How to Use Work-Related Stress to Your Advantage


According to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by researchers at the University of Toronto, a little stress at work can actually be a good thing if you know how to use that stress to drive performance, meet goals, and increase productivity.

The study’s authors examine what they call the “bright side” of workplace anxiety, not to be confused with serious or “dark” anxiety that can be crippling and have a negative impact on employee performance.

In fact, they say, 72 percent of Americans claim to experience serious anxiety at work every day that interferes with their jobs and their personal lives. “Managing anxiety can be done by recognizing and addressing triggers of workplace anxiety, but also being aware of how to leverage it in order to drive performance,” says co-author Professor Bonnie Hayden Cheng.

They suggest that in certain circumstances, people who have either dispositional and situational anxiety, higher stress levels can actually facilitate increased productivity.

“If you have too much anxiety, and you’re completely consumed by it, then it’s going to derail your performance,” says co-author Julie McCarthy. “On the other hand, moderate levels of anxiety can facilitate and drive performance.”

The authors claim that sometimes anxiety or stress can increase performance and productivity because it motivates an employee to focus on successfully completing their tasks and working toward their goals. The key here is knowing when and how to “harness” feelings of anxiousness or stress to get things done, and monitoring anxiety levels so that stress doesn’t take over and negatively affect productivity.

Simply put, anxiety “can help performance if [employees] can self-regulate their behavior.”  

Here are a few ways you can learn how to “self-regulate” and use anxiety to your advantage by transforming it from a liability into a tool for success:

Change your mindset:

Most people are inclined to believe that stress is always bad, and that a stress-free life is something they should strive for; anything less than that is some kind of a failure. Instead of only focusing on how to get rid of your stress or anxiety entirely (which can itself be a stressful exercise because it’s almost never possible!), try embracing it and opening yourself up to the possibility that a little stress is actually good for you.

Identify your main sources of anxiety:

If you have situational anxiety in the workplace, perhaps you’re stressed because you have to speak to large groups, or there is a sense of uncertainty in your organization, or your workload and deadlines seem overwhelming and unmanageable. Try to identify the source of your stress so that you can pinpoint real solutions for turning it around... even if that means only acknowledging it. For example, if you have anxiety around public speaking at work, remind yourself that those feelings of anxiety and the resulting physical discomfort they bring (shaky voice, sweaty palms, dry throat, etc.) are normal stress responses that mean your body is responding accordingly to the situation. Oftentimes when we understand our anxiety and simply “let it be,” it decreases to a point that’s both manageable and even beneficial for optimum performance.

Think about athletes:

In the study, the authors compare a certain kind of motivational, positive anxiety in the workplace to the same type of anxiety or stress that athletes use to reach peak performance. So, think of yourself as a professional "athlete" and accept a minimal amount of stress as a great motivator for performance.

Improve your emotional intelligence:

Employees who display higher levels of emotional intelligence, the authors say, “can recognize their feelings of anxiety and use it to regulate their performance.” If you are in touch with your emotions and can identify when, to what degree, and why you are anxious, you're more likely able to use that anxiousness for positive gain.

Self-regulatory processing:

The study also suggests that the act of closely monitoring your own progress on a given task or project helps to keep you focused on completing that task and boosting performance along the way. So, for example, consider setting more frequent mini-deadlines for larger projects where you break them up into smaller, more manageable tasks to help regulate your overall stress levels and make it easier to pour that nervous energy into your daily tasks.

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