To Cope with Stress, Try Learning Something New
Stressed. Anxious. Exhausted. Drained.
This is how many business owners feel at work due to stressors like longer work hours, more-frequent hassles, the need to do more with fewer resources, and so on.
Such work stress has been shown to induce anxiety and anger, unethical behavior, poor decision making, and chronic exhaustion and burnout — all of which impair personal and organizational performance.
There are typically two ways people try to deal with this stress. One is to simply “buckle down and power through” — to focus on getting the stressful work done. The other common tactic is to retreat — to temporarily disconnect from work and get away from the stressful environment.
Unfortunately, both “grinding through” and “getting away” have potential pitfalls. Research has long established that we humans have limits in handling heavy workloads, which restrict our ability to always grind through. Continuing to exert effort while stressed and fatigued will simply tax us and lead to depletion and impaired performance. And while a reprieve from work can provide temporary relief, it does not address the underlying problems that cause stress in the first place. When we return from a break, we are not only faced with the same issues, but we may also experience additional guilt and anxiety.
So what else can we do to temper the ill effects of stress? Research suggests a third option: focusing on learning. This can mean picking up a new skill, gathering new information, or seeking out intellectual challenges.
Evidence of Learning as a Tool to Ease Stress
In two complementary studies, in the face of stress, people experienced fewer negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, distress) and engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., taking company property, being mean to coworkers) on days when they engaged in more learning activities at work compared to other days.
In contrast, relaxing activities did not buffer the detrimental consequences of stress. Relaxation thus did not appear to be as useful a stress buffer as learning was.
Strategically Using Learning at Work
- What specifically can you do to increase learning when faced with stress at work?
First, start internally. Practice re-reframing stressful work challenges in your mind. When stress emerges, change the message you tell yourself from “this is a stressful work assignment/situation” to “this is a challenging but rewarding opportunity to learn.” Reframing stressful tasks as learning possibilities shifts your mindset and better prepares you to approach the task with an orientation toward growth and longer-term gains.
Second, work and learn with others. Instead of wrestling with a stressful challenge solely in your own head, try to get input from others. Getting out and discussing a stressor with your peers and colleagues might reveal hidden insights, either from their experience or from the questions and perspectives they raise.
- Embracing learning can be a more active way to buffer yourself from negative effects of stress at work. - Glenn Leet
Third, craft learning activities as a new form of “work break.” Alongside purely relaxing breaks — either short ones like meditating or longer ones like taking days off — consider recasting learning itself as a break from your routine tasks at work. Viewing learning as “more work” will make it less attractive in an already stressful situation, but approaching it as a form of respite can make it more appealing and more likely to create positive, enjoyable experiences.
At the same time, there is no need to wait for stress to arise before seeking learning opportunities. Even without pressing problems, engaging in learning as a central feature of your work life will help you build personal resources and equip you to be resilient and prepared in navigating future stress at work.
Adapted HBR Sept 2018 Zhang, Myers & Mayer