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How stress can improve employee performance

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Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health looks at why some stress especially at work, can have a positive effect on performance.

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Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health looks at why some stress, especially at work, can have a positive effect on performance.

Stress, or more particularly, our psychological and physical response to it, is not necessarily a bad thing.

When we view the demands placed upon us as close to/exceeding the resources we have to cope, a sense of stress occurs. The situation is seen as threatening. The body then releases a cocktail of chemicals to prepare us to cope. This is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response.

If there is a short-lived threat – stress is normal and has its benefits. “Good stress” – Eustress – is the result of the flight-or-flight response preparing us to deal with the situation increasing our resources.

However, too much stress, (or ‘chronic’ stress as it is more widely known), can be dangerous with research linking it to conditions like anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia.

Good and bad stress: what’s the difference?

Stress has become synonymous with negativity, with the modern workforce demonising any form of stress as a sign of working too hard, too much or in some cases as a sign of weakness that you’re not able to cope with your demands. The truth is, in small doses stress can have a positive impact on how you function in the workplace. Perceived stress leads to the release of chemicals which increase your heart rate and blood pressure and it’s this response which can trigger improved energy, alertness and memory as deadlines draw closer and you need that final push to help you ‘get the job done’. However, there’s a difference between the small amount of natural stress which helps us meet daily tasks and the kind of overwhelming stress that keeps us up at night.

One way to imagine stress is as a bell curve. Too little stress leads to ‘underload’ and inactivity. A moderate amount leads to optimum performance and correlates with a positive impact, like greater concentration and productivity. But there’s a peak, after which, the stress becomes too much to handle leading to ‘overload’ symptoms like exhaustion and burn out. In the stress stakes, humans are designed as 100m specialists, not marathon runners. Chronic stress can lead to negative health side-effects like nausea, fatigue and chest and muscle pains. Left unmanaged, it can lead to distress, dissatisfaction and inability to live your normal life.

Recognising the signs

Most people wouldn’t find it hard to tell when they’re feeling stressed, but the difficulty comes in knowing when it’s manageable and productive, and when it’s having a permanent, negative effect on your wellbeing. The most common signs of overwhelming stress are when your usual mood and behaviour changes. It could be becoming more irritable, like starting to snap at colleagues. The first signs that stress is becoming chronic tend to be mood changes and physical changes, particularly disturbed sleep. As chronic stress can be difficult to spot in yourself, it’s important that employers are aware of any signs of ongoing distress in employees.

Employees may feel embarrassed or even stigmatised for speaking out, so it’s important responsible employers have their employees’ backs and actively notice symptoms they may be trying to bottle up or ignore. If you’re worried about symptoms you’ve recognised in certain individuals, ask them for a quick and informal chat, in which you can mention you’ve noticed that they don’t seem their normal self. Do not set out to spot depression or anxiety in your employees…but keep vigilant for changes in the way an employee is at work. For example an employee that was always punctual and smart starts being late every day and appears dishevelled, a previously popular, relaxed and productive employee is less productive, slightly irritable and sits on their own at lunch.

By looking for changes…not diagnoses…there’s less pressure…you don’t have to be an expert on stress. You may find your chat is the trigger for an employee to realise they’ve been feeling differently or struggling. If they agree, the next step is to point them towards any help you offer. It is always good to double check if they have contacted their GP for advice…you’d be surprised how many people don’t associate difficulties with stress with their GP. All employees will benefit from being pointed towards help on offer for dealing with stress as it is likely to affect almost everyone at some point. In fact, 74 percent of people have felt too stressed to cope in the past year. Consider introducing mental health first aid training and let the whole workforce know who your company’s mental health first aiders are and that they’re available for support if they ever need it. It could be this open discussion of difficulties that helps someone to cope a better. Often being able to feel listened to leads to a major reduction in stress.

Supporting emotional resilience

While manageable stress can boost performance at work, it’s vital employees know how to cope when it becomes too much. Employers can help staff protect themselves against the negative effects of stress by helping them build emotional resilience – the ability to recognize stress, seek support and return to their personal sense of self after experiencing stress. Everyone is different, exposed to varying levels of stress and reacting to different stressors, so employers looking to introduce stress management techniques and offer support need to understand employees will find different interventions useful. Aim to create a culture that encourages open dialogue around stress and stress management techniques.

An entry to the conversation could be offering emotional literacy training, which ensures staff have a common language to discuss distress. It can also improve managers’ abilities to support their employees, equipping them with knowledge, self-awareness and empathy, making them better listeners. Provide support by implementing Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which offer direct, confidential contact with experts who can support individuals with situations causing emotional distress. From financial issues to work-related problems, addiction and mental ill health – research has shown these benefits help to reduce the costs of presenteeism.

You could also consider introducing additional stress management techniques to help with less serious day-to-day issues. These could include mindfulness workshops and internal seminars on topics like time management. Talks offering nutritional advice, sleep management tips, exercise advice to improve wellbeing, could also be useful. Nuffield Health has found each work environment will have unique needs. However, whatever the needs of your organization, effective support strategies for stress in the workplace should include a suite of options which, show employees a dialogue about stress is both welcomed and expected.


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