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Stress and Work Performance

Many of us are used to working on some level of stress, and even feel that we perform better under stress than without it. Some stress can be motivating and help spur us on to do more, faster, more efficiently. But the crucial part is giving ourselves breaks from that stress. Otherwise, we probably find that our productivity and performance starts to suffer… until we are suddenly exhausted and struggling.

This is backed-up by research, which shows that stress and the impact on us is complicated. This relationship between stress and performance can be shown as a curve with three main stages: “calm”, “stress” and “distress”. The Cigna 2019 Asia Care Report on Chronic Stress represents this curve in the below diagram. When we don’t have any stress, we find we are bored, listless and unmotivated – I’m sure we’ve all been there. But as stress levels increase, we find that we are more alert, better able to focus and probably getting more done. At the top of the curve, you are performing at your best, everything’s going great and you. are. nailing. it.

But it is after this high point that stress no longer has a beneficial impact on us. We’ve all felt that dip from peak performance into a slump; you can’t get things done as quickly or as well, you’re getting distracted, you just feel exhausted all the time. If the stress continues to increase, without any break then this exhaustion can progress resulting in anxiety and even declining physical health. Some of the physical symptoms of stress are mistaken for other underlying causes, and can include: headaches, backaches, stomach and gastrointestinal problems or heart and circulatory issues, to name only a few. If we power through this point and the stress is continuing, then we eventually end up burning out.

Burnout is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.” (ICD-11)

The impact of COVID has seen stress levels, in all areas of life and work, rise and remain elevated. This has seen a jump to 52% of people suffering burn-out symptoms compared to the 43% previously (Indeed Burnout Survey 2020). Additionally, 27% of all workers are unable to unplug from work (Indeed Burnout Survey 2020).

So how do we harness stress to keep us in the sweet spot, near the top of the curve? That’s the age-old question that businesses, economists and leaders have been grappling with for years.

The answer might seem counter-intuitive. But the answer is to stop. It’s to take breaks from stress, rest our bodies and our mind. Allow us to fall back down towards low stress (into the calm state) before powering up again to the peak. Whilst this answer might be obvious in any ways, we consistently struggle to do this.

Whilst there is a level of onus on the individual to ensure they are taking those breaks on a personal level, the larger emphasis needs to be put on the workplace overlords. Ensuring a strong, supportive and realistic workplace culture is key to improving employee performance in both the long-term and short-term.

If you are interested in finding out how your business can create and sustain the right environment for optimal human performance, reach out to Evexia Collective.

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