Does Your Belief About Workplace Stress Make You More Stressed?

Popular commentary suggests all stress is negative, but maybe how you think and what you believe about stress matters most.

man sitting cross-legged feeling stressed for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

Popular commentary suggests all stress is negative, but maybe how you think and what you believe about stress matters most.

Early in 2020, I’ll be conducting a study looking at differences in workplace wellbeing between self-employed and directly employed workers in the creative arts and corporate environments. If you’d like to take part in the study (anonymously) or receive the study findings, I’ll be publishing here to my subscribers.

The potential for happiness or unhappiness is always with us, and it is especially so in work. Given that we spend so much of our best years in the workplace, it is no wonder that we all want daily work that satisfies. Arguably, we want more than that — we want work that engages our curiosity and lights our fire. However, given our predominantly transactional relationship with work, this proves all too elusive for many of us. Maybe the expectation for happiness in daily work is just wishful thinking.

I wonder if we’re supposed to feel miserable in work, and if not miserable, then merely content? Given the diametrical aspects work and play seem to represent, expecting the workplace to be even a remotely playful place might be a step too far. After all, playing for a living doesn’t fit with our concept of work.

Work, instead, is supposed to be laborious, difficult and challenging. If it wasn’t such a toil, then how could we justify being paid?

Get paid to play? Are you joking?

So instead of going where we’re drawn, of moving towards work that engages our curiosity and fuels self-complexity, we choose work that fulfils a societal ideal.

In doing so, I argue that we sacrifice a little piece of our soul every day — or perhaps all of it. For the sake of a kind of pseudo-security, we ignore what calls us and instead do monotonous daily work. Onwards we go; pawns in the game, cogs in the industrial machine until retirement and the end of our useful term.

I’m not suggesting everyone or even the majority of people of working age attend their workplace under duress, but many do. Psychological wellbeing at work is a heavily researched topic with dozens of occupational health journals, publishing insightful research every year. And what they find is that large portions of our society are at odds with that thing we call work.

In his original publication of the 2002 book Psychology at Work, [1] Peter Warr of The University of Sheffield includes a paper by Michael O’Driscoll and Cary Cooper [2], which outlines the problem. The authors state that the costs of occupational stress to business and industry are well documented, citing statistics from The International Labour Organisation.

According to O’Driscoll and Cooper’s paper on job-related stress and burnout, 1 in 10 workers globally suffers from work-related stress, anxiety and depression. Job-related stress costs to employers in Europe and the US at the time was recorded at over $120 bn annually. In the EU, up to 4% of gross national product is spent on treating work-related mental health disorders. In the US, job stress is said to account for 200 million lost working days every year. Similar conditions exist in the UK where stress at work was reported to be the second-largest cause of absence from work costing £4bn per year.

These figures, be they in decline since recorded in 2000 or not, remain a significant motivator for corporations seeking to reduce costs.

The amount of research into workplace health is significant, but let’s not be naive here. It is mainly undertaken to cut costs and maximise profits — this is a primary concern for corporations. Care for the individual and their needs is not. Corporations fund research to find out how to make their employees more productive and less loss generating, not to help them live happier lives.

The responsibility for a happy life, therefore, is perhaps down to you and me and not the corporations for whom we work. Besides, even if somebody gave them that responsibility, they’d inevitably gloss over their real intent with backhanded measures.

I paint a very grey picture; I realise that. But the truth, when running contrary to popular preferred thinking, seldom offers an alternative. However, psychological research has also brought the rigours of science to study aspects that protect us from the detrimental impact of workplace stress. They have found that apparently, stress is not always a bad thing.

In 2013, Alia J. Crum and colleagues [3] demonstrated that stress mindset is a distinct and relevant aspect of how individuals respond to stress. In other words, whether you think stress is enhancing or stress is debilitating, will be a determinant in how you process challenging conditions.

