Updated: Sep 8, 2022
(Harvard Business Review, 2016)
In 1908, Psychologists at Harvard, Yerkes & Dodson, discovered what became known as ‘the law of arousal’ which suggests a direct relationship between performance and arousal (stress). Their research determined that while increasing arousal up to a certain point can drive improved performance, a stage is eventually reached where performance rapidly declines.
Robertson, 2016, likens arousal to ‘alertness’ in psychology. He explains that this law can be seen among groups of students who, despite having similar mathematical capabilities, perform differently at exam time. As levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, he explains that those less prone to worrying perform better than average, while anxious students perform worse.
So how does this apply to the workplace? Given the relationship between stress and performance, it may be beneficial to consider how much stress your employees are experiencing, and what are the effects on them and the business.
Stanford Medicine news centre states that acute or short-term stress can have protective and beneficial effects by activating the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response - nature's fundamental survival mechanism. Examples include receiving a promotion or raise or starting a new personal project or job. Acute stress, on the other hand, occurs when demands, pressures, and expectations are placed on an individual which they are unable to cope with (Colligan & Higgins, 2006). Symptoms of acute stress can include increased anxiety, worry, frustration, inability to concentrate, and confusion. Physical symptoms can include fatigue, increased blood pressure (temporarily), rapid heart rate and dizziness (Zimbardo et al, 2003)
So can the two be balanced? HBR (2016) offer strategies that may help reduce stress back to a more productive level:
Increase control – A common misconception is that higher positions come with higher stress. In fact, research regularly suggests the opposite. It is thought that job control is a key contributor to this. Those employees in more senior positions are often better positioned to determine their own approach to work. This increase in job control can reduce stress, and lead to more productive work. Something as simple as enabling employees to focus on aspects of work where they can be ‘in control’ could be beneficial. Examples may include prioritizing projects, or simply emails.
Finding more opportunities to be authentic. When employees feel they need to ‘conform’ to other’s opinions, rather than voicing their own agenda, stress levels can increase. Offering an employee the opportunity to ‘be themselves’ by demonstrating their own unique talents for example, or simply offering a safe space to voice their own thoughts, may actually increase productivity.
Use rituals. While much evidence for this one is rooted in sports psychology, the concepts in themselves are transferable. According to one study, it has been found that pre-performance rituals can increase concentration and confidence, and when applied to their own work place, they’ve found that those who engage in such rituals before undertaking high performance tasks feel less anxious and perform better.