How changing our view of stress changes our life

1: It was 2008.  The economy was in free fall.  

“The financial industry is a notoriously stressful place to work,” Kelly McGonigal writes in The Upside of Stress.  “One study found that within ten years of entering the industry, 100 percent of investment bankers developed at least one condition associated with burnout, such as insomnia, alcoholism, or depression.”

The 2008 economic collapse ratcheted up the pressure: “Financial workers reported significantly greater workplace stress, fear of layoffs, exhaustion, and burnout. Across the industry, there were widespread reports of increased anxiety, depression, and suicide,” Kelly reports. 

Like other investment banks, UBS was hit hard.  The value of shares dropped 58 percent. The bank initiated major layoffs and cut employee compensation by 36 percent. 

This was the backdrop for scientist Alia Crum to test whether a brief learning regarding the positive aspects of stress could help UBSers thrive during times of high stress.

2: In the middle of the meltdown, UBS associates received an email from human resources inviting them to participate in a stress-management program.  388 UBSers signed up—half men, half women, with an average age of thirty-eight.  “These stress-mindset guinea pigs were dealing with an increased workload, uncontrollable work demands, and enormous uncertainty about their own futures. So, yes, they knew stress,” Kelly writes. 

Each participant was randomly assigned to one of three groups. The first group, with 164 associates, received an online training that delivered a message that stress is inherently negative. The second group, with 163 associates, received an online training designed to give them a more positive view of stress.  A smaller control group of 61 associates got no training at all. 

Over the course of one week, those in groups one and two received emails with links to three videos that were each three minutes long.  Those in the first group were treated to statistics like “Stress is America’s number one health issue” and “Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death.”  The videos warned that stress “can lead to mood swings, emotional exhaustion, and memory loss.”

Those in the stress-is-enhancing group saw very different videos. These videos explained how stress can increase physical resilience, enhance focus, deepen relationships, and strengthen personal values.  The videos included examples of companies and people who thrived during challenging times and performed heroically when faced with stress.

All participants completed surveys before and after the online trainings. 

3: The results were clear.  Those “who watched the negative videos became even more convinced that stress was harmful.”  Those who viewed the positive videos developed a more positive view of stress.  They reported a more balanced view of stress than before the intervention.  

“The change was statistically significant,” Kelly notes.  “But it wasn’t a complete reversal.  Instead of viewing stress as predominantly harmful, they now saw both the good and bad in stress.”

There were other benefits for this group.  They were “less anxious and depressed. They reported fewer health problems, like back pain and insomnia. They also reported greater focus, engagement, collaboration, and productivity at work,” Kelly writes. 

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  When in my past have I performed at my best during stressful situations?  How might my body’s stress response aided in my performance?

Action:  Read Kelly’s book The Upside of Stress to learn more.

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