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How can stress affect performance in the workplace?

A look at the neurochemical changes that happen to our brains when we feel stress, and how this can affect performance in the workplace.
Woman sits in front of Macbook with head in hands

Stress is a response that we as a species have evolved to enhance our performance, however stress can sometimes have the opposite effect. Too much stress can lead to distress, which can be defined as a time when a person is not coping. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that stress might affect a person’s behaviour and performance at work.

Reduced ability for decision making. We use the part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex to think clearly, to plan, problem-solve and make decisions effectively. When we experience stress, this functioning is impaired and so we can become easily confused, take longer to process information and become indecisive as a result.

Reduced attention span. Reduced activity in our pre-frontal cortex when we are undergoing stress can also cause trouble concentrating. This can be worsened when our sleeping patterns are disrupted, which often happens when we are stressed.

Forgetfulness. We use the part of our brain called the hippocampus to store memories. Stress hormones like cortisol can impair the functioning in this part of the brain which is why we can become forgetful when stressed.

Increased irritability. When we experience stress, the part of our brain where we feel emotions takes over in order to keep us safe. Since we have limited access to the slow, deliberative, thinking part of our brain during this time and instead are using the automatic, fast, emotional part of our brain, we are less able to regulate our emotions. This can cause us to have an emotional outburst or lose our temper through verbal or physical aggression, which not only impacts a person’s mood but also their reputation and relationships with others.

Procrastinating. Procrastinating is a stress management technique that people can adopt, often unintentionally. Procrastinating can help us to avoid feelings of stress by distracting ourselves with another task which might be easier but is certainly less important.

All of these consequences of stress reduce our productivity and our feelings of being able to cope. As such, some people will take time off work when they are under excessive stress, while others will continue to show up for work even though they are far less productive during these times. Remember, both absenteeism and presenteeism have significant costs to the workplace.

Reflection

Stress can become part of a vicious cycle. We may feel stress due to an upcoming deadline, which leads to sleepless nights. The lack of sleep leads to tiredness, which reduces our ability to hit the deadline. This causes more stress… and so on! Disrupting this cycle through effective stress management is essential in order to protect wellbeing and get back on track.

Over to you!

The list of ways in which stress impacts workplace performance that we have provided is far from exhaustive. How else can stress impact a person’s workplace performance? Read through your fellow learners’ comments. Like the comments you agree with and add comments with new ideas.

References

The Wellness Society. The Surprising Impact of Chronic Stress on the Brain and How We Can Reverse It. 2018.

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Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Modern Workplace

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