Along with smoking and alcohol, stress is listed among the main health risk factors. We all got used to the thought that stress is bad. We blame it for our anxiety, sleeping disorders, jelly belly, and just about everything else.

Stress has also become a valid excuse for low productivity at work. Our personal experience suggests that we should eliminate stress completely from our lives to become more efficient and productive. But what if we look at it from a different angle? Can stress actually be beneficial to us?

As it turns out, it can. According to Professor Ian Robinson, who studied the stress phenomenon in his book “The Stress Test: how pressure can make you stronger and sharper”, a moderate level of work stress is a good motivator. It fuels our interest and spurs us to do more. The dependency between stress and productivity is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law”. Low stress level is counterproductive: people have no reason to act and remain idle or waste too much time on their assignments. When stress increases, so does performance, but only up to a certain point. This is represented graphically as a bell curve.

stress and productivity at work

After reaching the peak point, the performance decreases because of high stress levels. A stressed-out worker feels anxious, lost, and is unable to focus on work.

What the Stress Levels Actually Depend On

First of all, the optimal stress level depends on the complexity of the task. Imagine a routine task like checking email — you could spend two, three hours on it, but knowing you have other things to do urges you to complete that task quicker. In this case, stress is only beneficial for keeping the work pace fast.

On the contrary, performing complicated tasks is already a challenge and requires more focus, which can be best achieved in a non-stressful environment.

A recent study of 2,000 Americans — summed up in a short video by Harvard Business Review — showed that on average, the perceived stress level is estimated as 13 points on a scale of 0 to 40. Fortunately, that level of stress is also most beneficial for work performance.

With age, the stress levels tend to decrease. This is generally explained by a higher position and better control over your own job. Or might it be just the seasoned wisdom?

One of the factors affecting perceived stress level is gender. It turns out that women are slightly more likely to feel stressed than men. Income and education matter, too. People with higher annual income and education levels are more prone to stress, the study finds.

Leverage Stress for Better Performance

As the renowned scientist Hans Selye put it, “Stress is not necessarily bad for you, it is also the spice of life”. But as any spice, it should be used sparingly. So if you are looking to boost your employee productivity at work and get your team more engaged, keep them on their toes. Let’s take a look at some techniques you can use for that.

  • Set deadlines. Meeting deadlines is often a stress for employees, but that’s what allows you to move on. Otherwise, you are likely to get stuck with the same project for ages. At the same time, unreasonable deadlines cause unnecessary pressure, so be realistic. Discuss the delivery times with your employees and communicate your expectations clearly.
  • Set higher goals and expand responsibilities. Experts say that boredom is even worse than stress in terms of productivity. So don’t wait until your colleagues get fed up with their duties. Think proactively and find new tasks and responsibilities for your team. If matched well to their skills, challenges will revive their interest towards work.

    By offering complex tasks you are also raising the intellectual level of your team. Solving unconventional problems is good for the brain: it creates new synapses, which in turn enhances cognitive potential of a person.

  • Observe. Try out the “Hawthorne effect” which suggests that workers increase their performance when they know that they are being watched. Don’t take it too literally though: there is no need to install surveillance cameras everywhere. However, monitoring employee performance by using time-tracking software might do the trick.
  • Use diverse forms of collaboration. If you are used to certain forms of collaboration in your company, it is probably time to change the tactics. Set up a brainstorming session, organize a quick discussion or create mind maps together. A bit of stress might help unleash new ideas and encourage interest.

Challenging, but Not Overwhelming

No doubt that extreme stress is not good for your mental and physical health. That’s why we are often tempted into thinking that any stress should be avoided, which is not entirely true.

A moderate amount of stress can spark our productivity at work and help us be more creative. So go ahead and find exciting challenges for you and your team: it will help you move forward.