-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 social 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Emotional – and social – intelligence have recently been identified as some of the most important prerequisites for effective organisations and good leadership. For both the leader and the employee, harmful stress is however one of the most destructive forces to an individual’s social intelligence and therefore also a destructive force for the social climate of the work place. Moreover, the mental effects of toxic stress include, among others, emotional numbness, impaired memory and reduced intellectual function along with reduced empathy, reduced self-confidence, and varying degrees of anti-social and aggressive behavior.
  5. Harmful social stress is most commonly triggered by the following frequent sources: a) Harmful social relation to leader/stressed leader, b) Conflicts between colleagues in the workplace, c) Harmful social factors and events in the family, such as divorce, illness, or economic trouble and d) Harmful hidden toxic stress triggered by social stress earlier in life without any causal relation to the workplace. This toxic stress is frequently the result of a detrimental childhood social environment or harsh upbringing but may also be caused by a range of other adversities in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Toxic stress needs therapeutic intervention, but frequently the affected person is not consciously aware of the exact nature of the underlying social trauma and the impact it has on the social skills. This is caused by the way the brain protects us from traumatic feelings and experiences. This automatic and non-voluntary protective mechanism is beneficial in the short term because our thoughts are not allowed to ‘go there’. Unfortunately, this protective mechanism is very destructive long term because of the negative impact on our social life and stress-related diseases.

These discoveries bring new focus on skills and training in the work place that are not only enhancing the social climate, i.e. the individual feeling of social cohesion, solidarity and mutual trust, but also skills that develop positive stress instead of toxic stress.

The way to train positive stress is – in a supportive environment – to gradually help employees to master important challenging duties that they feel most stressed by. Motivating employees and the creation of such environments requires leaders to have a high level of social intelligence, but also, importantly, superior coaching skills.

The aim of this coaching is to set individual goals in an environment that accepts a variable performance from day to day in the attempt to contin­uously find new ways to improve and master harnessing a positive stress response.

In order to help their employees to master this, leaders need to have an outspoken and open focus on the factors depicted in the diagram below. This includes the negative impact (in yellow and red) of any harmful stress whether triggered by factors inside or outside the workplace.

The positive factors (in green) include social skills, values and activities that support a friendly, respectful and supportive social climate to enhance the social cohesion of the team – the so-called “social capital”. It can be very beneficial for leaders to have support from professional training organisations to develop these leadership skills.

In addition, leaders needs to have support to identify which employees will respond positively to training in positive stress, and which employees need therapeutic support for their stress before they might be ready.


About the author

Dr Jorgen Folkersen MD, Sc is the founder of Mind Education and is author of ‘Understanding Stress’.




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