The Myth of Positive Stress

At some time in the late 1970s, a well known TV scientist put forward the idea that there was a certain level of stress that was optimal for performance. He had no evidence to support this ‘claim’ but asserted it with sufficient authority that it was widely accepted and adopted into a lot of ‘stress-management’ literature. It continues to resurface today, often in management literature, and is particularly popular among the “positive psychology”, “psychology of achievement”, and some goal-oriented coaching communities.

The concept was used to justify management practices that put pressure on employees to perform – such as setting ‘stretch’ targets and high proportions of performance-related pay in an individual’s remuneration package.

The rational that was used to support this model was two-fold; a sporting analogy and a model of creativity that assumed that people would devise more creative solutions to problems when they were moderately stressed.

Sports people depend on a build up of adrenaline to perform at their peak, especially in shorter duration events. This is probably the only situation where deliberate pressure works to improve performance. Performance in almost all other jobs depends to a large degree on clear decision making and creativity. The effect of adrenaline actually works against both of these.

Endorphins (or more correctly Endomorphines) are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus and they resemble opiates in their ability to produce analgesia and a sense of well-being. Discovered in 1975, they are released during long, continuous workouts, when the level of intensity is between moderate and high, and breathing is difficult. This also corresponds with the time that muscles use up their stored glycogen and begin functioning with only oxygen. Workouts that are most likely to produce endorphins include running, swimming, cross-country skiing, long distance rowing, bicycling, aerobics, or playing a sport such as basketball, soccer, or football.

For a short while it was assumed that endorphins were responsible for the ‘runner’s high’ after finishing a race. Again, this entered the popular mythology and it was suggested that promoting an ‘endorphin high’ was a good way of motivating people at work.

However, scientists now believe that the ‘rush’ or ‘high’ is a euphoric response to completing a challenge rather than as a result of exertion. This is similar to that experienced by many people from eating chocolate, smiling, laughing, sunbathing, being massaged, meditating, singing, listening to their favourite music, or having an orgasm. (In other words, situations that are generally associated with relaxation and the absence of stress!)

We now believe that this feeling is not related to endorphins (or any other opiate, for that matter) but to cannabinoids – a group of chemicals most commonly associated with the cannabis plant, but also produced in the neural pathways of mammals (incl. humans).

The creativity link between stress and problem solving is constantly being disproven. Even simple experiments, using tests of problem solving performance with individuals under naturally occuring levels of stress shows that their performance is hampered by the stressors.

So, if you want your people to be optimal performers (especially in times of economic uncertainty) the answer is NOT to spell out the severity of the current world, your dependence on them to exceed their previous levels of performance, or to offer ongoing employment or financial bonuses based on this. Yes, be open and honest, but also help them to test the reality of the tales of doom and despair (and do so yourself), help them to explore their options and understand the choices THEY can make. Buffer and protect people, don’t expose them to further fear. If there was a single service that the news media could perform right now, it would be to take a more responsible and balanced approach rather than adopting scare tactics and sensationalist headlines. The less people live in fear the more they will be able to achieve.

Best wishes

Helping people achieve things they never dreamt they could
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