Stress: does our view of stress influence how we cope with it?

February 14, 2018 Richard Justenhoven

stress mindset

Which Stress Mindset do you have?

Imagine the scenario. It’s the start of the day; a day when you expect to be busy, under pressure, with a need to get things done. How do you feel about the day? That is, how do you view stress?

According to a diary study and published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology (2017), your ‘stress mindset’ influences how you choose to cope with the pressure, how you view your performance and how energised you feel.

Casper and a team of researchers at the University of Mannheim looked at two different mindsets. These are:

  • The Positive Stress Mindset – those who see stress as a positive; an opportunity to thrive, to achieve, to learn.
  • The Negative Stress Mindset – those who regard stress as something to avoid because of its debilitating nature.

The research

They looked at 171 employees across a range of occupations and industries. Participants were asked to complete a survey about their stress mindset and then an online diary three times a day for five working days. In the morning, they had to consider their expected workload that day. Later, they had to report on any constructive steps they’d taken to meet the day’s challenges be it planning, or simply viewing the challenge as an ‘opportunity’. In the evening, they had to report how they had performed in the day and how energetic they felt.

They found that:

  • There was a link between a positive stress mindset and expecting a larger workload, taking more proactive steps, feeling as though one had performed and feeling more energised at the end of the day.
  • There was a link between a negative stress mindset and anticipating a high workload and not taking any steps to cope with this. They also reported a lower energy level when reporting less strong performance. This is, the team argue, because those with a negative stress mindset try to cope with stress through avoidance.

So, what does this mean for us in organisations?

Perhaps by reframing the stress and the pressure we face and to view it as a challenge to be met, to learn from and to drive through, we will not only deploy coping strategies, but we will also perform better and feel energised from meeting the challenge. The question is, can we develop this positive stress mindset?

There are numerous self-help books, websites and articles around the subject. Here are some of the tips we particularly like:

  1. Focus on the good things in life, however small. When faced with a hurdle in the day, try to see it from a positive angle: a traffic jam gives the opportunity for listening to the radio a little longer.
  2. Turn a failure into a lesson. Try not to focus on the failure, but think about what you’re going to do next time. And it’s even more useful if you can come up with concrete learnings or rules that you’ll follow next time around.
  3. Transform negative self-talk into positive self-talk. Catch yourself when you’re beating yourself up about something and stop it – and replace those negative messages with positive ones. For example, “I just can’t do this.” becomes “Once I practice some more, I’ll be so much better at this.”
  4. Surround yourself with positive friends and co-workers. When you’re surrounded by positive people, you’ll pick up on their positive outlooks, positive stories and positive affirmations which will affect your own thinking.

A point to remember though, as the authors themselves remind us. Long-term stress and excessive work overload has been shown to have a negative impact on our health and well-being. This study looked only at few days – and, whilst it shows that a positive stress mindset may help cope with a difficult day, not being over-burdened long-term is essential.

Reference:
Casper, M., Sonnentag, S. & Tremmel, S. (2017) Mindset matters: the role of employees’ stress mindset for day-specific reactions to workload anticipation, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology Vol. 26 , Iss. 6,2017

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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