05/06/2014 12:27 EDT | Updated 07/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Stop Complaining! Being Stressed Might Be a Good Thing

There are two words I try hard to remove from my work-related lexicon. The first and obvious one is "busy," the obvious answer to the question: "How are you doing?"

The second is a word so overused in casual conversation that it has become nearly meaningless -- "stressed."

Eight out of 10 American employees report feeling stressed on the job, according to a recent Nielsen study undertaken on behalf of Everest College, an educational firm that operates campuses across North America, to coincide with Stress Awareness Month, which takes place every April. Top triggers for stress, according to the study, include low pay, long commutes, unreasonable workloads and annoying co-workers.

In Canada, The Globe and Mail's Your Life at Work survey showed 62 per cent of participants find their workplace stressful.

Not to downplay the harmfulness of extreme stress, but the complaint is levelled with such frequency that it has either reached epidemic proportions - as some researchers indicate - or we've simply forgotten how to interpret this daily discomfort. Instead of constantly stressing about stress, it's time to remember that it plays a necessary role in motivation. Yes, stress can be good.

As far back as 100 years ago, Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson demonstrated a correlation between peak performance and mental or physiological arousal. If you want to produce top results, you need an optimal level of anxiety. Too much or too little produce weaker results.

Richard Davis, an industrial psychologist and chief executive officer of Toronto-based Kilberry Leadership Advisors, says that too little stress isn't good for our careers.

"Think about it. What happens in the absence of stress? We get relaxed. After being initially relaxed, we can get bored and even apathetic. Our concentration evaporates and we make poorer decisions. Under these circumstances, we simply don't do our best work," Dr. Davis said in an interview.

However, too much stress can lead to burnout, which can impair our thinking, he warned.

"Each of us has our own optimal level of stress, and we need to take care not to overdo it, but also not to 'underdo' it," said Dr. Davis, who is also the author of The Intangibles of Leadership. The key, he said, is to differentiate between bad stress - or distress - no stress and good stress.

While the Yerkes-Dodson law is often applied to elite athletes and musicians, it applies just as well to business executives. In his dealings with highly successful senior executives, some work well beyond their capacity and burn out while others stagnate if they haven't pushed themselves in a while.

"True leadership development occurs when we engage in challenging experiences that by definition make us uncomfortable. If you are not under some base line of stress, you are not growing as a leader," he said. Ultimately, we need stress, according to Dr. Davis, to feel happy and fulfilled.

So how do you ensure your stress levels remain in positive territory?

According to Martin Birt, a Toronto-based human resources manager and consultant, bad stress often results from situations where you lack control. That doesn't necessarily mean that an employee needs complete autonomy but has the sense that his or her voice affects the decision-making process.

Another factor that causes stress at work derives from the litany of pressures people experience outside work. Stress on the home front can have an impact on an employee's professional life and companies must be prepared to manage that.

"I don't believe that you can compartmentalize your life. Managers and leaders need to remember that the people that work for them live a 24/7 existence. So if you are stressed out outside of work, then you are going to bring your stresses to work," he said.

Mr. Birt believes that managers have a "human and business responsibility" to send the message to their employees that it's okay to be a "vulnerable human being" and find ways to be accommodating.

Still unsure how to manage that daily mix of anxiety, fear and frustration that most of us call stress? The good news is that the ability to manage it likely improves as we age.

"I'll bet you can handle more stress now than you could when you were younger. You probably thought back then that you couldn't handle the amount on your plate," Dr. Davis said. Over time, when we successfully manage the obstacles at hand, we establish a new baseline to cope with the stress of work and life. "Recognizing your own limits and under what circumstance you truly work best is a very helpful insight-building exercise," Dr. Davis said.

That insight may help to remove the sting of our daily stress. Or maybe, just maybe, it will encourage some of us to stop talking about it so much.


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