RESEARCH
  • Behaviour

Learning Trumps Stress at Work

How a focus on learning can help you and your team cope with stress

 

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Despite living in a time of relative prosperity, aided by digital technology, for many people the workplace has become increasingly stressful. Stress, caused by ever-on communication technology, role ambiguity, organizational complexity, office politics, red tape, longer hours, and doing more with fewer resources, impairs performance and can damage both personal health and organizational effectiveness.

Stress because it triggers poor decision making, deviant and unethical behaviour, and employee burnout is a leadership issue.

A new research paper, from Michigan Ross’s David Mayer and Tsinghua University’s Chen Zhang and a further study by Johns Hopkins University’s Christopher Myers and colleagues, suggests that a focus on learning can help alleviate stress and can be more effective than the two ways people traditionally use to cope with stress.  

KBO, Winston Churchill’s “Keep buggering on” aphorism, sums up one of the typical ways we deal with stress in the workplace. The other way is to withdraw for a period of rest and renewal. Neither of these methods is ideal.

KBO appeals to our competitive instinct and our pride in being tough and resilient. But it is a bad idea because continuing to strive on while stressed and fatigued only leads to depletion, impaired performance and eventual burn-out. While taking a relaxing break only provides temporary relief and fails to address the underlying problems which will still be there when we return from the break.

The Value of Learning Something New

David Mayer and Chen Zhang analysed and compared how learning something new and taking time for relaxation at work serve as buffering conditions for the relationship between job stressors and workplace deviance. Chris Myers et al. explored how team practices affected burnout and how team learning behaviour – the extent to which team members gather information, reflect on experience, and share knowledge in their team – can build resilience and reduce the incidence of burnout.

Myers’s research revealed that higher team learning behaviour led to “significantly lower burnout” and to a “significant interaction between team learning behaviour and individual learning goal orientation in predicting burnout.”

Through their research, Mayer and Zhang conclude that taking time to learn new things at work has a stronger positive effect in stressful work environments, than taking time for relaxation at work. They say that “As such, more can be less – under times of stress, doing more (i.e. learning, and not relaxing) might actually be more beneficial for having less deviance in the workplace.”

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Join Professor David Mayer on the Michigan Ross executive program Leading High-Performing Teams to improve your leadership performance.

Dates: 28 Nov - 30 Nov 2018; 20 May - 22 May 2019; and 30 Sept - 2 Oct 2019

Format: In-class study │ Location: Ann Arbor MI

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3 Strategies for Using Learning at Work

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the researchers highlighted three specific actions we can take to increase learning when faced with stress at work:

1/ Start internally. When you feel stressed, try to change the message you tell yourself from “this is a stressful work assignment/situation” to “this is a challenging but rewarding opportunity to learn.” Reframing stressful tasks in this way shifts your mindset and prepares you to approach the task more positively, focusing on potential long-term gains.

2/ Work and learn with others. Rather than struggling with a stressful situation alone try to get input from others. Discussing a job stressor with colleagues can reveal hidden insights and offer new perspectives.

3/ Learning activities as a form of ‘work break’. As well as relaxation techniques and taking days off, use learning as a break from your work routine. Engaging in learning activities that fit your intrinsic interests and divert away from your regular work activities (e.g. numeric thinking, interacting with clients) can replenish you psychologically. Avoid seeing learning as ‘more work’, rather approach it as a form of respite and a positive, enjoyable, experience.

In the HBR article the researchers also say that, while embracing learning can help lessen the negative effects of stress, there is no need to wait for stress to arise before seeking learning opportunities. “Even without pressing problems, engaging in learning as a central feature of your work life will help you build personal resources and equip you to be resilient and prepared in navigating future stress at work.”

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Access the original research papers:

More Is Less: Learning but Not Relaxing Buffers Deviance under Job Stressors; David M. Mayer, Chen Zhang, Eunbit Hwang;  Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 103(2), Feb 2018, 123-136

Association Between Team Learning Behavior and Reduced Burnout Among Medicine Residents; Christopher G. Myers, Heather F. Sateia, and Sanjay V. Desai; Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2018.


Corporate cliches are for yesterday’s business. Today's business calls for a new kind of leadership, one that sees beyond yesterday’s cliches and creates meaningful change, the kind of change that yields long-term, sustainable results.



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