How “Good Stress” Helps Creativity in the Workplace

Stress is inevitable but some stress is a good thing.

Posted Aug 24, 2016

Andrew Imanaka/Creative Commons
Source: Andrew Imanaka/Creative Commons

It doesn't matter how mindful you try to be at work, you're going to get stressed. It's inevitable. Not all stress is equal. There are dis-stressors that can paralyze your creativity at work, and there are eu-stressors that can catalyze your creativity at work.

The following findings will interest you if you work on a team or even if you work alone.

The recent study conducted by two psychologists gathered data from over 280 employees (Ren, Feifei & Junghuan Zhang (2015).  Job Stressors, Organizational Innovation Climate, and Employees' Innovative Behavior. Creativity Research Journal. 27, 16-23). Those employees worked on research and development teams in a variety of fields and industries, from food making, to manufacturing, to software development.

Here's what the psychologists examined: First, they broke down creativity at the work place into its two parts. Creativity is the generation of novel and useful ideas, but it also includes the ability to execute and run with the best of those ideas. Generating ideas and executing those ideas.

Which stressful factors in the work place actually contribute best to which stages of creativity?

Challenge Stressors or Eu-stressors

First, the study examined “challenge stressors.” Challenge stressors are those stressors that an employee would perceive as potentially deepening the employee's learning, deepening personal growth, and helping that employee achieve his or her goals. Those factors are stressors, and they're what I would call eu-stressors, a term I derive from Richard Lazarus's work from the 1960s in which he defines “eustress” as being beneficial stress. It is a challenge that ultimately brings out the best in us.

Challenge stressors or eu-stressors include factors in the work place such as time constraints - a reasonable time constraint in order to generate and to execute those ideas. Other challenge stressors are a sizable workload so that people are sufficiently challenged and a clear job description with varied responsibilities tied to job performance.  

Findings: One finding from the study is that challenge stressors contribute positively to generating lots of novel and useful ideas. Curiously, challenge stressors have a neutral effect on worker's abilities to implement and execute ideas. Challenge stressors are great for generating ideas - neutral on executing them.

Hindrance Stressors or Dis-Stressors

Hindrance stressors are what you want to pay attention to in a workplace. These are dis-stressors, not eu-stressors. Hindrance stressors include

  • office politics and bickering and side conversations
  • red tape that just thwarts the ability to get anything done
  • job confusion ("What's my role? What am I supposed to do on this team? I thought that was my job?")
  • job insecurity

Findings: Perhaps not to your surprise, hindrance disstressors hinder employees’ ability to generate novel and useful ideas. Several studies, in fact, corroborate that most of us need a safe, free environment with some autonomy in order to come up with lots of good ideas.

Hindrance disstressors also have a neutral effect, neither good nor bad, on the ability to execute and implement ideas.

Organizational Innovation Climate

The real game changer is what's called organizational innovation climate, which is the third element that these two psychologists examined.

Organizational innovation climate includes optimal team collaboration. It includes autonomy. Teams have some freedom to make decisions, and individuals on teams have some ability to make their own decisions in terms of how they might execute ideas. Superior support is essential in organizational innovation climate, coupled with sufficient resources.

Findings: These factors have a positive effect on generating novel ideas and they have a profoundly positive effect on implementing and executing ideas.

The Worst and Best Combo for Teams

Here is the surprising finding: When hindrance stressors are high, they will offset everything an organization may try to do. So, creating the best culture, creating the right little cubbies for cool work spaces and collaborative spaces and solo meditation spaces and game rooms, creating the really cool climate could all be for naught.

If there are lots of office politics, red tape, role confusion, and job insecurity, it might not matter how cool your climate and culture appears. The best combination is challenge stressors - having time constraints, a challenging workload, clear, but big job descriptions combined with team collaboration, autonomy, and superior support and sufficient resources.

For Solo-Preneurs, Creatives, and Service Professionals

If you work solo, take stock of this. You may have your own internal office politics, so to speak. If you have one assistant, there may not be really clear communication. Get clear. Get clear with yourself. Get clear with your assistant.

Red tape. You may have your own red tape, because you may have some inefficient, unproductive daily and weekly systems and rhythms.

Finally, be really clear about your own role. Everyday, remind yourself of what your role is with your business as a service provider, professional, business artist, of your own solo kind. Be clear about who the people are that you are here to captivate and elevate.

In this respect, you have to create your own organizational innovation climate and motivate yourself as your best worker.

If you work on a team or lead a team, you might share these findings with your co-workers or manager to see what you can start to change to effect a more optimal and “eu-stressful” work place.