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The Power of Positive Stress – What to Look for in Employees

Without stress we won’t perform, we get bored (which can itself become stressful), and we don’t flourish. However, most research on stress, and most discussion of it, is about distress – that is, too much stress.



Many subjects in life are discussed linearly, which is to suggest that more or less of something is better or worse. This is a curious habit, because a great many things are in fact curvilinear – too much or too little is bad, but there’s a sweet spot (or range of sweet spots) somewhere in between. Everyday examples include how much salt you put on your food (at least for taste, if not health), how hot you make the shower, and how fast you drive.

Work stress is another one.

Without stress we won’t perform, we get bored (which can itself become stressful), and we don’t flourish. However, most research on stress, and most discussion of it, is about distress – that is, too much stress. This is broadly defined broadly as unpleasant or strain-inducing responses based on taxing or threatening situations that exceed a person’s perceived capacity to manage them. Distress is what most people think of when they say “stress”, and is strongly linked to poor job satisfaction, a host of physical and psychological strains, and unwanted turnover in the workplace.

But that’s not the whole picture. Not all stress is bad. Between boredom and distress is eustress, which is good stress. Eustress comprises the pleasant or curative experiences generated from challenging or positive situations. It is linked to higher, and more consistent performance, greater well-being, and higher levels of employee retention.

Work stress is about both the employee and the working environment, so two questions jump to mind at this point. The first focuses on employees: If some people attempt to avoid stress at all costs, and some become stress balls – seemingly distressed by almost everything, then what are the traits of people who tend towards eustress? The second focuses on organizations and their leaders: What are the defining properties of how work is designed which are most likely to induce eustress?

To focus on the first of these questions, here are five traits of people who tend towards eustress, all backed by research:

Humor. How many of us love to send a joke to others by email, or share light moments by the coffee maker, water cooler, or lunchroom? Some bestsellers point to how people can literally laugh themselves back to health and wellbeing. However, humor has been shown to play a role in reappraising situations, creating an emotional-physical release, obtain social support, and shown one’s humanness to others.

Zest reflects a person’s stance, or postulation towards life in terms of their energy, anticipation, and excitement. People with a zestful disposition tend to have higher levels of well-being, perform better at work, and are less likely to leave.

Vigor has three components: Perception of one’s own physical ability; emotional energy often manifested in expressions of sympathy and empathy towards others; and cognitively aliveness, which reflects someone’s emotional conception of cognitive alertness, and mental agility. Highly vigorous people tend to have more positive experiences of work, and recover more quickly from negatives ones. They are also more proactive in positively influencing their work environment.

Hope (like optimism) reflects the degree of expected benefit from a given situation. It is based on a sense of how successful one can be in planning for, and reaching goals - a belief that one possesses the will and the way to successfully accomplish goals. Hopeful people tend to view themselves as having higher levels of well-being at work.

Positive Affect is a state of pleasurable engagement. It reflects the extent to which one feels alert, active, and enthusiastic at a given time (state), or more stably across time (trait). Positive affect has been linked to creative problem solving, flourishing, and performance.

Any of these traits can be estimated in a selection process, using validated measures. Next time, I will elaborate on the second question: What are the defining properties of how work is designed which are most likely to induce eustress? If you want to find out early, sign-up here for my newsletter on identifying, understanding, and dealing with work stress for healthy, high performing organizations. You can also download my free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool, which will help identify the root causes of your work stress, and what to do about them.

Marcus Fila, Ph.D., is an organizational analyst and industrial/organizational psychologist. He is an associate professor of management at Hope College; and a researcher, speaker, and consultant on work stress. Download his free Work Stress Self-Assessment Tool.


Photo by Guille Álvarez on Unsplash

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© 2021 by Marcus J. Fila