Stress as a management tool sometimes is a good thing

Too much, however, can be counterproductive, mental health professionals say

No matter what kind of business you’re in, odds are that stress comes in to play in one way or another — whether it constantly shadows your daily routine or it comes and goes.

According to some experts, the question is not if you’ll face stressful situations at work. Rather, the real test is how you respond to it.

Some business models suggest a burning-platform notion, insisting that employees work best when they’re under the gun. Still, other management philosophies hinge on the belief that the best ideas come in times of calm.

Does putting employees under stress make them more productive? Does setting tough goals for ourselves help us thrive?

According to Bev Klug, director of Mindfulness-Based Programs at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, the answer may be more complicated than a simple yes or no. Her experience has provided a level of expertise on stress and its effects on the human body and mind.

She pointed out there are two distinct types of stress — chronic and acute. Acute stress, Klug noted, is temporary.

“Even things that we want to do, or are excited to do can be acutely stressful — like preparing to have a baby, for example,” she said.

She noted acute stress often can be motivating, but challenges arise when this type of stress remains long-term.

“Stress itself isn’t a bad thing. But it can become detrimental when it becomes chronic,” Klug said.

So, for example, meeting a deadline at work may relieve acute stress. In that case, the body can recognize the end of the stressor.

But when the issue is ongoing, you may never be able to come down from the heightened state of stress. And that can cause very real problems — both in the office and outside of it.

Hurting the bottom line

Physical, mental and emotional issues all can stem from too much stress at work.

“Some research shows that 75 to 90 percent of visits to the doctor are for stress-related issues,” Klug said.

Chronic pain, headaches, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, among other issues, are all medical issues that directly can be caused by or related to stress, she said, and these issues can easily translate to lost productivity and time away from the office.

Tom Kremer, a licensed independent social worker and the clinical director at Associates for Behavioral Healthcare in Cedar Rapids, agreed the effects of stressors at the workplace can be far-reaching.

“Stress is the thing that all of us have — but each of us has a different threshold for it. Some people handle it well, while others struggle,” he said.

According to Kremer, some levels of stress can motivate you to accomplish necessary tasks. But too many of these types of stressors layered on top of each other can be counterproductive.

When stress is short-term, he said, employees are more likely to see the light at the end of the tunnel — and work hard to reach it. But when there isn’t an end in sight, the stress can often be overwhelming and ultimately detrimental.

So, as a manager, the question becomes, How do you recognize and capture the right level of stress for your staff and yourself?

“A good barometer for how employees are relating to the management style is the office morale. If you’re under the right amount of stress, there is likely to be less negativity and discomfort in the office,” Kremer said.

Counselors and therapists can treat anxiety and depression, and career-type counseling can be geared specifically for stress management. While not all employees who are under regular pressure need to seek professional treatment, Kremer does recommend having an open mind and a hands-on approach to dealing with stress that arises in the workplace.

“People who take action are often better-equipped to use stress as a motivator,” he said. “Learning coping methods helps people find an escape from the stress that they encounter in their lives.”

“Part of what Mindfulness Programs help people do is recognize that they have the ability to relate to stressful situations in a helpful way,” Klug said.

“Life is stressful — that’s not going to change. Our intention is to help people be present in their lives.“Instead of resisting stress, they can learn to recognize it and cope with it.”

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