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May 2023   |   Volume 24 No. 2

Cover Story

Pros and Cons of Work Stress

Research on anxiety has only recently focussed on the workplace. One of the instigators behind this is Dr Bonnie Hayden Cheng, who looks at the ‘bright and dark’ sides of anxiety at work, which can motivate us to get more done but also feed into worry or negative rumination that undermines productivity.

If you think anxiety is a bad thing, consider deadlines. They often induce anxiety yet they also motivate people to complete tasks. To Dr Bonnie Hayden Cheng of the Faculty of Business and Economics, they are an example of the positive potential of anxiety.

Dr Cheng has constructed a theory of workplace anxiety that breaks down how anxiety can be managed to positive ends. She has also worked with industry partners to put into practice the ideas that have emerged from her research.

“Most research on workplace anxiety is about how it hurts your performance. I wanted to approach it from a positive angle because anxiety can also make you more vigilant and laser-focussed,” she said.

Her theory explains how normal ranges of anxiety experienced at work, which can fluctuate from low to high but not tip into clinical concern, can manifest. Some people are anxious by nature (the trait condition), while others become anxious when faced with stressful situations such as doing a presentation or interview (the state condition).

“In the state condition, if you have an interview and you’re feeling anxious and your mind is constantly running, you have less cognitive resources to devote to the task at hand. Over the long term, if we accumulate that into trait levels, it becomes exhaustion. That’s a key element of burnout,” she said.

Stopping the cycle

But if people can learn how to effectively regulate their emotions, their thinking and their behaviours, they can view their anxiety as a motivator to get focussed on their task – “getting really comfortable with your anxiety by naming it and taming it,” she said.

Dr Cheng is working on new research showing how this can play out in proactive behaviours in which employees go beyond their job requirements, such as re-arranging workloads or their immediate environments to enhance productivity. Those who see their anxiety as a positive challenge rather than a barrier are more likely to be proactive.

The question then arises: how can people and companies cultivate this state? Dr Cheng is examining one particular strategy around how mindfulness can relieve anxiety, which is anticipatory and often irrational.

“Mindfulness can help people be more focussed on the present. It’s not about stopping thoughts entirely, but being aware of them without judgement. Focussing on the here and now creates space for self-acceptance, and that brings anxiety relief,” she said.

One of the ironies is that the people most in need of anxiety relief are the least likely to pursue it, she said. They are overworked and overwhelmed, and rather than recover from stress, they work overtime, think about work all the time and lose sleep over it, feeding an unhealthy cycle. “What we really need to do when we are under stress is consciously step back and say, no, this is not conducive to my recovery,” she said.

Take a micro-break

The literature supports the idea that taking a break is beneficial to both well-being and job performance – especially frequent breaks. Waiting for a holiday or the weekend or even the evening probably will not be enough to stop the rumination.

“New research has been looking at micro-breaks that you can take during the day. You can set alarms to prompt you to walk away from your desk every hour or so, or to get up and stretch and detach for a moment. Pursuing activities you enjoy outside work is also useful because it can separate you from thoughts of work,” she said.

Dr Cheng’s research is based on multiple studies within companies that use self-reported feedback on stress recovery over time, as well as reports by colleagues and supervisors on stress indicators and performance. She also gives workshops to companies on topics related to her research, to ensure the findings benefit those who most need it.

Recently, she has focussed on how to cultivate ‘servant leadership’, which means leading from behind and putting people first. This circles back to her research on stress.

“Change starts from the top. We can teach employees how to relieve their anxiety all we want, but at the end of the day, if they’re working in toxic cultures, there’s only so much you can do before that’s not going to work,” she said.

Most research on workplace anxiety is about how it hurts your performance. I wanted to approach it from a positive angle because anxiety can also make you more vigilant and laser-focussed.