It all starts with pressure. We often think of it as harmful
In recent years though, psychology has focused on how pressure can be a positive force for wellbeing. In fact, it appears that pressure is an essential part of wellbeing.
This idea of pressure in relation to wellbeing is not new, with early Greek philosophers distinguishing between two views of wellbeing. The hedonic view defines wellbeing purely in terms of pleasure. In contrast, the eudaimonic view argues that pleasure and happiness are insufficient. They argued that true wellbeing occurs when people are engaged, pursuing meaningful goals, and realising their potential.
This latter view is central to the field of Positive Psychology, which emphasises the need for a sense of purpose. In layman’s terms, easy life is not necessarily a life of wellbeing. This is consistent with research findings in the field of work-related stress. The right type and amount of pressure can benefit performance, wellbeing and growth. For many years research-based models of stress have recognised that insufficient amounts of pressure can damage productivity and our mental health, leading to boreout rather than burnout.”
And this idea is not new. It's been around since 1908
The Yerkes-Dodson principle suggested that low arousal/pressure levels may have been associated with low productivity back in the early 1900s. The principle shows that performance increases as arousal/pressure increases. But only to a certain point, after which the pressure turns into stress and negatively impacts productivity. It’s important to say that this curve has been challenged, although that said, many studies show that, in principle, too much or too little pressure has adverse effects at work.
The Yerkes – Dodson Principle:
Too much pressure turns into stress
The impact of too much stress in the workplace is well documented. According to the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) Stress In the Workplace Factsheet:
“Stress can place immense demands on employees’ physical and mental health and affect their behaviour, performance and relationships with colleagues. It’s a major cause of long-term absence from work and knowing how to manage the factors that can cause work-related stress is key to managing people effectively.”
In a 2000 study and report, Maureen Dollard and colleagues explored the impact of three main factors in the workplace and their effects on stress.
The three main factors were:
- The level of demand placed on employees, such as the pressure of work and deadlines
- The level of support they received from both colleagues and managers, and
- The level of control they had in making their own decisions and being self-sufficient
In summary, they found:
- High demand with low levels of support and control leads to the lowest employee satisfaction levels
- High demand and low support lead to high levels of emotional exhaustion
- High demand with high levels of control led to self-reported feelings of high productivity and accomplishment
Other researchers have built on this work and separated demands into “challenge” and “hindrance” sources of pressure.
“Challenge” demands included:
- High workload
- High levels of responsibility
- Broad job scope
People viewed them as obstacles to overcome in order to learn, perform and grow.
“Hindrance” demands included:
- Organisational politics
- Concerns about job security
- Ambiguous roles
People viewed them as unnecessary barriers to personal growth and performance.
In multiple studies, the researchers found that both types of demand could lead to strain and stress in certain circumstances. However, “challenge” demands had a largely positive relationship with motivation and performance, and “hindrance” demands had a negative relationship.
People are like an elastic band when it comes to demand
Humans are amazing and we are designed to be stretched.
- Don’t stretch us and we don’t create the energy for change
- Stretch humans too far and we snap
- Get the right level of stretch and we have the power for growth, performance and change
This simple truth is inherent in all leadership and management theories. However, a broad-brush approach to performance management fails to consider that the individual perceives the level of stretch (like stress). It moves us beyond the simple idea of “bad stress” and “good stress” and points to a less simplistic notion that there are conditions under which pressure in the workplace can positively impact wellbeing, performance, and growth. In contrast, under other conditions, the impact is negative. Notice the emphasis on conditions rather than a simple focus on the individual.
The goal should not be to remove pressure from the environment but to actively manage and utilise the different sources of pressure to maintain wellbeing and performance in the workplace. Many stress management approaches (often now re-badged as resilience programmes by many) focus on the first goal. Still, the second is more consistent with a well rounded, integrated approach adopted by forward-thinking organisations.
And this is where resilience and wellbeing fit
Resilience comes together when our working environment and choices support us to be the best version of ourselves. We define resilience as the ability to adapt to change positively and it consists of two parts:
Typically resilience is thought of as how people change their thinking or behaviour when under pressure. Generally, we describe them as resilient or hardy because it looks like they are doing well independently. You might like to think of the heather flower in the wilderness. It is known for its strength and ability to survive in harsh conditions.
However, this idea of hardiness is too narrow to truly explain resilience and why some people do well and others fail when exposed to the same adversity. By itself, it fails to define resilience and convey what being resilient means.
Resilience can be understood much better when considering how hardy an individual is AND how well-resourced they are. The resources individuals have available to them have the potential to amplify and increase methods of solving problems without having to rely on a change of thinking or self-regulation alone. Our programmes are designed to provide a skills base that builds hardiness AND resources. They:
- Enable the active management of pressure internally (hardiness) and;
- Give skills to manage pressure in their environment actively and often collectively with other people.
The two interplays to create environments where people thrive. They exist and work together, creating an environment where people feel supported and in control – even under high demands. You can be the best at managing pressure internally and coping at the expense of the people around you but it is not the best long term strategy for overall wellbeing, growth and performance.
Our clients see resilience as a strong fit with employee wellbeing, overall engagement and performance. They realise that high levels of wellbeing do not mean you are resilient and that people thrive when they have the skills to understand, assess, and manage pressure in the workplace to improve wellbeing and organisational performance at both an individual and group level. The bonus is that these skills allow individuals to build hardiness and resourced resilience at home. Suddenly resilience and wellbeing in the workplace is truly a whole person approach.
We see our approach as a practical organisational framework for resilience and wellbeing in the workplace
Employers need to move beyond current wellbeing initiatives. Giving your people the skills for understanding, assessing and managing pressure which is neither positive nor negative is key. It’s time to equip people with a shared skills base as a practical toolkit for well-being and performance rather than a theoretical approach that fuels individual transformation and organisational growth.
Resilience from Resilience Development Co. has a firm place in the organisation’s wellbeing and growth strategies. After nearly a decade of measurement and evidence, the awards, numbers and client outcomes prove it.
N.B. Not all resilience programmes are equal. The above does not apply to many offers out there.