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Work Characteristics for Positive Stress

In my previous article, I outlined five traits to look for in individuals who tend towards eustress. Eustress is a positive level of stress (between boredom and distress) linked to higher performance, well-being, and employee retention. Now for the other side of the coin. If work has been thoughtfully designed to encourage positive stress, then many people can thrive despite long hours, high (and sometimes even crushing) pressure, and intense daily challenges. So, what work characteristics encourage eustress?

Purpose. A sense of purpose and accomplishment is essential to mental and physical health. Centrality is reciprocal here. Work is central to most people’s identity (“I am a …”, “I do …. for a living”). Equally, sensing that one’s work is central, or pivotal to the organization’s mission and values is key to achieving a true sense of purpose. It’s amazing what people will give to the organization if they feel purpose, and believe they are making a difference.

Challenge. Challenges are the tasks we undertake, or the conditions we operate within, which bring opportunities for learning, growth, and achievement. Challenges tend to come with high workload, real time pressure, and significant responsibility – things which may make us feel like we are on a quest. The gains for successful completion, such as professional growth and increased competency, are clear. However, not all challenging situations are “challenges” in this sense. It’s critical to avoid hindrances, which function as roadblocks to goal achievement, such as busy work, and unnecessary procedural red tape.

A High Sense of Control. Having autonomy over how to pursue challenging goals is fundamental to eustress. Numerous studies show that in highly demanding positions, having control, autonomy, and decision latitude can be catalysts to higher performance, and a protection from burnout. Conversely, a lack of these resources when demands are even moderate is a recipe for burnout, and other forms of strain. This point can hardly be overstated. Whenever I give talks on this subject, leaders are floored by how demanding work can be without employees burning out -- if employees perceive high levels of control – but how almost any level of demands can exhaust micro-managed employees. My advice for leaders is always to question how much control employees are really being given over major processes and key decision points within their role, and to increase control wherever possible without compromising mission and values.

Task Variety. When people have variety in their work (rather than a few routinized tasks), there can be a more holistic sense of accomplish, benefit to the organization, and to skill development. Professionals want to keep growing, and a portfolio of activities within a role, can foster participation in decision making, which is linked to higher job satisfaction and stronger commitment to the organization. Having a variety of tasks is also linked to more deliberative (as opposed to automatic/intuitive – “rule of thumb”) working processes, less counterproductive work behavior, and less rule breaking to serve one’s own interests at the expense of the organization.

Each of these four work characteristics can contribute to positive outcomes. However, taken together they create eustress’s critical energizing psychological states of meaningfulness, belonging, manageability, responsibility, and knowledge of one’s accomplishments. For example, a study of mid-level banking managers found that the combination of these four characteristics offered employees a sense of enjoyment and exhilaration in their work – especially for those with high growth needs -- despite some otherwise harsh working conditions within the sector. These employees weren’t just surviving, they were thriving in the pressured events -- even savoring them -- because of how the work was design around the challenges they faced.

Most professional positions are occupied by high growth needs people, who crave accomplishment. Time and again I found as an executive search consultant that people moved because poor work design in their current organization had hindered them accomplishing their goals. They were denied the autonomy they believe their skills, accomplishments, and pay grade should be affording them. In other words, they were being given high (quest-like) goals to accomplish, but were being procedurally “babied”. The frustration was compounded knowing that others in similar roles elsewhere were being granted more autonomy. As such, their routinized work lacked developmental challenge. This caused them to lose a critical sense of purpose to how they were contributing to their organization’s mission and values; and they no longer believed they could grow there. Such scenarios typically ended with an exit – almost never one their employers wanted given the number of counter offers I coached people to turn down.

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

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