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What Is Positive Stress In the Workplace?

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A man and a woman sit at a table writing in notebooks with a laptop open nearby.

What Is Positive Stress In the Workplace?

Imagine yourself at work. You’ve just given a presentation or received an annual performance review. It didn’t go well. In fact, there is so much cortisol pumping through your body that you feel like you can’t breathe. You take a few deep breaths to calm down and remind yourself that you are not your job, that your job does not define you. 

That sense of distress lingers for a few hours, a few days, maybe even a few weeks. But eventually, there’s a chance that you’re going to have a moment in which something clicks. That sense of stress and panic all of the sudden becomes something useful. You decide that instead of being upset at yourself over your performance, you’re going to use that energy to turn a failure into a challenge for future success. 

This is the transition from negative stress to positive stress, and it will become useful in your professional life. So what is positive stress? How does this work? Let’s dig into it. 

First Things First: What Is Stress?

One of the most important aspects of—well, being alive—is maintaining your cool as a world of chaos unfolds around you. Getting cut off in traffic, an accidental coffee spill, a fight with a partner, or subtle disagreement with a coworker—you name it—our daily lives really come down to managing stress. It is our brain’s duty to try to keep our bodies in some semblance of homeostasis in which it can calmly and effectively get you through each and every day. 

When we’re thrown too far out of homeostasis, our performance suffers. We miss details, we have trouble focusing, and our relationships with others can be impeded. The term “stress,” which occurs when we deviate from homeostasis, was added to the medical lexicon and expanded upon by Hans Selye in the mid-late 20th century to two distinctive types of stress: positive and negative. These are also known as “eustress” and “distress.”

Eustress (Positive Stress) vs Distress (Negative Stress)

The easiest way to parse these two types of stress responses are:

  • Eustress = challenge
  • Distress = threat

The difference between a threat and a challenge is that one is bad for the body and the other actually quite good in small amounts. When we face distress for too long—we call this “chronic stress”—that is where our performance suffers. We face low energy, headaches, insomnia, a weakened immune system, and more...

Eustress, or “positive stress,” on the other hand, actually leads to a stress response that is positive, constructive, and healthy. It typically results in a positive outcome. Positive stress examples include taking charge during a meeting or trying something new at the gym. While we still feel a racing heart and a surge of hormones as we start talking or exercising, by the end of the day the stressor has been mitigated and we come out feeling better—proud of accomplishing a challenge we set out for ourselves.

Positive Stress and Your Team

So up until this point, we’ve focused on the self as it relates to positive stress (“I”) in the workplace and beyond. But what about positive stress for a whole team of people (“We”)? 

We experience eustress when we choose goals and activities that get us excited and hopeful. The key to having an entire team of inspired people is to frame their challenges to be positive and optimistic. 

You’re a leader in your environment and it’s so important to use words of encouragement to show your peers that you are on their team, that you want to see them succeed. When we feel supported by those who surround us, it’s much easier for us to slip into the “challenge” mindset rather than the “threat” mindset that can be brought on by being criticized in a negative way instead of a constructive one. It is your job to guide people toward taking on the challenges of the tasks that cause the most negative stress and turning them into an opportunity. Cultivating an environment that makes people feel safe to try new things and push to succeed is vital to shifting stressors at work from negative to positive.

Once your team (“We”) sees your shift in attitude, their performance will improve, which is where an entire company can see a positive shift. As you focus on projects massive and minuscule, your system as a whole (“It”) will see an evolution that trends toward collaboration, synergy, and progress. One of the most incredible aspects of positive stress and developing that comfortable, encouraging environment is how very contagious it can be to the whole. 

Mindset Matters: Turning Negative Stress to Positive

How we approach stress and the ways in which we shift our framework of thinking can be incorporated into our lives if we give it an honest effort. 

A few ways of practicing that shift include:

  • Considering your resources. When faced with a problem, you have to dig into your arsenal of tools knowing that you can use them to set out on your goal.
  • Looking at the bright side. Failing in your presentation means you have an opportunity for proving to yourself and to your coworkers that you can learn and improve.
  • Don’t forget how amazing you are. Play to your strengths and remind yourself of them whenever you need a mood boost. 
  • Have a “jar half full” mindset. Try not to give the part of your brain that’s telling you the sky is falling any attention. 

This isn’t always realistic, so don’t feel bad if you and your team face a stressor that you can’t just turn into a positive. Those feelings are still valid and important, so do your best to feel them quickly, collectively address them, and move forward. 

When it comes to positive stress in the workplace, be careful—don’t turn your office into a game of creating eustress. Not everything has to be a challenge, and our societal obsession with “the grind” can cloud our thinking when it comes to improvement. There is something to be said for appreciating a comfort zone but getting outside of it when you and your team need to. Think about eustress like the eject button in James Bond’s Aston Martin. Try to maneuver a situation calmly and carefully before you push the exit button and get to grinding. 

Going Forward

Find a moment to sit down, take stock of this advice, and consider how you can use positive stress for yourself (“I”) and your team (“We”) to establish a welcoming, exciting, progressive environment (“It”). And if you need a little backup in getting those ideas to a place where your team can utilize them, I’m here to serve as a gentle push moving you forward.

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