Surprising New Finding on How to Manage Stress at Work

New study this month shows that learning, but not relaxing, manages stress.

Posted Mar 09, 2018

DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

How do you manage your stress at work?

When I ask different professionals this question, here are the types of responses I get:

“I take a break, put my feet on my desk, and pop in my favorite music” (Jacob, 24, management)

“The first thing I do on my lunch break is grab a quick smoke outside. And, I talk to a couple people about my weekend” (Cindy, 48, teacher)

“My preference is to go for a walk outside. I get a breath of fresh air and look at the trees” (Mary Beth, 37, healthcare)

These are all examples of using relaxation to manage stress. It turns out, these people might not be using an optimal approach to stress.

New research out this month from scientists at the University of Michigan found that learning something new at work served as a stress buffer, whereas relaxation strategies had no effect. In other words, doing something active (engaging yourself with learning) rather than passive (distracting yourself by relaxation) was crucial. The researchers conducted two studies of employees, one involved “experience sampling” which is an approach that studied the employees’ experiences “in the moment” at work.

They also found that learning something new at work was not only a great stress buffer but it also was useful in managing negative emotions at work (e.g., anxiety, disappointment, and frustration). Taking time to relax at work did not serve as a buffer for negative emotions.

Learning new things is a resource-builder. It builds your internal capacity. Relaxation approaches take a different avenue – they attempt to dampen your stress and your negative emotions. Lowering your work demands is useful at times such as when you have “bitten off more than you can chew.” But, lowering your work pressures or demands should not be viewed as your default approach to turn to. The researchers conclude that it is “doing more” (learning) and not “doing less” (relaxing) that is the key.

These findings weave in cleanly with the science of character strengths and its best practices. This study is highlighting the importance of building internal capacity to manage stress. Character strengths are some of our most important internal capacities! Here are some practical ways to make the connection of character strengths with this study.

1.) As this research suggests, build your general capacity of resources by becoming more aware of your signature strengths – those qualities most energizing and essential to who you are. Studies show that using character strengths at work builds your coping, manages work stress, and improves work productivity.

Example, Jacob (mentioned earlier), began to use his signature strengths more consciously at work. Jacob is high in creativity, bravery, and gratitude. He decided he would bring each of these strengths more regularly into his team meetings (which he typically led). He used creativity to share a wider range of his ideas for different projects, bravery to challenge other team members when they were taking the discussion in an uninformed or less productive direction, and gratitude by sharing his appreciation for each employee and their unique strengths that he saw them using at work.

2.) This research suggests you might consider doing more learning at work. This can help you keep in the flow of work while simultaneously allowing your mind to take a break and shift gears. This flow might look something like this: You turn from an intense work project over to learning something new online from a book or a blog and then you return from that learning to learning on your work project. This approach keeps the stream of learning going, unlike the more jarring approach of shifting from a work project to a relaxation strategy that is trying to calm you and then back to the more intense work project.

Example: On her breaks as a teacher, Cindy decided to use her character strength of curiosity to explore one topic that intrigued her from her teaching or that a student brought up that morning in class. Cindy would search the topic online and read commentaries or websites about the topic. This ranged from looking up students’ questions about school shootings to her looking up more information on small animals which was the topic of the class book.

3.) The activity of learning at work can also be interpersonal. What might you be able to learn from others? New skills for your job? New ways to approach a task?

Example: Mary Beth took a new approach to learning in her work at the hospital. She used her strength of social intelligence to connect with nurses, occupational therapists, recreation therapists, and some physicians and learn from them. She sought out times to observe them in action, to consult with them, and to have lunch with them to learn about their approach. This helped Mary Beth become more savvy on her job and developed stronger work relationships.

Final comment

While this is a quality study published in a quality journal, we need to keep in mind that this is a study of groups of people so the findings will not apply to every individual. If you have found success in managing your stress by taking breaks to walk outside in nature, then there’s no reason to not continue to do that. At the same time, you might experiment with the findings explained here to offer you yet another approach for your stress management toolbox.

References

Zhang, C., Mayer, D. M., & Hwang, E. (2018). More is less: Learning but not relaxing buffers deviance under job stressor. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(2), 123-136.

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