There’s a reason work isn’t called play.
Any job, from astrophysicist to zookeeper is in fact, a job. We show up someplace, perform tasks and work with other humans. Mash it all together and what do we get? When the balance is right, work can be a source of pleasure and fulfillment. Occasionally, it can also be a source of stress.
Thankfully, some people’s jobs focus on studying stress. (Do they get stress from researching it? We can only guess.) Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences expert at the University of Miami Health System, specializes in investigating beneficial versus harmful effects of stress. Dr. Dhabhar also studies how to develop practical, sustainable ways to minimize “bad” stress and maximize “good” stress.
When is stress good for us?
Dr. Dhabhar explains that short episodes of stress can have a positive effect on our health and emotional well-being.
“Stress has a bad reputation,” he offers. “But the short-term stress response is part of our survival system. This so-called ‘good stress’ helps ensure a healthy fight-or-flight biology. It enhances immune defenses, as well as mental and physical performance.”
He explains that cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenaline are natural stress hormones. They help regulate our blood glucose levels, blood pressure, immune response and more. They prepare and enable us to face threat, opportunity, or challenge.
In other words, when we feel under attack, our bodies get ready to defend. The body’s fight or flight response can help get us out of harm’s way, fight disease, prevent infection and heal wounds.
What are short-term stresses?
“These are conditions that activate stress biology for minutes to hours,” says Dr. Dhabhar. “Average confrontations with co-workers, or thinking that we may not get a project done in time type of situations.”
Such short-term stresses are healthy, provided we don’t carry those feelings around for prolonged periods of time. Feel your heart beating faster? Starting to sweat or experiencing a little discomfort? It’s okay, he adds. It can even lead to some rewards.
“We feel relieved and victorious when we beat the clock or overcome some odds,” shares Dr. Dhabhar. “Whether it is recognized by others or not, it can add up to a positive impact on our mental and physical health.”
Recognizing chronic, “bad” stress
Chronic stress, on the other hand, can be toxic, he explains. It is defined as stress that induces biological changes lasting for months to years. It releases cortisol, just like good stress. But it does not allow the body time to recalibrate after a stressor. This causes too much cortisol to be released, continuously. The overflow can cause issues like decreased bone and muscle tissue, blood glucose problems, high blood pressure, weakened immune responses, clinical depression and more.
“When you regularly feel that you have no control, you experience routine social conflict and pressure, and have few or no social supports, it leads to ‘bad’ stress,” explains Dr. Dhabhar.
When healthy workplace stress goes bad
A well-known grocery chain’s employees cried foul recently over a tedious new inventory tracking system. They felt they were being unfairly evaluated by management. It created a wave of publicity, which added more stress. Some workers were fired. Others continue to worry each day if they will be next.
Is it good or bad stress?
Employees forced to learn new systems they may not agree with or understand feel powerless. Executives put in charge of the processes and keeping employees productive are under scrutiny by shareholders. All may feel their livelihoods are threatened. Such chronic stress can continue until such a situation is resolved for everyone.
“Such chronic stress can be an unintended but harmful consequence of corporate policies and changes,” explains Dr. Dhabhar. “Chronic stress can negatively affect employee morale. It also can lead to a loss of productivity, creativity, revenue and increased healthcare costs and days lost from work.”
Preventing and managing chronic workplace stress
In such conflict situations, says Dr. Dhabhar, it is important for everyone to understand that most people are not comfortable with their actions causing chronic stress for others. After all, causing “bad stress” for one’s employees is likely the last thing a corporate executive wants. Causing “bad stress” for one’s company is likely the last thing an employee wants.
“One way of preventing chronic work stress is for everyone to come together and honestly discuss the most efficient, reasonable, and productive way of achieving goals, and the challenges that must be overcome,” he says. “Such a team effort can be implemented effectively if egos, self-interest, partisan politics and barriers are set aside as far as reasonably possible. A flexible and honest mindset of working together for the common good is needed,” he says.
“Importantly, just one or two individuals in powerful positions on opposing sides of a conflict, who have the courage to do the right thing, can be critical for creating and sustaining effective resolutions and reducing chronic stress,” says Dr. Dhabhar.
Tips for handling workplace stress
We may not be able (or even want) to prevent short-term stress. But Dr. Dhabhar says that there are steps we can take to ensure that good stress does not become chronic stress.
- When your pulse is racing, remind yourself that your body and mind are preparing you to face anything in your way. You can do it, and you have before. Fight-or-flight stress is normal and could help you deal better with the threat, challenge, or opportunity.
- Do not obsess on stressful incidents after they’re over. Otherwise, you may flip them to bad, chronic stress.
- When tempted to avoid stressful situations at work, think about whether some situations may be worth engaging. If you can tackle them thoughtfully, considerately, and compassionately, those day-to-day experiences could boost your health. Hiding from conflict could push us into the powerless victim role, and this could lead to… you guessed it: bad, chronic stress.
- Exercise courage to do the right thing, and do it devoid of self-righteousness and self-importance. “In many instances, knowing the right thing to do is not that difficult,” adds Dr. Dhabhar. “Cooperating with courage can be tremendously helpful. We need more of that in society, overall.”
John Senall is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. He is a former hospital and comprehensive cancer center communications director.