Good stress. Bad stress. It plays out something like a good cop-bad cop cliché in an old TV show. First stress seems to be on your side, pumping you up with confidence and energy. Then it turns on you and takes you down to the floor to show you who’s boss. The truth is, stress is here to stay and it does indeed have two sides. Even more important, unlike the good cop-bad cop scenario, with stress you choose which side you deal with.
I contributed a chapter on workplace stress to the book Women of Vision (watch for it here in Spring 2016). My chapter is called The Outrageous Cost of Stress in the Workplace and How to Stop Paying It. It discusses in more detail the differences between good and bad stress. I will pull some thoughts from that chapter to highlight how powerful you are in determining your stress experience.
What is stress?
Everyone has stress. It’s built into the system because nothing can grow or change without stress. It is useless and unproductive to try to wish it away, but it is difficult to embrace stress when it feels like a heavy, pressing force. Understanding the difference between good stress and bad stress will help you develop skills to direct that energy so that it empowers you instead of debilitates you.
Believe it or not, there is good stress! Good stress arises when you are ready to grow. Good stress helps you stay in the zone. It motivates you to abandon the safe and comfortable way of things and stretch into a new level of ability and empowerment in your life. Good stress occurs as you maintain the line between skill and challenge that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi talks about in the book, Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Being in flow is how it feels when your skills are being stressed by the right level of challenge. In flow, you feel engaged, connected, and exhilarated by what you’re doing. Without the positive stress that comes from meeting new challenges and being stretched to exceed your previous accomplishments, you would become bored, dissatisfied, and disengaged in your life.
Bad stress depletes you. It comes in many forms—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. You might feel stressed physically if you are working long days without adequate time to rest and take care of your physical needs. Psychologically, you may feel pressured and overburdened, like a weight that traps you beneath a steady force of demands. Bad stress hits you when unexpected events or too many changes occur at one time and you feel emotionally unstable, insecure, or threatened in your personal or work life. You feel negative stress when you feel alone or unsupported, when you have had to focus too long and too hard, or when you feel out of touch with the things that are important to you.
Workplace stress is not an event, it’s an ongoing experience. A person who works five days a week, eight hours a day, with holidays and a two-week vacation per year, spends roughly two thousand hours every year at work. That is a big chunk of life spent in service to others’ goals. When time and resources are out of balance and when your energy is spent in service to goals or values other than your own, the toll begins to accumulate. The price of that stress is paid by everyone, including families, clients, and employers.
How to Stop Paying the Price of Bad Stress
To stop paying the price of bad stress, you do some work inside and examine the situations outside of you.
At the center of good stress is the ability to set and strive toward personal goals. In the book Drive, Daniel Pink describes three elements that help individuals feel engaged and motivated at work—autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
- Autonomy is the ability to be self-directed, to choose how to spend and prioritize your time.
- Mastery is that balanced line between skill and challenge that makes work feel like joy. It creates work that is absorbing, satisfying, and fulfilling.
- Purpose is that drive to create or serve something greater than the self. Purpose is your why, the fuel of your daily life.
The inside work is guided by these elements of drive. It requires reconnecting with your purpose, developing mastery of skills and applying them, and creating a sufficient amount of autonomy in your life to guide your efforts in meaningful ways.
When I bring these concepts up in the context of work, people often challenge me. They argue that supervisors set their goals and control their time. They point to job conditions beyond their control and co-workers who make daily life difficult. Yes, it’s true; work time is a negotiation. You agree to offer your time, attention, and talent in exchange for what the organization needs. That’s the deal. But, serving the goals of your organization does not mean you cannot find a measure of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that sustains a positive stress response for you.
This, my friend, is the challenge we all face as we navigate and negotiate the demands of the outside world. Stress is a lifelong process that can continually draw you forward into the next best version of You. To enjoy the process, you must chose to use stress as the positive tool it is, rather than be overpowered by it.
I know it’s not as simple as this brief blog post seems, but it is also easier than you might have believed. Now you have the recipe. It is up to you to look for small ways to nurture your drive and create opportunities to be in flow so that stress becomes a positive and empowering force in your life. Come back to this blog. I will continue to give you tips and how-tos that can get you on the path of stress mastery.