Bonus Content

Harness Stress to Improve Performance

By Jan Niehaus

Stress can actually improve performance. Who knew? Actually, it is one’s beliefs about stress that bring about the elevated performance. This finding was reported in “What makes us stronger” published in The Economist, together with several controlled experiments that demonstrate the powerful effect of expectations.

It all boils down to this: Is the stressor perceived as a threat or a challenge? When we feel threatened, our bodily responses follow the “fight or flight” dynamic: our heart rate increases, adrenalin surges, our veins constrict, more blood flows to our muscles, and our brains focus on the big picture, not details. But when individuals feel challenged, rather than endangered, the body and brain react very differently: “the heart still beats faster and adrenalin still surges, but the brain is sharper and the body releases a different mix of hormones, which aid in recovery and learning. The blood vessels remain more open and the immune system reacts differently, too,” according to The Economist authors.

Several studies document the effects of stress and performance outcomes:

  • Alia Crum, faculty in the Mind and Body Lab within the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, demonstrated the differences in an experiment in which students participated in fake job interviews. Before being interviewed, students in one group watched a video explaining that stress can improve performance and enhance social connections. Students in the other group watched a video on the dangers of stress. Everyone was subjected to the same “biting criticism” during the interview. Afterwards, Crum measured hormone levels and found a higher level of DHEA, a hormone associated with brain growth, in the group that had watched the positive video.
  • A similar study conducted by Jeremy Jamieson, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, measured stress-response hormones before and after two groups of students took a practice Graduate Record Exam, the standard entrance test for post-graduate courses. Before the exam, one group received a pep talk, i.e. stress is natural during exams and can improve performance. The other received no pre-test talk of any sort. Although post-test stress hormone levels were comparable between the two groups, the group that was taught to see stress as a performance enhancer scored higher on the exam.
  • Crum and researcher Shawn Achor conducted a similar study in a corporate setting: at UMB, an investment bank. They showed two videos, one that painted a picture of stress as toxic, the other explaining that stress can enhance performance. A third group of subjects watched neither video. One week later, bank employees who had watched the positive video reported greater focus, higher engagement, and fewer health problems than before. The other two groups reported no changes.
  • As part of the National Health Interview Survey conducted in 1998, scientists asked 30,000 Americans about the level of stress they had experienced during the previous year and whether or not they believed that stress was harming their health. In 2012, a different group of scientists compared mortality rates for the two groups of subjects and found that the group that reported high stress and expected harm to result from that stress had a “43% higher risk of premature death,” compared to the study participants who also experienced high stress but did not believe it was harming their health.

Stress often leads to high blood pressure, headaches, digestive ailments, insomnia, lower immunity, and an increase in unhealthy coping behaviors, such as overeating, drinking, and smoking. It behooves employers to address the issue of workplace stress.

Many companies have worked to reduce the number and severity of stressors in the work environment, and some have implemented programs to help employees better deal with the unavoidable stressors, e.g., exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness classes. The Economist article and the studies it summarizes suggest yet a third strategy: Teach employees about the positive effects of stress, and cultivate the expectation that stress in moderation will improve performance, as Crum and others have proven.

Niehaus, LEED-GA, is an instructional designer, writer, and the president and founder of Communication by Design ( Reach her at 314-644-4135 or


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