The science of good stress
April 21, 2023
We know that chronic and excessive stress can drag down our quality of life in all sorts of ways, from strains on relationships to damaging our health.
But can stress be a good thing? We spoke to Dr. Kati Adeseko to find out how we can flip the script on stress and tackle workplace challenges using psychology tools.
The good, the chronic and the acute
Stress is the body’s response to physical and psychological demands. Stress makes us human. It powers us to face challenges, go for the things we want in life and react quickly when we need to.
In psychology, stress can be understood as part of the bigger picture of how we can live more fulfilled lives and build personal resilience.
There are three types of stress:
- Good stress: known as Eustress, an increased arousal that helps us perform tasks at our optimum level
- Chronic stress: long-lasting stressors that are a constant source of worry that can build and have a big impact on our mood and behaviour.
- Acute stress: sudden stressors that demand our immediate attention.
The sweet spot of good stress
When we are experiencing good stress, we’re at the right balance to get the things done that we care about. Too little stress and we’re apathetic and disengaged. Too much stress and we’re unable to take information in properly, disorganised and at the risk of burnout.
When we have the right amount of stimulation and motivation, we can focus our attention and balance our emotions. It’s the good stress that helps us bring our A game to job interviews and first dates.
Leading with good stress
What does good stress mean at work? For looking after yourself, leading a team or supporting a peer, it’s recognising that good work and wellbeing doesn’t mean an absence of any stress. In fact, a lack of stress means a lack of challenge that can lead to disengagement and a lack of growth.
Embracing the good side to stress as a leader means modelling behaviours that inspire your team. You can develop awareness and harness good stress in lots of different ways. Here are some ideas on how to put these ideas into action:
Set goals. How leaders set goals for themselves and their teams can boost good stress. SMART goals that are attainable but require effort and stretch help individuals and teams to feel motivated and energised. This increases focus, helps prioritise and boosts productivity.
Cultivate optimism. While false or toxic positivity can be harmful (and annoying), embracing healthy levels of optimism and sharing this in a team boosts motivation to get in the good stress zone.
Show gratitude and celebrate the wins. For leaders, recognising individual efforts and providing constructive feedback in 1:1s boosts motivation and builds a growth mindset. This can also be adopted in wider team reflections and help positive self-talk for when we reflect on our own work.
Schedule breathing space. At work, spotting flashpoints for stress in the calendar and building in time to decompress can help prevent overload. This can mean scheduling short breaks on meeting-intensive days, or giving proper prep time ahead of challenging conversations.
Tap into social support. Connecting with others helps us problem solve, feel less isolated, and is a buffer against the risk of burnout. Embrace this at work through opportunities to connect through regular check-ins, buddying up and team-based activities.
Get moving. Whether it’s a work catch up you could do walking instead of sitting, offering employees gym memberships or scheduling an active break, we know that exercise reduces stress, enhances focus and boosts productivity.
Understanding good stress can help us to cultivate a more positive mindset. This means embracing the challenge and seeing that a good zone of stress provides us with opportunities to grow and build resilience.