The New Science of Stress

January 4, 2016 Sarah Payne

4-minute read

Stress gets a bad rap. We often look for quick, easy tips for reducing stress in our lives. We worry about loved ones who experience too much stress.

But just as change is constant, so is stress. According to Psychology Today, “Stress is simply a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. In other words, it’s an omnipresent part of life.”

Not surprisingly, studies show that the majority of our stress is felt in the workplace. The Center for Disease Control cites three different surveys about stress on the job:

  • 40% of workers report their job is “very or extremely stressful” (Northwestern National Life)
  • 26% of workers report they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work” (Families and Work Institute)
  • 29% of workers report they feel “quite a bit or extremely stressed at work” (Yale University)

While these survey results might seem bleak, new research shows that organizations can use stress to their advantage. Stress can actually increase feelings of social connection, bond teams together, and add more meaning to our work.

Oxytocin and social connection

In 2013, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal gave a fascinating TED talk titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” In her talk, she references the effects of oxytocin (also known as the “cuddle hormone”), which is released when a person is under stress.

Oxytocin actually increases feelings of empathy and makes us more willing to help others. It’s also good for the body. According to Kelly, “It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress … All of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.”

What does that mean for business? It’s possible that by creating more social workplaces and encouraging employees to strengthen those connections through social recognition programs, we can actually help our people become healthier and cope with stress more effectively.

Stress and team bonding 

Do you want employees to fall in love with your company? According to a Harvard Business Review article by Shawn Achor, stress might be the key. In the article, he shares a story about his experience in boot camp, writing “the military has learned that if you go through stress 1) with the right lens and 2) with other people, you can create meaningful narratives and social bonds that people will talk about for the rest of their lives.”

Shawn insists that every company and team can change their approach to stress when they realize that embedded in every stressor is meaning. He writes, “The problem with stress comes when you feel the emotional response to stress, yet forget the meaning behind it.”

We’ve written extensively on this blog about the importance of storytelling and narrative in managing culture and increasing the affective commitment of employees. And while no workplace is immune to stress, those companies with social recognition programs that are tied back to corporate values are in a better position to remind employees of the meaning that’s embedded in their work experience. They magnify the positive narratives that are generated through recognition moments, which can change the way stress works in an organization and create those social bonds mentioned above.

Shawn continues, “it’s important for companies to highlight the meaning involved in the stress they feel on a continual basis. We need to help our teams realize that stress is a group challenge, not an individual burden. And we need to connect the dots between meaning and stress in order to help individual and teams excel.”

A social recognition feed, where employees are recognized for their work on a daily basis and their colleagues can pile on their congratulations, is a proven solution for connecting the dots and emphasizing team efforts.

A psychological immune system

We cannot discuss stress without a nod to former Workhuman® Live speaker Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on gratitude. In an article for the Greater Good, Robert writes that crisis (or stress) can make us more grateful. We’re reminded of the uncertainty of life.

But gratitude is also a proven coping mechanism for stress. He writes, “Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress.”

Do you want more resilient employees that will be able to tackle new, perhaps stressful and challenging, initiatives?

  1. Cultivate gratitude
  2. Tap into the social bonds in your organization
  3. Continuously communicate the greater meaning behind the day-to-day work

The new science of stress shows us these are some of the ways we can productively tackle stress head on in the workplace.


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