We’ve all heard that stress is a killer, but did we know that stress is also our friend?

Stress can affect our workplace performance for better and worse. Making the distinction between good stress and bad stress isn’t always straight forward though.

The dictionary definition of stress is ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’ A complete absence or demanding circumstances, of challenge, in our work lives tends to produce a state of stagnation because without a certain level of pressure, motivation drops through the floor and performance inevitably suffers.

Competitive athletes illustrate this relationship between stress and peak performance well. Doing what they do is not easy but it’s the very fact that they exert themselves in the face of demanding training schedules that allows them to excel. But they walk a fine line between enough of the right kind of pressure, the pressure that keeps challenging them to grow, and the sort of pressure that injures them, inhibiting their ability to compete altogether. One of the keys to staying on this fine line for athletes is their protective habits. Without the right protective habits to support the intensity of their training, like sports massage, optimal nutrition and stretching, instead of being a catalyst for achievement, the stress will become damaging.

We can draw a lesson from athletes and apply it to stress in the workplace. Bringing awareness to the habits that support (or under support) our lives, and them making incremental changes over time to address any weak spots we’ve noticed pays off hugely in terms of increasing our capacity to manage stress. It’s vital to take this approach because if work stress gets the better of us over a long enough period of time, our ability to do our work well suffers and worse, there can be a high price to pay in terms of both physical and mental heath.

The health risk of stress is a very real one. When our body continuously releases the stress hormone cortisol, these chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues. Our immune system gets suppressed, blood pressure and blood sugar increases, we become more susceptible to heart disease, cancers, anxiety and depression – a common feature of depression is heightened levels of cortisol in the blood. Cortisol has also been shown to damage and kill cells in the part of our brain responsible for memory and evidence suggests chronic stress causes prematurely ages the brain.

On the flip side, it is these same stress hormones that make stress, at the right levels and handled well, a performance enhancer. For example, norepinephrine, another stress hormone, makes us more responsive by keeping us in an aware and focused state. And although on the one hand prolonged stress has been observed to kill off brain cells in the hippocampus, University of California research suggests that shorter bursts of stress, in the form of challenging tasks, actually doubled the proliferation of brain cells in the hippocampus, and in fact improves memory function rather than depletes it.

So what can we draw from this contradictory account of how stress affects us? Well it all comes down to walking that fine line between the sort of stress we can manage and grow with and the stress that debilitates us. And to reiterate, critical to walking that line are the protective factors we build in to our daily lives. Cultivating habits that promote positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, a sense of meaning and attainment will all build our resilience over time.

In the context of work there is however one notable factor that is not directly in our control. That is the support we receive from our leadership. In terms of this support, having leaders who place realistic expectations on their team’s time capacity is flagged up by multiple studies as a major determinant of avoiding negative stress in the workplace. Skill training around time management and prioritisation of course go a long way in helping to resolve this, but ultimately, knowing how indirectly control this, to ‘manage up’ and promote leadership’s awareness of front line reality and what sustainable output looks like is the only way to tackle this issue at its root.

Ultimately, whether we are going to crumble under pressure or flourish in the face of stress at work comes down to both our own protective habits and equally the responsiveness of leadership.

It’s a two-way deal.

If you are fulfilling your side of the bargain and investing in your own resilience, but the level of challenge is unrelenting, unrealistic and you are not receiving the skills training and support that you need from above, it is time to question whether any job is worth risking your health for.

If you want to hear more about the resilience training we offer, start by watching our one minute video here, it will give you a preview of what our Resilience training explores. Any questions? You can click here to contact us.