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Stress and productivity in the workplace

In this section, we explore how stress may link to productivity and briefly touch on the mechanisms of the stress-productivity relationship.
Two outstretched hands

In addition to the potential personal cost of stress in terms of health and wellbeing, stress can also play an important role in affecting productivity.

Stress can impact workplace performance

Stress can negatively impact your performance at work in a number of ways. For example, under stress, we may become irritable impacting our relationships with our co-workers.

Having positive social relationships can buffer against the negative effects of stress and in contrast having a fractious difficult relationship can also be a source of stress in and of itself.

If we are worried we may find it difficult to concentrate on our work, either because we are ruminating about something that has happened or about something that may happen in the future.

A negative spiral

Stress at work can also become a negative spiral. Chronic stress (stress over a long period of time) may mean we sleep less or engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as drinking too much or eating comfort food as a coping mechanism, which themselves can negatively impact our ability to deal with stress.

When people feel very busy over long, continuous periods then it can be detrimental. In these circumstances, people may work long hours and as a result, may find it difficult to switch off from work.

Stress and the use of technology

In particular, the use of technology, such as being able to access emails on smartphones, may mean that people remain connected to work during leisure time and this makes it very hard, if not impossible, to psychologically detach from work, connect fully with family and social groups, thus impeding rest and recovery.

Research on stress

There has been quite a bit of research exploring the link between stress and productivity in the workplace. To illustrate this work we focus on a paper by Ian Donald and colleagues who collected survey data from over 16 thousand employees across 15 different organizations in the United Kingdom from both the public sector and the private sector [1].

The organisations included two manufacturing plants, a local education authority, a large county council, three police forces, three universities, a prison service, and other service providers.

Higher employee productivity equals better wellbeing

They found that higher employee productivity was associated with better psychological well-being. A nod to the oft-quoted ‘happy workers is productive workers’. So where individual stressors may impact mental well-being they, in turn, may have an influence on productivity.

This illustrates an indirect link between stress and productivity. In terms of direct stressors, they found that greater access to resources and information was associated with better productivity which shows that – not surprisingly – having access to the resources needed to do the job was important to productivity.

Finally, greater perceived commitment from the organization was associated with greater productivity showing the important role our immediate work environment plays in our productivity.

Stressors are not always linked to productivity

It is worth noting that many of the stressors did not link directly to productivity. Ian Donald and colleagues suggested that this implied that in general individual work stressors have only an indirect effect on productivity through their impact on mental well-being. This is an interesting point for two reasons.

First, it shows the important link between well-being and productivity.

Second, there is a great deal of research to show that there are individual factors in how we respond to stressors, and as such how there can be variation in how we respond to work-related stress.

Reference

  1. Donald I, Taylor P, Johnson S, Cooper C, Cartwright S, Robertson S. Work environments, stress and productivity: An examination using ASSET. International Journal of Stress Management. 2005; 12: 409-423.
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Workplace Wellbeing: Stress and Productivity at Work

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