Stressed? Anxious? Exhausted? Drained?
Many people feel this was feel this way about work, due to stressors and pressures. Longer work hours, more frequent hassles, the need to do more with fewer resources all add to the pressure Such work stress has been shown to induce anxiety and anger, unethical behaviour, poor decision making, and chronic exhaustion and burnout, all of which impair personal and organisational performance.
There are typically two ways people try to deal with this stress. One is to simply ‘buckle down and power through’, to focus on getting the stressful work done. Professional workers often have a ‘bias for action’ and want to find a solution quickly. They pride themselves on being tough people who can keep working despite feeling stressed and fatigued.
The other common tactic is to retreat, to temporarily disconnect from work and get away from the stressful environment. Research on work day breaks has grown rapidly in the past few years, finding that relaxing and engaging breaks can improve emotions and boost energy at work. This helps explain why ‘relaxation facilities’ such as nap rooms, workout equipment, and entertainment zones are becoming popular offerings at companies in knowledge intensive industries.
Unfortunately, both ‘grinding through’ and ‘getting away’ have potential pitfalls. Research has long established that humans have limits in handling heavy workloads, which restrict our ability to always grind through.
Continuing to exert effort while stressed and fatigued will simply tax us and lead to depletion and impaired performance. And while a reprieve from work can provide temporary relief, it does not address the underlying problems that cause stress in the first place. When we return from a break, we are not only faced with the same issues, but we may also experience additional guilt and anxiety.
So what else can employees do to temper the ill effects of stress? Research suggests a third option: focusing on learning. This can mean picking up a new skill, gathering new information, or seeking out intellectual challenges. In two recent research projects, one with employees from a variety of industries and organisations, and the other with medical residents, we found evidence that engaging in learning activities can buffer workers from detrimental effects of stress including negative emotions, unethical behaviour, and burnout.
Learning as a stress buffer helps workers build valuable instrumental and psychological resources. Instrumentally, learning brings us new information and knowledge that can be useful for solving local stressful problems; it also equips us with new skills and capabilities to address or even prevent future stressors. Psychologically, taking time to reflect on what we know and learn new things helps us develop feelings of competence and self-efficacy (a sense of being capable of achieving goals and doing more). Learning also helps connect us to an underlying purpose of growth and development. This way, we can see ourselves as constantly improving and developing, rather than being stuck with fixed capabilities. These psychological resources enable us to build resilience in the face of stressors.
Strategically Using Learning at Work
What specifically can you do to increase learning when faced with stress at work?
First, start internally. Practice re-framing stressful work challenges in your mind. When stress emerges, change the message you tell yourself from “this is a stressful work assignment/situation” to “this is a challenging but rewarding opportunity to learn.” Reframing stressful tasks as learning possibilities shifts your mindset and better prepares you to approach the task with an orientation toward growth and longer-term gains.
Second, work and learn with others. Instead of wrestling with a stressful challenge solely in your own head, try to get input from others. Getting out and discussing a stressor with your peers and colleagues might reveal hidden insights, either from their experience or from the questions and perspectives they raise.
Third, craft learning activities as a new form of ‘work break’. Alongside purely relaxing breaks (either short ones like meditating or longer ones like taking days off) consider recasting learning itself as a break from your routine tasks at work. This might seem like a mere mental rebranding, but if a learning activity allows you to divert from the type of effort you use in regular work activities (e.g., numeric thinking, interacting with clients), and if the activity also fits your intrinsic interests, it can replenish you psychologically. Viewing learning as ‘more work’ will make it less attractive in an already stressful situation, but approaching it as a form of respite can make it more appealing and more likely to create positive, enjoyable experiences.
Embracing learning can be a more active way to buffer yourself from negative effects of stress at work. At the same time, there is no need to wait for stress to arise before seeking learning opportunities. Even without pressing problems, engaging in learning as a central feature of your work life will help you build personal resources and equip you to be resilient and prepared in navigating future stress at work.