Stress is unavoidable. But while stress can be positively beneficial and stimulating, it can also be enormously damaging to both our productivity and, ultimately, our health. So what's the difference between good and bad stress?
According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an international leadership education and research organization, when one's resources meet or exceed the demands put on a person, stress can show its positive side. That good kind of stress — eustress — acts as a stimulating factor that can contribute to productivity and success.
Eustress is the energy people feel when tackling a challenging assignment and feeling confident in their abilities. However, when demands exceed resources, people experience the type of stress associated with health problems and deteriorating relationships: distress.
"The key is to know which stress is which, how to judge reactions to various stressful situations and how best to manage the negative stress," said CCL Senior Enterprise Associate Vidula Bal.
"This is especially important for leaders, who face the additional stress brought about by the unique demands of leadership: having to make decisions with limited information, to manage conflict and to do more with less."
Bal, Senior Research Analyst Michael Campbell and Senior Associate and exercise physiologist Sharon McDowell-Larsen, based at CCL's Colorado Springs campus, have identified ten factors inherent to leadership roles that contribute to increased stress among leaders.
These include ambiguity; lack of control; working beyond technical expertise; too much success; doing more with less, faster; building relationships and managing conflict; developing and supporting others; personal insecurity; high expectations; and performance demands.
Meanwhile a separate survey by consultancy Workplace Options (WPO) reflects another big cause of "bad stress", namely Americans' growing sense of anxiety over their finances and the insecurity created by the troubled economic climate.
Stress stemming from the ongoing housing crisis, retirement savings, gas prices, credit problems and managing budgets can take a significant toll on employees, draining their productivity and ability to focus, WPO have found.
Half of the respondents they quizzed said they are experiencing stress because of financial concerns, and 48 percent said that stress makes it hard for them to perform well on the job. The uncertain economic climate is also affecting long-term financial decisions.
According to CCL's research study, eight out of 10 leaders believe that work is a primary source of stress in their lives and that having a leadership role only increases that level of stress.
More than two-thirds of these leaders also believe their stress level was higher than it was five years earlier. And six out of 10 added that their organizations as failing to provide them with the tools they need to manage stress.
So what specifically can leaders do to better manage their stress? The CCL's researchers offer eight useful tips:
- Know the signals. Pay attention to your body's response to stress.
- Create a ritual. Make it a habit to have a stress break.
- Get away. Find effective ways to set boundaries between work and home.
- Build a support system. Build a network of people who can assist you at work and therefore alleviate some of the stress you feel.
- Regroup on the task. Look for ways to organize and streamline your work.
- Recover. Build time into your routine to recharge.
- Redefine balance. Link balance to your values and choose activities that support those values.
- Exercise. Create a regular exercise regimen that can help you regulate emotions, induce relaxation and increase self-esteem.