A Healthy Dose of (Eu)Stress in the Workplace Never Hurt Anyone – Here’s Why

Stress in and of itself is not a bad thing.

In fact, a certain amount of stress is not only useful for our wellbeing, it’s also good for our performance. As the author of Beyond Burnout, I’m the first one to call out chronic or extreme stress as pretty damaging.

But I’ve started to see a growing tendency to demonise stress in its entirety. This is problematic. Swinging the pendulum too far in either direction removes the nuance, and ignores the benefits inherent in most things.

So for this week’s blog, I’m going to help you identify the good stress vs the bad stress – and how you can move towards equilibrium, not only for yourself as a leader, but also for your team.

Let’s start with a definition of the good, helpful kind of stress which we want to encourage. It’s called eustress.

What is eustress? It’s the type and level of stress which:

  • Helps us get up in the morning and focus our energy
  • Comes in short bursts, so we have time to recover
  • Is manageable – we feel like we can cope with it
  • Drives us to concentrate and improve our performance

Unmanageable stress – the bad kind, which is just how it sounds – is excessive, chronic and ongoing kinds of distress. When I had my first encounter with burnout, I had been operating out of a constant state of stress for so long that I had entered the territory of distress. Cortisol was coursing through my veins at any given moment, and I felt pretty helpless. This type of stress looks more like this:

  • We feel constantly anxious and concerned
  • It’s long-term and relentless with no end in sight
  • It feels like it’s out of our control or coping capacity
  • It starts to hamper our performance, not elevate it
  • It affects our cognitive functioning – cue brain fog and negative impacts on our mind and body

It’s worth getting curious about stress – not only for ourselves as leaders, but also what it looks like for our different team members. There have been plenty of studies that have emerged in recent years to suggest that stress can get to even the most capable leaders. Take it from the Centre of Creative Leadership who suggest that 88% of us report that work is the main contributor to stress levels. To make it even worse, two-thirds of those surveyed indicated that their stress levels are higher now than they were five years ago. Stress and burnout are synonymous, so it comes as no surprise that they are both trending upwards.

This concept of eustress and distress got me thinking…

  • How can we learn to be aware of the threshold between the two?
  • How can we make a balanced judgment for ourselves, or for those we lead, about when a ‘healthy challenge’ spills over into distress?
  • How can we help our teams raise awareness (collectively and individually) about what eustress looks like – and how to cultivate it?

Here is a simple way to start. It’s a short exercise which helps us to identify which are our sources of eustress and which are our sources of distress.

Step one: 

Think of the common things that cause you stress in the workplace. These could be:

  • Specific tasks
  • Relationships with colleagues (ie: conflict)
  • Decision making or accountability
  • Skills or training to do with your job
  • Compensation or recognition
  • Deadlines
  • Meetings
  • Physical working environment (for example, commuting time)

Step two: 

Write down whether that stressor signifies positive or negative stress for you and why.

i.e: Does it push you out of your comfort zone and end in personal triumph or is it an ongoing issue that leaves you feeling helpless? Why?

Step three:

Distress? Ask yourself: “How have I dealt effectively with this or another stressor in the past? How can I apply that here?”

Eustress? Ask yourself: “How can I increase the opportunity to experience this in my work? What do I notice when I experience eustress? How does it help me thrive?”

Stress is helpful in healthy doses. It should enable you to work within your control, push you to learn and develop and bring a sense of achievement. While there is no miracle antidote for stress, there is an opportunity to reduce the types of stress that are distressing. 

Run through this exercise with your team, and you might find insights, surprises, themes and potential solutions. From there, you can work together to reduce distress and harness eustress within your workplace. And I’m all for that!

Related: The Road Less Travelled – 5 Tips if You’re Stepping off the Beaten Path