Harnessing Job Stress to Build Personal Resilience

Resilience means the ability to adapt to adversity. Within the workplace, resilience is beneficial in helping people adapt as organizations go through major changes, such as restructuring, adopting new technology, and mergers/acquisitions. On the day-to-day level, resilience also helps employees manage stress that comes from tight deadlines and changing expectations. Although avoiding stress may seem like a good strategy, resilience is not built by a lack of adversity, but by overcoming adversity. New research (Crane & Searle, 2016) investigates how certain types of workplace stressors make employees more resilient and less likely to experience psychological strain.

CHALLENGE VERSUS HINDRANCE STRESSORS

There are two types of stressors that are common in the workplace: challenge stressors and hindrance stressors. Challenge stressors are those that allow for the development of personal capabilities. For example, although having a job that requires a lot of skill can be stressful, it also allows you to push your boundaries and grow your own capabilities. In contrast, hindrance stressors are those that are considered barriers to accomplishing your goals and actually hinder personal growth. Examples of these stressors include having conflicting job responsibilities, unclear job expectations, or organizational constraints.

In their study of full-time Australian employees, the researchers found that when employees experience challenge stressors at work, they actually report more resilience three months later. In contrast, when employees experience hindrance stressors at work, they report less resilience and more strain three months later. Thus, resilience is built by persevering through challenge stressors and resilience is worn down when we experience hindrance stressors.

THE BENEFITS OF RESILIENCE

When we experience frustration and stress in the workplace, we are more likely to have symptoms of that stress. These symptoms are called psychological strains. The current research was not only focused on how to build resilience, but also on how resilience can actually prevent psychological strain.

The researchers found that challenge stressors were related to increased resilience, which in turn was related to fewer strain symptoms. On the other hand, hindrance stressors were related to decreased resilience, which in turn was related to more strain symptoms. In sum, resilience can be built by harnessing challenge stressors, and as a result, being resilient helps reduce the symptoms of psychological strain that employees experience.

ORGANIZATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

This research is important because it provides insight into how certain stressors help us grow while others limit our growth. As an employee, the more you can use challenge stressors for personal growth, while limiting the presence of hindrance stressors, the better off you will be. However, as the researchers point out, it is important to not overburden yourself with too many challenge stressors because it might overwhelm your coping system.

As a manager, what can you do to facilitate challenge stressors and reduce hindrance stressors? The researchers suggest that one way is by managing the meaning of stressors. For example, if a stressor can be viewed as an opportunity for growth, it is more likely to be viewed as a positive rather than a negative. So the next time you have a tight deadline or changing task, try to frame it as a challenge or learning opportunity rather than a barrier or burden.

Crane, M.F. & Searle, B.J. (2016, January 18). Building resilience through exposure to stressors: The effects of challenges versus hindrances. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040064