Until the recent introduction of positive psychology, the field of psychology has primarily focused on the study of deficits rather than assets. Because of this, there is limited and little literature regarding the study of ‘good stress’ and positive responses to workplace stress. It was questioned whether all occupational stress is damaging and upon investigation of the little research available, it can be argued that this is not true. Eustress is the word that is used for stress that is considered ‘good’ and which is associated with healthy and positive outcomes (Simmons & Nelson, 2001). This topic is important because there is little research regarding this topic. It is a topic that requires more empirical study and therefore more attention is required. This essay will examine the little literature that regards this topic. The literature examined found that, eustress is a legitimate response depending on the individual’s response technique, and the type of stressor that is occurring. Based on current research, this essay will argue that not all forms of workplace stress are negative, and that stress can elicit positive responses in occupational settings.
Brule and Morgan (2018) provided a nice introduction into the concept of eustress in occupational settings by summarising the few current theories regarding ‘good stress’. This piece argued that there are two types of stress, eustress and distress, and that eustress can be immensely positive, “Certain situations can seem overwhelming for individuals and diminish performances and leads to burnout are distress. O’Sullivan revealed a significant positive correlation between eustress and life satisfaction… If individuals view the demands as something they do not have autonomy over (too much pressure either internally or externally), the effect on workplace well-being is negative – lower levels of engagement, less positive affect ” (Brule & Morgan, 2018 pp. 2) While providing a short snapshot of this field of study, the article was short and did not pose any new or advancing information on the topic. What was learnt from this study was a basic understanding of stress in the workplace, the basic meaning of eustress and brief summaries of the work of O’Sullivan, Simmons, Gavin and Mason, and Oswald et al. It was appreciated as an introduction into the topic but was not useful for the level of investigation this essay is aiming to achieve.
A study was conducted by Bret Simmons and Debra Nelson that examined the effect of a positive response to work demands on the health of nurses. While the study agreed that certain stressors cause negative impacts on health, the primary argument was that there are stressors that can elicit positive responses and positive perceptions of health (Simmons & Nelson, 2001). This study was conducted by distributing questionnaires to a sample of 450 nurses in two separate hospitals. Before the questionnaires were distributed, the researches established the primary stressors that nurses face. These are role ambiguity, work overload and death/dying. The questionnaires included questions that inquired about their stress responses to these variables and their perception of their health. The response constructs were based on distress, which included only negative affect, and eustress, which included hope, positive affect, and meaningfulness. The study found “a positive relationship between hope and perception of health in hospital nurses” and that “workers can have a positive response to even the most demanding work environments, and this positive response is significantly related to employee health” (Simmons & Nelson, 2001, pp. 14). What made this source so convincing is that, unlike other sources found, this study focused exclusively on eustress and it really supported its existence. However, this study lacked significant consideration to why nurses have better health perception and why they have a positive response to stress. This study supported this essays thesis in the sense that the study suggested that eustress is a legitimate reaction to stressors in demanding workplaces, however, why this is so was not as evident in this study. The reference to theories such as Lazarus and Folkman’s transactional stress model did however enhance the potential reasoning for eustress responses. The study suggested that eustress might be based on Lazarus and Folkman’s theory that stress response is based on individual appraisals to relevant stressors as positive or negative in their environment, “When a person encounters a stressor, she or he evaluates the encounter with respect to its significance for well-being. This evaluative process is the essence of cognitive appraisal” (Simmons & Nelson, 2001, pp. 8). Additionally, there was little reference to potential limitations of the study. There are many variables that could have affected this study which the study failed to acknowledge. This diminishes the reliability of this source.
It can be assumed that by referencing Lazarus and Folkman’s research, that Simmons and Nelson’s research agreed that positive responses are due to the appraisal techniques of the individual rather than the stressors themselves. A study conducted be Jeffery Lepine (2005) also acknowledged a potential positive response to stress but credited this to the stressor itself rather than the individual’s appraisal method. The basis for the research conducted by Jeffery Lepine et al, is that stressors are conditions that cause strain, but that not all stressors lead to strain (Lepine et al, 2005, pp.764). Whether or not the stressor will cause strain is dependent on the type of stressor, either challenge or hinderance (Lepine et al, 2005). Challenge stressors causes personal growth and gain whereas hinderance stressors cause burnout, exhaustion and anxiety (Lepine et al, 2005, pp.764). They conducted a meta-analysis of data based on work stressor-performance relationships. They found that hinderance stressors had a negative effect on work performance and challenge stressors had a positive effect on work performance (Lepine et al, 2005, pp.769). Challenge stressors “the potential to promote personal gain or growth, trigger positive emotions and an active or problem-solving style of coping (e.g., increasing effort)” and hinderance stressors “have the potential to harm personal growth or gain, trigger negative emotions and a passive or emotional style of coping” (Lepine et al, 2005, pp.765). This study was very comprehensive and very reliable because it considered a variety of limitations and used studies and research to support their theories, “As with all studies, limitations in our work exist. First, the primary research did not allow us to assess alternative explanations for the differing effect” (Lepine et al, 2005, pp.771). Lepine et al. (2005) acknowledged that their theory is closely related and incorporates elements of the individual response reasoning for eustress. While they believed that the eustress response is based on the type of stressor, either hinderance or challenge, they believed that the individuals reaction techniques also plays an important role in determining if the response is eustress.
Research shows that not all stress is bad. While there are varying ideas of why positive responses to stressors occur, it is accepted that there is ‘good’ stress. This essay investigated the research that supports eustress as a functional response and found that there is empirical evidence supporting its legitimacy. The two conflicting possible reasons for eustress were either individuals’ reactions or the stressors themselves. It is important that this area of research receives more attention because the World Health Organisation “estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion dollars per year” and that “stress has even been dubbed the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” (Brule & Morgan, 2018 pp. 1). Considering how detrimental stress can be, understanding positive responses to stress and eustress can aid in the creation of strategies that can be implemented in occupational settings to utilise stress in a positive way and better stress management.
- Brulé Gaël, & Morgan, R. (2018). Editorial Working with stress: can we turn distress into eustress? Journal of Neuropsychology & Stress Management, 3.
- Lepine, J., Podsakoff, N., & Lepine, M. (2005). A Meta-Analytic Test of the Challenge Stressor-Hindrance Stressor Framework: An Explanation for Inconsistent Relationships among Stressors and Performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 48(5), 764-775. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20159696
- Simmons, B. L., & Nelson, D. L. (2001). Eustress at Work: The Relationship between Hope and Health in Hospital Nurses. Health Care Management Review, 26(4), 7–18. doi: 10.1097/00004010-200110000-00002