Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute
Tolerable stress and why it belongs in the workplace
Small amounts of short-term stress can boost performance. But what’s the difference between tolerable stress and toxic stress?
Tolerable stress and why it belongs in the workplace
There is a space between “too much” and “not enough” where stress can make us excellent.
Psychologists define stress as a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. In pop culture, stress is almost exclusively considered a negative but unavoidable side effect. However, the effects of stress are not always detrimental to our minds and bodies. A small amount of short-term pressure is what we call "tolerable stress".
There is a certain amount of stress that has a positive effect on performance. A mild to moderate amount of short-term stress can drive motivation and give you the boost of energy needed to get things done. The key to tolerable stress is that it's short term. This means after the body receives the stress-related adrenaline boost, it returns to baseline.
A recent study by The Korn Ferry Institute found that these small amounts of tolerable stress actually have a positive effect on performance. Runners get a boost of energy to win the race. Performers feel “pumped up” about an upcoming event. Extreme sports enthusiasts get excited enough to step out of the airplane. And workers? They get the motivation to complete an urgent task.
Simply stated, stress manifests initially as the body’s fight or flight response to a trigger. At first, the body gets a rush of epinephrine (adrenaline) which makes the heart beat faster, breathing quicken and muscles tense. Anyone who’s been in a competition, asked someone out on a date or participated in extreme sports knows that a little adrenaline is not inherently bad.
The problem occurs when we’re exposed to chronic or repeated stress. Over time, our baseline response to that stress increases. Our brains and bodies become so accustomed to a state of activation that eventually, even when a stressor goes away, we do not return to baseline levels—and we suffer the effects of allostatic overload, or the cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events.
The relationship between stress and performance is like the classic bell curve: when this stress becomes frequent or chronic, it goes from tolerable (and sometimes motivating) to toxic. In learning and development terms, it’s called the “zone of proximal development”—the Goldilocks principle of just the right amount of stress and stretch to promote learning. The “just right” point is relative, depending on skill and experience. And those who stretch too far too fast will find it counterproductive.
The good news is stress doesn’t have to be inherently negative. The bad news is many workers’ stress levels have passed the point of optimization. A recent Gallup report showed that American professionals are some of the most stressed workers in the world.
Competing deadlines from different stakeholders can make us feel like we’re in a lose-lose battle. Insufficient resources can make us feel backed into a corner of tough choices that sometimes can put people’s livelihoods at stake (like layoffs, paycuts, restructuring, consolidation, M&A). Lack of support from peers and superiors can make the workplace feel incredibly isolating.
Workplace stress affects our daily lives in multiple ways, from absenteeism, loss of productivity and employee turnover to rising healthcare, insurance, legal and disability expenses. And the costs are astronomical. In the United States alone, the effects of workplace stress may account for 8% of our national spending on healthcare, with actual numbers closer to $300 billion and rising.
Allostatic overload, or toxic stress, occurs when stress becomes too taxing for our bodies, leading to one or more of the following symptoms within 6 months of an initial stressor:
Organizations should aim to create a culture of authenticity and openness. Environments that foster emotional openness and create space for connection will result in more emotionally aware and available employees.
There are five domains of social experience that, when threatened, are often registered in our brains as physical danger. We tend to process social safety like a life-or-death matter because we’re likely to remember the experience of social pain over and over again. In contrast, the experience of physical pain tends to dissipate eventually. Therefore, even individual instances of threatened status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness can increase the allostatic load. Repeat these experiences often, and they almost certainly will.
Here are some ways that leaders and organizations can reduce allostatic overload for each of these five domains of social experience:
Hitting the sweet spot of stress—just enough but not too much—is no simple task. Research shows that finding the right balance is likely both person-specific and task-specific. Some people may just perform better under stress than others. Some people may crest the “optimal stress” curve before others.
Skill level and task complexity are also important factors that can affect performance under stress. If something is new to us, it may provide enough challenge without additional external stressors. But if we have been performing a task for a while, it may become monotonous and routine; some external stress may provide the motivation that sparks your interest again and sustain motivation.
If stress could speak for itself, it might argue that it has been the victim of character assassination. It would argue that the right amount of stress challenges us to be better.
Stress gets a bad rap—for many good reasons. The Yerkes-Dodson law, our biology, and our own experiences show us there is a tipping point. There is a space between “too much” and “not enough” where stress can make us excellent. Between the pressures of our jobs, the world, and our relationships, we’ve surpassed that point and lost sight of the balance, which has grave consequences for our physical and mental health.
But there is good news: we can combat toxic stress through small, achievable strategies. A practice as simple as making space for connection can go a long way toward reducing allostatic load—improving our physical and mental well-being. And only when we find our way back to that sweet spot of stress will we see our performance improve.