Crum says; “typically it is assumed that even if this response is positive in the moment [activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System and HPA Axis], experiencing chronic stress ultimately is negative. Although several accounts posit that this is true in some cases, the opposite response is possible. Stress can instead fuel physiological thriving by positively influencing the underlying biological processes implicated in physical recovery and immunity…research on the enhancing nature of stress exists but is often ignored”.

Throughout Crum’s week-long three-part study, participants viewed content designed to demonstrate either the enhancing or debilitating nature of stress.

Participants in the stress-is-enhancing conditions developed more of a stress-is-enhancing mindset. Those in the stress-is-debilitating condition developed more of a stress-is-debilitating mindset. Additionally, participants in the enhancing condition had improved measures of wellbeing and better work performance, whereas those in the control group or debilitating conditions did not.

The results show that our belief about the nature of stress can be changed. Adopting a stress-is-enhancing mindset can bring about positive changes in self-reported psychological wellbeing and work performance. However, certain aspects of personality can be almost hard-wired, making the challenge of coping and adapting to stress very difficult for some of us. Individual differences play a significant role in how each of us processes stressful conditions.

Personality Attributes That Moderate Stress

Aggressiveness, ambitiousness, impatience and controlling behaviour is associated with what is known as Type A behaviour style. Interestingly, the pattern of behaviour from Type A displays both positive (high performance) and negative (burnout) [4]. Type A Personality show patterns of behaviour associated with experiencing adverse effects from the demands of work over that of Type B Personality.

  • Aside: Type A and B personality theory was devised by Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman [5] in the 1950s. They claimed that a particular personality type, “Type A”, were much more likely to contract heart disease, because of their high-stress lifestyle, than other people, “Type B”. Find out here if you are Type A or Type B personality.

Negative Affectivity (NA) and Positive Affectivity (PA) are personality constructs in psychological research. They stand for our proneness to experience either positive or negative emotional states. When it comes to work-related stress, those of us who are high on Negative Affectivity are more susceptible to workplace stressors than our counterparts high on Positive Affectivity.

A third personality moderator of stressful conditions is our level of Self-Efficacy (SE). Those of us low on self-esteem or self-efficacy, tend not to process challenging conditions very well, suffering blows to their self-concept and belief that they can overcome the conditions.

Sometimes the nature of the job does not allow us to exercise control over conditions. We can’t change the process, and we can’t change the environment, so we are left with managing stress internally. All other things remaining unchanged, our ability to cope with conditions is all we have.

In her 2013 study on the role of mindset on stress-response, Alia J. Crum closes with the following comments;

The findings of these studies indicate that people can be primed to adopt a stress-is-enhancing mindset, which can have positive consequences relating to improved health and work performance. This does not mean that people should seek out more stress. But, it does mean is that people may not need to focus single-mindedly on reducing their stress. The message of this research is ultimately a positive one: eliciting the enhancing aspects of stress (as opposed to merely preventing the debilitating ones) may be, in part, a matter of changing one’s mindset.

In workplace environments lacking supporting structures, our wellbeing comes down irreducibly to ourselves. If we want to live happier, more fulfilling lives in which daily work plays a role, then it is up to us to sculpt our response.

You must start with yourself; choose work that engages you, focus on positive aspects, surround yourself with messages promoting growth, and so on. No one else is responsible for our happiness. Therefore, how we think and what we believe about or experiences matters most.

Article References

  1. Warr, P. (2002). Psychology at work (5th ed., p. 203). London: Penguin.

  2. O’Driscoll, M. P., & Cooper, C. L. (2002). Job-related stress and burnout. Psychology at Work, 203–228.

  3. Crum, A., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733. doi: 10.1037/a0031201

  4. Froggatt, K., & Cotton, J. (1987). The Impact of Type A Behavior Pattern on Role Overload-induced Stress and Performance Attributions. Journal Of Management, 13(1), 87–98. doi: 10.1177/014920638701300107

  5. Rosenman, R. H., & Friedman, M. (1958). The possible relationship of occupational stress to clinical coronary heart disease. California Medicine, 89(3), 169.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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