How to harness positive stress

Stress is undoubtedly detrimental to the workplace and our capacity to perform at our optimum level, but research does show that positive stress can actually prove beneficial for high-pressure positions

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The ability to master positive stress is crucial as it can help to negate the damaging effects of harmful stress and improves performance in challenging tasks

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.

Harmful toxic stress is not only triggered by threats to our physical body, but also by threats to our social life

Positive stress seems to counteract all the negative consequences of harmful stress and, in addition, results in better performance during challenging tasks. Today’s business world has become increasingly demanding and competitive, which makes it more important than ever to develop a positive stress response. For the modern leader, it is of upmost importance to understand how to foster positive stress, rather than harmful stress, in the work place. Chronic harmful stress is also called toxic stress because of its severe long-term consequences for the mental and physical health of the individual.

Stress discoveries
Before looking into how to create positive stress we first have to know the most significant discoveries in modern stress research.

Harmful toxic stress is not only triggered by threats to our physical body, but also by threats 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, including exclusion from social groups (job, family) or harassment, dominance and social humiliation.

The same social stress trigger or challenging event may create opposite stress-effects in different individuals; in other words, harmful effects in some individuals can be 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. If, however, 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.

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. A positive stress response can be trained and developed under the right circumstances.

Emotional and social intelligence have recently been identified as one of the most important prerequisites for effective organisations and good leadership. However, for both the leader and the employee, harmful stress is one of the most destructive forces.

Positive response
Harmful social stress is most commonly triggered by the following frequent sources: bad social relation to a leader; conflicts between colleagues in the workplace; harmful social factors and events in the family; illness; economic trouble; or harmful hidden toxic stress that is triggered by social stress earlier in life without any causal relation to the workplace. This toxic stress is frequently the result of a detrimental social environment during childhood and requires therapeutic intervention, although the affected person is not usually consciously aware of the exact nature of the underlying social trauma and the impact it has on their social skills.

These discoveries bring new focus on skills and training in the work place that not only enhance the social climate, but also skills that develop positive stress instead of toxic stress. The way to train positive stress is to gradually train employees to master the important challenging duties that they feel most stressed by. Motivating employees and the creation of such an environment requires the leader to have a high level of social intelligence, along with excellent coaching skills.

People with a higher tendency to react with a positive stress response can deal with tasks and challenges that they feel are very demanding, awful or painful to perform. They are confident that the associated unpleasant feelings are temporary and tolerable, because they go away when the task is done. They are also better placed to feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing a task instead of feeling self-pity because they had to ‘go through’ the challenge. They are said to have a general feeling of ‘mastering’, instead of constantly feeling that they are under the victimising or humiliating influence of others.

Taking advantage
Based on these discoveries, there are steps that can be taken to harness positive stress. The primary step is to train or select leaders with a high level of social intelligence. The leader of positive stress environments needs to have a high level of social intelligence in order to create a positive social climate. This means that the leader is empathic and knows how the social world works. They also need to be able to provide social facility in order to facilitate smooth and effective social interactions among employees and themselves.

Leaders must also have practiced the challenge response. It’s therefore important to carefully investigate potential leaders for traits characteristic of those with a predominant challenge response, as evidenced by participation in competitive sports activities or professional skills that require the same attitudes in dealing with challenges for instance.

Naturally, training is not limited just to the higher echelons of an organisation. Social training of the entire team is also needed. It is therefore important to select and train all team members to be socially supportive of each other. This should include social skills, values and activities that support a friendly, respectful and supportive social climate in order to enhance the social cohesion of the team, known as ‘social capital’. A key part of this also involves promoting a ‘no-blame’ culture.

Furthermore, it is important to set challenging goals for both the entire team and the individual. The basic principle of training and improving the positive stress response in specific areas is to encourage each individual employee to incrementally challenge themselves in critical areas where they feel socially vulnerable. A typical programme to improve a positive stress response will start with a ‘downscaled’ version of the specific challenge to be undertaken repeatedly until the trainee feels confident with their own performance. This is not just performance training, but also mental training to overcome fear and gain self-confidence. Failures need to be looked upon merely as necessary steps on the road to mastering a challenge; ideally, the team leader will act as a supportive coach in this continuous mastering process.