Workplace life is often straining, and it can be hard to navigate your way through stressful times without suffering emotional or physical consequences, especially if the stressful period lasts for months or even years at a time.

Economic loss caused by stressful work conditions

Some corporate cultures in North America today seem to expect their employees to be superhuman, able to deal efficiently with whatever gets thrown at them. These companies live in a delusion that results in the loss to the economy of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Part of the problem seems to be their inability to recognize the need to differentiate between healthy pressure put on their employees to improve performance and stress that causes more harm than good.

The Yerkes-Dodson Curve, which is attributed to the psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, shows the relation between stress and output. In 1908 the two psychologists published an article explaining the relationship between stress and performance: If pressure on an employee increases, so his capacity to respond to that pressure – which is to perform – increases but only to a certain point. As soon as the trouble crosses this threshold, his or her performance starts to fall. If that continues for much longer, he or she becomes stressed and eventually begins to get ill.

Stress kills people

Endocrine burnout or thyroid dysfunction, obesity, diabetes, immune suppression, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, digestive disorders, or only the inability to experience pleasure from usually pleasurable events may all be the result of the ongoing experience of stress. Stress can kill you. No one is exempt from this.

The goal should be to find and maintain a point of optimum balance between too little demand on an employee, which may cause boredom and too much order, which causes stress.

The state of Flow

There is a relationship between the findings of Yerkes and Dodson and the idea of Flow described by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For Csikszentmihalyi, Flow represents the way people speak of their state of mind when their consciousness is in harmonious order, and they are pursuing the task they’re on just for its own sake. One of the preconditions to get in the state of Flow is that there must be an appropriate balance between personal resources and challenge. If the task you’re engaged in asks for more personal resources than are available to you, you become stressed. On the other hand, if the job makes fewer demands on you than you are capable of, you become bored.

Coming back to the Yerkes Dowson Curve, in a practical context of the workplace – if people aren’t given enough responsibility, and if their work makes too few demands on them, that will be stressful, as they are not challenged and are getting bored. As more is asked of them, and as they respond to the challenge, they begin to either cope OK or, furthermore, enjoy the demands. They are now in the desired place. The pressure in this area is positively stimulating and bringing the best out of people. Everything above this area, if the trouble continues and exceeds a certain point, makes them encounter the domain of debilitating stress.

Ways to get off the stress train

Keeping all employees within a specific range is the best solution to maintaining employee health and productivity and keeping economic costs low. In other words, providing just enough pressure for them to be highly productive and not crossing the point above or below this threshold is critical. Sadly, many companies don’t even recognize the need for intervention in this area.

What to do if people are suffering and the need for improvement is unmistakable? Here are two options that come to mind which may help change things for the better:

One would be to work on improving employee performance and minimizing stress and pressure by attending some form of an experiential training workshop that creates awareness of the problems and offers solutions for the (upper) management to navigate change in this area.

The second option would be for the employees themselves to search help in the form of mindfulness-based interventions, which may help them cope with the stresses at work.

These may not be the only solutions to this problem, yet they are solutions that are readily available everywhere in today’s world.

Either way, you may decide to approach the issue, there is hope for this dilemma to be solved and for employees to experience more happiness and satisfaction in the workplace.

Setting a timer every hour to take ten deep mindful breaths into your tummy may be a high starting point to de-stress and gain better health and well-being. Deep breathing will immediately engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming your mind and helping you cope with the stresses of everyday life.

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