Stress and pressure: The good, the bad and the difference

pressure
Michael Bell

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written on January 4, 2016

It’s common to hear people around the office talking about how deadlines are tight, clients and managers are demanding, or there’s more work than time. We often use stress and pressure interchangeably, but Michael Bell, director of Asia Pacific at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) talks with HRM about how the two are different, and why feeling the pressure might not always be a bad thing.

What is the difference between pressure and stress, and what are some common responses to these two feelings?

On the surface, we often use ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ interchangeably. However there are some significant performance implications that clearly differentiate the concepts.

We experience stress when the demands of our environment outweigh our ability or perceived ability to respond to them. Pressure is different. It’s not just that we are challenged to meet demands – it is that there is something significant at stake if we don’t deliver.

One way of looking at the difference between the two is to think of pressure moments as stressful moments that matter. What we have found is that in pressure situations performance drops. While many people believe that some perform better under pressure, the research is clear: No one performs better under pressure. Regardless of the task, pressure ruthlessly diminishes the key faculties we need to perform at our best: judgment, decision-making, attention and emotional management. 

Is there such a thing as ‘good stress’ or ‘good pressure’?

Stress is often given a bad rap, but it can be extremely positive because it helps us get stuff done. It galvanises our resourcefulness, helps us focus on a task and meet deadlines. Being challenged mentally and emotionally helps us learn and grow, and develop new skills and capabilities. Where stress can negatively impact us is when it is prolonged and unrelenting.

Pressure is different, though. There really isn’t ‘good pressure’ and ‘bad pressure’, it’s just pressure. Because important things matter to us, we can’t insulate or protect ourselves from pressure. We can easily over-emphasise or exaggerate the importance of a moment and create unnecessary pressure for ourselves.

What are some ways HR professionals or managers can keep employees from feeling overwhelmed or anxious about workloads?

One way HR professionals and managers can help is to elevate awareness of the impact pressure has on performance. They can also help by listening to the things their people say when under stress. For example, when you hear someone exaggerating the challenges they are facing – ie when they view a situation as a crisis instead of a challenge – you can step in, ask questions and help them reframe their thinking.

Now, should these questions result in the conclusion that this is indeed a seminal moment in their life (a true ‘pressure moment’) we can step-in and help coach the person to be strategic in how they approach the situation.

What is the ‘hair on fire syndrome’?

It’s a reference to what we call “crisis vs. challenge,” and is a metaphor for people who succumb to crisis thinking. When we view our pressure moments as a crisis, there is actually a negative impact on our physiology: oxygen to the brain becomes limited, so we can’t think clearly. Conversely, when we view a pressure moment as a challenge or even an opportunity, more oxygen gets to our body and brain, giving us more energy and maximising our cognitive capabilities.

What are some practical tips for dealing with pressure in the workplace? How can businesses take care of employees during times of stress while maintaining productivity?

The good news is that many people have learned strategies that help them perform under pressure. The bad news is most don’t consistently remember to apply these strategies in their moments that matter. Some strategies that might be relevant for HR professionals and managers who find themselves coaching others are:

  • Don’t try to be better than your best. So often in pressure situations, we feel that to avert catastrophe, we need to morph into someone we’re not – a ‘superhero’.
  • Know the difference between stress and pressure. Every stressful situation can feel like a pressure situation with a material impact on our success.
  • Recall you at your best. Let’s assume a member of your sales team is anxious about their sales figures. Rather than reassure them they will hit target, ask them to imagine a time when they had a successful run of sales and reflect on that experience. This approach is far more helpful, as it instills confidence based on track record.
  • Focus on what you can control. Focusing on things we can’t control (like budget cuts, lack of resources, etc.) increases our stress levels.

Michael Bell is the director of Asia Pacific at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), a global research and learning organisation. He is an expert on leadership and performance, specialising in emotional intelligence (EI) and performing under pressure. IHHP has also contributed to the best-selling book Performing Under Pressure.

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