Nerves of steel? Why a little bit of workplace stress is good for you

Managers can improve productivity by hiring and promoting staff who are motivated by low levels of anxiety

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2016, 10:45pm

In any workplace – not just in Hong Kong but around the world - you’ll find some workers who are highly motivated. Others are always there on time - but at the end of the day their managers sometimes wonder just what they did all day, because the worker doesn’t seem all that interested in their tasks.

Naturally, most managers will want to only promote the ones who seem to enjoy their job and are well motivated. Many studies look at what differentiates workers who are highly motivated from those who don’t seem at all bothered by working, and certainly not stressed by it.

In your office I’m sure you can think of examples - they are the ones who just seem to turn up every day for the free coffee and biscuits.

Deadlines cause stress and motivate you to perform well

Normally in our work life we try to reduce stress, and indeed those who induce it tend not to be promoted. However, a new study at UNSW Australia Business School found that a reasonable level of workplace pressure can lift performance.

At UNSW we have found that stress is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the levels are not too high. What we have found is that up to a moderate level, a state of neuroticism can actually be a positive trait. It can motivate you, and ensure the job gets done on time, and certainly feeling a little stress can be better than not feeling any.

One example in the workplace could be around deadlines. They cause stress and motivate you to perform well. You know that if you miss the deadline there is no second chance, so you are very focused on getting the task done - be it finishing a report, or turning up to a presentation. The clock is always ticking, and the sound of a missed deadline whizzing past is not a pleasant one.

Other causes of moderate stress could include the potential to be judged, such as when you achieve the deadline for a presentation and actually have to deliver it. The pressure can be more intense if you’re presenting to the board instead of just your regular team. Another stress inducer is the prospect of losing face, such as if you are heading a deal which you are expected to bring in, but it heads south.

All these can be career limiting events, and you’d better get them right.

Several studies of individual performance in the workplace have connected higher levels of neuroticism to lower levels of performance. But it would be a mistake to interpret this to mean that a stress-free workplace encourages high performance.

The particular measure of neuroticism we used is defined as “trait neuroticism”. In other words, it is a measure of how likely an individual is to feel negative emotions at any time. It is one of many general measures of personality, but it is particularly pertinent in this case.

It can measure structural differences between people, such as the way an individual’s brain processes information. We’ve found that not everyone handles stress in the same way. Because of these structural differences in the way workers deal with stress, some people tend to experience higher anxiety than others.

People defined as being more neurotic than average tend to be more critical of themselves and feel greater tension than others who don’t live on their nerves. However, it isn’t all one way. They are prone to negative emotions and become anxious, stressed and frustrated more easily. This can lead to a lower level of self-respect.

The implication for those recruiting workers is clear. If you’re going to select people for a work environment, there is a relationship that suggests the lower the person is on the neuroticism scale, the better they will perform, so long as they don’t disappear off the bottom of the scale. That tends to be the case with trait neuroticism.

We shouldn’t take workplace stress too far. As Benjamin Walker from UNSW said in this column last month, “instilling fear in your workers just won’t work”. However, a moderate level of stress seems to encourage the majority of workers.

Of course everyone is different, so managers need to respect their staff, and receive informal feedback to understand the stress workers are under. That is why bosses need to talk to their staff before an important event. Understanding this can lead to huge improvements in productivity.

We then end up with workers who work hard at their jobs, get a little bit stressed over them, and do them well. They are the ones who get the promotion. This is only natural – we’ll promote the ones who care and get a little stressed to ensure they get the job done right, over those who seem to struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

Positive levels of stress can be created in the workplace by deadlines and other pressures. But these states of stress and anxiety that can lead to higher performance are most likely to be experienced when a person is doing something important or consequential that they are not completely confident about.

So when a person is making their first presentation in a new job, they are likely to be feeling anxious. For some, this anxiety is good, depending on the levels. For others it can be crippling. But after a dozen presentations in a week, most will feel no nerves at all.

Until of course they are on the tram to Causeway Bay to make that presentation, and the CEO calls up to warn them the entire board will be attending. Then everything changes again, and stress will rise, but hopefully productively.

The lesson for managers is clear: understand what makes your workers tick, so you can look at what specifically drives them, and set a few deadlines to ensure they are as motivated as possible.

Amirali Minbashian is a senior lecturer in the school of management at UNSW Business School