The Way We Think About Stress Matters as Much as Stress Itself

I used to have a painting hanging on my wall that made me cringe every time I glanced at it. One day, I was standing a little farther away than usual and realized the painting was just fine. It was the frame I disliked. I swapped the outdated frame for a new one and, suddenly, my focus shifted to the more pleasing elements of the art. I experienced the painting as a brand-new piece.

New frames can transform our perspective of many aspects of our lives, often in productive ways. For instance, most of us have heard about – and perhaps experienced – the ways stress affects physical and mental health. The latest research demonstrates it’s clear the way we think about stress matters as much or more than stress itself.

One study conducted at the University of Wisconsin over an eight-year period found people with high stress were 43 percent more likely to die prematurely – but only if they believed stress was harmful. Those with high stress who believed it could be beneficial showed no increased risk. Another study conducted by researchers from Harvard and the University of California San Francisco found that priming participants to interpret their stress response as helpful rather than harmful countered the typical effects of stress on blood pressure and cognition. Participants still felt their heart rates increase, but their blood vessels remained relaxed and their minds stayed open.

Under the right conditions, stress provides powerful opportunities for us to connect with others, which also buffers the negative effects of stress. Several studies have shown that in stressful situations we release oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone. In a 2013 review of five studies published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, scientists suggested that when stress is experienced in environments we perceive to be “safe,” the release of oxytocin promotes pro-social behaviors and connections with others. Conversely, when stress is experienced in environments perceived as “unsafe,” oxytocin induces defensiveness and negative responses.

One implication of the research is that employers that view stress with more nuance can play a more effective role in reducing its typical effects on employee well-being and, by extension, business outcomes. This can be done in a three-pronged approach:

  • Help employees rethink stress. Balance messages about the negative consequences of stress with information about the benefits of reappraising stress response. In a 2017 study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping, researchers asked participants to view their stress response as a good thing – something that would help them better perform a task. Participants who viewed stress in this way experienced higher self-confidence and a more adaptive cardiovascular response compared to a control group.
  • Create a safe, supportive environment. Leverage the physiological stress response of increased oxytocin during stressful situations by intentionally developing a culture that inspires team members to reach out for emotional support, bond with teammates and take advantage of available resources. When employees feel a genuine sense of security and support in the workplace, stressful episodes can become catalysts for connection and cohesiveness rather than meltdowns and low productivity.
  • Empower team members with stress-management techniques. Bring in professionals to teach such resiliency techniques as mindfulness, self-compassion and stress-response reappraisal. Implement and promote an employee assistance program to address individual needs. Give employees the tools they need to be more resilient in the face of inevitable stressors.

As you implement a plan to mitigate the negative effects of unavoidable stress, it’s also important to acknowledge and address unnecessary stressors in the workplace. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, 25 percent of employees cite work as their main source of stress – above family and financial issues. Some common areas of workplace stress that deserve attention include:

  • Job design. Does every position in your organization provide a sense of purpose, stimulation, and opportunities to learn and grow? Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined?
  • Autonomy. Do you empower employees to join in decisions and actions that affect their jobs?
  • Workloads. Do workloads match workers’ capabilities and resources?
  • Schedules. Do employees regularly work excessive hours, unpredictable shifts or long periods without breaks?

In observance of Stress Awareness Month, consider how your organization might benefit from a little redecorating. Replace those outdated frames around stress at both the organizational and individual levels and watch how employee well-being and business outcomes improve.