Learning as a Method to Cope with Work-Related Stress

Work Presenteeism
Knowledge Center

Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

Learning as a Method to Cope with Work-Related Stress

Work-related stress, if not handled appropriately, can cause anxiety and anger, unethical behaviours, poor decision-making, and burnout and health issues. People usually try to deal with this stress in two ways. One is to focus on getting the stressful work done as quickly as possible. Another is to take a break like a holiday or another period of leave.

Unfortunately, both strategies have potential pitfalls:
  • As humans, we have limits in coping with heavy workloads. Continuing to exert effort while stressed and fatigued will only exhaust us and introduce performance decline.
  • And a getaway from the stressful environment can not solve the underlying problems that cause stress. When returning from a break, we not only face the same issues but also find ourselves more guilty and anxious.
Zhang, Myers and Mayer (2019) suggested a third option to manage the negative effects of stress: focusing on learning. Their research has provided evidence that learning, be it picking up a new skill, understanding new information, or seeking intellectual challenges, can save workers from suffering stress. This alternative does a better job of buffering the detrimental consequences of stress than other remedies such as relaxing at work. Learning has other benefits for workers as well. It brings in extra information and knowledge to solve our current stressful problems, equips us with new skills to solve or prevent future stressors, and helps us feel competent in achieving goals.

What can we do to increase learning when faced with work-related stress? The research also gives out three suggestions.
  1. REFRAMING STRESSFUL WORK CHALLENGES IN OUR MIND. We can shift our mindset from "this is a stressful situation" to "this is a challenging but rewarding opportunity to learn". This approach enables us to handle the task with a growth orientation and longer-term gains.
  2. GETTING INPUT FROM OTHERS. Discussing a stressor with trustful peers or colleagues may help us find hidden insights, either from their experience or from the questions and perspectives they raise.
  3. MAKING LEARNING ACTIVITIES INTO A NEW FORM OF WORK BREAK. Learning something fits our interests, but different from the stressful work we are doing can boost us psychologically. Viewing learning as "additional work" only makes us more exhausted and stressed. But approaching it as a new form of retreat can create a positive and enjoyable experience on us.
❗Learn proactively, do not wait until stress rises. Even without pressing problems, embedding learning activities in our daily work helps us build personal resources and be ready for future stress.

Source: Zhang, C., Myers, C. and Mayer, D., 2019. "To Cope with Stress, Try Learning Something New". HBR, [online] Winter 2019, pp. 31-33.

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