When stressors make you work
Research | 14 March 2016 When stressors make you work

Facing challenges can help but there's more to this story | Researcher: Pedro Neves 

Research have found that some stressors, i.e. challenge stressors such as the amount and scope of responsibility, can be loosely considered as “good stressors” that are consistently and positively related to job satisfaction and performance. A study by Nova SBE’s Professor Pedro Neves and colleague Gloria Gonzalez-Morales (University of Guelph) shows that this is the case only when those stressors are perceived as an opportunity. When those stressors are appraised as a threat, they actually reduce performance due to an increase in distress and a decrease in organizational commitment.

The appraisal of threat and opportunity

Previous researchers have argued that certain work demands can and should be a priori classified as either a hindrance (e.g., red tape) or a challenge (e.g., time urgency). This rigid a priori taxonomy leaves out the possibility that different individuals may appraise these situations differently. The researchers agree that ‘hindrance stressors’ are distinct situations that typically represent obstacles and threats to performance (e.g. organizational politics, job insecurity, role ambiguity) and therefore, it would be hard to find their silver lining and appraise them as challenging. However, they disagree that ‘challenge stressors’ (e.g. time pressure, workload or scope of responsibility) are consistently appraised as demands that carry associate potential gains for individuals. For instance, if we do not have the resources to finish a task on time, time pressure may be appraised as a threat that prevents success rather than a challenge.

Stressors and performance: Two parallel mechanisms

Various processes have been used to explain how work stressors are linked to performance. The authors argue two processes are particularly important: an induced distress path and a reward path. On the one hand, they propose that when employees appraise threatening demands, the distressing experience can induce psychosomatic ailments that have cognitive, affective and attentional costs that hinder their ability to perform at expected levels. On the other hand, they propose that threat appraisal, which impedes gains and task accomplishment and thus signals to the employee that working for the organization is not worthwhile in terms of benefits, is negatively associated with performance.

Research findings

The results confirmed most of the researchers’ hypotheses and highlight the problems and limitations associated with categorizing stressors into either hindrance or challenge, while ignoring how individuals actually evaluate those stressors as either an opportunity or a threat.

The appraisal approach can be useful for practice in multiple ways. Managers should be aware of the differential impact that stressors have in their employees, and reflect on how to manage them and their resources so subordinates appraise them as opportunities instead of threats. Strategies to help refocus on a more positive appraisal include providing social support, consistently demonstrating a long-term investment in the workforce and training individuals (leaders included) to develop proactive coping styles that focus on opportunity identification.

This article is based on the paper:
González-Morales, G., & Neves, P. (2015). When stressors make you work: Mechanisms linking challenge stressors to performance. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations, 29, 213-229.

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