Control workplace stress with this simple exercise
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Control workplace stress with this simple exercise

Unless you’re a very lucky person indeed, you have to cope with job-related stress — sometimes a lot of it. And as a leader of others, it’s imperative that you develop strategies to deal with it, not only for your own sake, but also for that of the people who follow your lead.

What can you do to manage the inevitable stress that comes with your responsibilities?

Behavioral research shows that one powerful stress-busting strategy is to plan to think positively about your life and your relationships. Note that we didn’t just say you should think positively. We’re saying you have to plan to think positively.

Let’s have a look at that research. Led by Shawn Achor, an executive consultant who has taught at Harvard and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers set out to study people working on critical tasks in a very high-stress workplace. So they chose accountants at an auditing firm in New York City at the height of tax season.

Daily exercise

The researchers asked half of the accountants – the control group — to go about their business normally. The other half engaged in one “positivity” exercise a day for three weeks. Each was designed to take only a few minutes, and included the following:

  1. Write down three things you’re grateful for
  2. Write a positive message to a co-worker, friend or family member
  3. Clear your mind and meditate for two minutes
  4. Exercise for 10 minutes, or
  5. Take two minutes to write down the best thing that happened in the last 24 hours

Once the experiment was over, the researchers waited several days and then used a “satisfaction scale” – a diagnostic tool widely accepted as one of the best predictors of productivity and engagement at work – to judge the effects of the positivity exercises.

The result: Compared with the control group, the accountants who engaged in these brief daily exercises felt less stressed and more positive about their jobs and were significantly more productive.

Next the researchers wanted to know whether this beneficial effect would last over time, or quickly fade away.

Lasting effect

To find out, the researchers returned to the auditing firm four months later, after tax season was over and things had returned to normal.

They found that the accountants who’d engaged in the exercises continued to be less stressed, more productive, more engaged and more satisfied with their jobs, compared with their peers in the control group. What’s more, their scores on the satisfaction scale were 24% higher than their own scores had been at the beginning of the study.

Other research supports the link between positivity and productivity at work. An analysis of 225 academic studies on workplace performance found that employees with a positive or optimistic outlook average 31% higher productivity and 37% higher sales than their less-optimistic colleagues. They’re three times as likely to come up with creative solutions to problems, too.

What was surprising about the accountant study was that such a simple, brief intervention could have such a profound impact on workers’ attitudes and performance.

Why it works

To understand why, think about why feeling stressed makes people less productive: Anxiety activates the brain region called the amygdala – the “flight or fight” area that deals with threats. This steals resources from other areas of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for things like working toward a goal and problem solving.

Research suggests that positive experiences – such as those created by the positivity exercises – help reduce the “fight or flight” response in the face of stress. So we have the mental resources to work at a high level, solve problems and weather the storm.

Remember we said at the beginning that to beat stress, you need a positivity plan. It’s not enough to just say vaguely, “I’m going to think positively in the future.” If you do only that, you probably won’t follow through. But if you commit to one of the daily positivity activities we discussed earlier, chances are you’ll reap the benefits that come with a lower level of on-the-job stress.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Managing Workplace Stress: How to Stay Productive Under Pressure.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following research studies:

Achor, S. (2012). Positive intelligence. Harvard Business Review, 90(1), 100-102.

Lyubomirsky, S., et al. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.

 

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