Stress is Good for You (But Only If You’re Told)?

Hand gripping strongly to a ropeMost would agree that stress is bad for our health and well being. When we are under pressure, when we are tense or when we feel uptight, these are all signs stress. Although people with many things going on in their lives, under a lot of stress and pressure, may seem to get a lot done and be highly productive, Lean succeeds by removing activities that are burdensome or don’t fulfill the purpose of our work, thereby making work easier and better. Lean removes excess slack in the system and puts in systems to maintain tension and a sense of pace, but if done correctly never by adding stress. So it was a surprise to see the headline Use Stress to Your Advantage in the Wall Street Journal. I am skeptical.

The sample sizes in the studies cited were rather small (60, 100, 140, “hundreds” of people).When “hundreds” of people were asked questions about stress and how they thought they should handle it. Not surprisingly 91% thought relaxing was a good way to deal with a stressful situation. However, the article suggests that we shouldn’t try to relax in the face of stress but rather embrace stress with a positive mindset. The participants in the experiments were people not under sustained job stress, but rather doing rather simple and self-contained tasks such as giving a speech or taking a test. We should be careful to not draw broad conclusions too quickly and rush to embrace stress all across our lives.

The results from an an experiment asking 140 people to try either telling themselves “I am calm” or “I am excited” before a speech returned the result that the “I am excited” group both felt better and were perceived to be better speakers. The argument is that the change in mindset “transformed anxiety into energy that helped them to perform” despite the pressure. Apparently there is a “growing body of research” that concludes “When you stop resisting it, stress can fuel you.” If we are under stress, stressing out about it would certainly seem to make the problem worse. In this case “stop resisting” may simply mean than we accept the stress and anxiety we feel before a test or speech and not make it worse by worrying about it.

It is not clear whether the experiments controlled for positive attitude in general, or a person’s ability to persist and overcome adversity in general. In the case of the students who kept a journal in Lisbon, was it really a case of “stress is good if you think it is good” or simply the benefits of mindfulness and emotional awareness that comes from keeping a journal. “A positive mind-set protected the most anxious students from emotional exhaustion and helped them to succeed in their goals.” This cause-and-effect statement seems to suggest that a positive mindset led to better academic results, with a lot of room to explore what happened in-between. Perhaps in this case the positive mindset helped reduce stress?

One of the findings cited is that “If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well.” Were any of the participants in this experiment told, “Please think of your relaxed mindset as a source of energy you can use”? If not, perhaps the difference in result is due to the positive priming that these students were given, and not the presence or absence of stress.

This line of thinking seems to play a bit fast-and-loose with the ideas of stress, pressure, tension, excitement and so forth. University of Rochester psychology professor Jeremy Jamieson is quoted as saying that the conventional “stress is bad” belief “fails to appreciate the many ways in which physical and psychological tension can help us to perform better.” The key word here is tension. What is meant by “tension”? It can mean “being pulled tight” but also strained, suspense, anxiety, excitement – quite a varied and diverse set of conditions. What is the relationship to stress hormones and these different emotions? Certainly there is no stress hormone for “tension” as that word is a human creation, and it is not clear which type of “tension” is the stress we want to embrace, if any or all.

In lean thinking we say that it is better to pull than to push. Being stretched is better than being crushed. Tension is preferable to stress. Responding to a clear and present need is better than investing energy in advance in anticipation of possible need. The idea is that a pull comes from the general direction of the output, be it a customer’s payment, personal motivation to meet a goal, desire to learn something new or advance a skill, or some other prize. On the other hand pressure and stress is unwanted because it comes from the general direction of the inputs, in the form of more tasks, more e-mails and meetings, young children being hounded to practice the piano, anytime there are more demands on our time without the clear line of sight to how these move us toward our goal.

Just as properly planted seeds grow towards the sun, pulled by it’s energy rather than being pushed out by pressure from the dirt, lean systems are designed to make use of people’s ideas, their capabilities and the resulting products and services through the tension of downstream pull. If tension provides a “stretch” for our minds and bodies, taking us out of our comfort zones and forcing us to build new muscles or learn new things, this is a good thing. When we face challenges in our lives, there is often a mix of emotions that include excitement, apprehension, worry, hope and so forth. How do the findings from the studies cited in the WSJ translate to the larger and more consequential ways we experience stress in lives beyond making speeches or taking tests at university? The article ends with a not so helpful conclusion, raising more questions than it answers by it:

“The upshot? When you are anxious before having to perform at a big event—whether it’s a meeting, a speech, a competition or an exam—remember that there is a fine line between tension and excitement.”

What does that even mean? Which definition of tension? Is excitement, a feeling of positive anticipation, and tension, a state of mental or emotional strain, nearly the same thing? If so, that is fascinating and it would be good to know more about the chemical underpinnings for this. However, until such time that there is more hard evidence for this “fine line” I prefer to keep using lean to reduce stress and to keep responding to the select tensions of customer needs and personal goals that I value.

4 Comments

  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    May 18, 2015 - 6:33 am

    Jon, this is a topic that I think is increasingly important. Between electronic devices and the media, we’ve amped ourselves up into a continuous mode of stress.

    I was fortunate to be one of the first to connect the circle of people researching what became known as “organizational learning” and the lean community. I think one of the more useful contributions is Robert Fritz’s concept of “creative tension” which I have been weaving into my talks on lean for 20 years now.

    I think all the “research” (not really significant, as you point out) about stress being good, or the conditions under which stress is good, are situations where stress is converted into tension. In my definition, stress is “knowing that you’re not where you are supposed to be, and not knowing what to do about it.” I would propose that this is not productive under ANY circumstances. Tension is “knowing your current state and why its not good, knowing where you want to be (ideally, an ideal state), and having at least a first step of a plan towards closing that gap.” Both of these states make you uncomfortable, but only one leads to productive outcomes.

    We have hero-ized (not really a word) the idea of living under stress. Many conversations have the undertone of “I’m more stressed than you, so I win”. Stress is failure. Stress is unproductive. It takes purpose and process to convert stress into tension.

    Thanks for sharing. I was literally in the middle of my own exercise of converting a source of stress into tension when I did this, and your notes helped me convert more quickly.

    Jamie F

  2. Jon Miller

    May 18, 2015 - 10:43 am

    Great comment, thanks Jamie

  3. Rob Thompson

    May 19, 2015 - 5:37 am

    The adoption of lean is a major organizational change initiative. This may in itself be disruptive and stressful for employees. This is especially true if the purpose of lean is wrongly targeted at cutting costs. Robert Karasek conducted a study in 1990 on employee stress and identified three main contributors:

    1/ high professional demands,
    2/ low decision latitude (that is, little ability to control how the work is done), and
    3/ low social support.

    Clearly, lean can help with some of the above. But we cannot ignore the social aspect. Here the importance of open communication and employee development and training is critical. If we prioritise waste reduction over employee well-being this could impact the potential long-term performance gains that precipitated lean implementation in the first place.

  4. Jon Miller

    May 20, 2015 - 11:10 am

    Great point Rob. Stress from low social support is definitely one that should be reduced as part of lean or any organizational change and continuous improvement effort.