Coping with Work Stress
Research links one type of coping to better job performance and well-being.
Posted June 18, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
If you’ve ever found yourself struggling with something (or someone) at work, you’re not alone. Most people will encounter a work conflict at some point, and one of the best strategies for managing this stress is taking time to cope. Some people turn to five o’clock drinks (no judgment, I do this too), but new research on careers and coping clearly demonstrates that those after-work cocktails are not the most effective way to deal with our work problems and our time and energy is likely better spent elsewhere.
Coping is defined as any type of thinking or behavior you do to help manage the demands of life. According to Lazarus and Folkman, there are two major types of coping: promotion-focused and prevention-focused coping.
Promotion-focused coping includes behaviors and thoughts that get your current situation a step closer to your ideal situation. Promotion-focused coping behaviors are driven by our need for achievement and growth.
Promotion-focused coping probably represent most of the advice you’ve heard about dealing with problems at work: figure out what you can do to take control of the problem and do that; plan to change the way you do things in the future; seek support from your boss, your friends, or your co-workers; or solve the problems that are in your power to solve. These coping behaviors are pro-social and work to solve the problem rather than ignore it or simply complain about it.
Ignoring and complaining are called prevention-focused coping.
Prevention-focused coping includes anything you say or do to lower the chances that your current situation mismatches your ideal situation. This could include minimizing the likelihood that I will need to change what I’m currently doing in order to do what is expected or needed of me. Security and safety needs drive prevention-focused coping behaviors.
Denying a problem exists is a common prevention-focused coping strategy that often does not end up working for very long. Disengagement with work or with problematic co-workers is another strategy that has clear negative implications, such as not being assigned to new projects or losing meaning in one’s work. Venting is a prevention-focused strategy that may provide short-term catharsis but could lead to hurt feelings and burned-out partners or friends who are on the receiving end of such sessions.
In a new meta-analysis—which is essentially a study that examines the results of a whole lot of other studies—Zhang, Zhang, Ng, and Lam (2019) were able to look at the coping strategies of over 75,000 people and identify what works and what doesn’t.
The researchers found that promotion-focused coping is linked to better job performance including accomplishing core job tasks, behavior that benefits organizational effectiveness, and better job attitudes. Promotion-focused coping is also linked to increased physical and psychological well-being. Prevention-focused coping like denial, on the other hand, is linked to lower task performance, worse job attitudes, and worse physical and psychological well-being.
They also found that prevention-focused coping isn’t just keeping you from engaging in the healthier promotion-focused coping strategies like solving controllable problems, but it is contributing to lower job performance and worse well-being outcomes all on its own.
When you can, choose promotion-focused coping strategies to move through issues more quickly. Promotion-focused strategies may seem like more work at first, but burying or denying issues at work won’t really make them go away—and in the end, the hard work of change is coming whether you start working on it now or later. If solving controllable problems is too much to start with, seek support from your friends and family outside work or trusted colleagues at work (especially those from other departments or organizations).
Zhang, Y., Zhang, Y., Ng, T. W. H., & Lam, S. S. K. (2019). Promotion-and prevention-focused coping: A meta-analytic examination of regulatory strategies in the work stress process. The Journal of applied psychology. doi: 10.1037/apl0000404
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer publishing company.