Finding the optimum stress levels for your workforce

A recent study showed that men and women generally react differently under stressful situations – one expert weighs in on what employers can learn from the study.

Finding the optimum stress levels for your workforce
A new study has shed some light on the differences between the ways in which men and women make decisions.

Researchers delved into the affects that feeling ‘under pressure’ had on participants' ability to make sensible decisions.

“The study showed how the brain processes information at the intersection of emotional response and decision-making,” said Stephanie Preston, associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department.

Preston recently spoke about her study at Sydney's Amplify Festival. Participants in the research were tested on how well they allocated their resources and determined when they had ‘enough’ materialistically.

This involved a gambling task, a “well known task” in the field of psychology.

Participants took part in the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), which is a repetitive card game that gradually teaches individuals that “safe” decks of cards are the most rewarding.

“Most people start by liking the high pay off decks, but over time they learn that they lose too much money and shift over to the safer deck,” Preston explained.  

Preston’s research team used the concept of the IGT to design an experiment focused on stress management.

“We were interested in how stress would influence this learning process,” she told HRD Singapore.

Participants were forced into anticipation of stress by giving a speech – which was recorded – in which they discussed the things they disliked about their bodies. According to Preston, this is a “classic experimental way of inducing stress”.

“What they do is play the card game in the anticipatory period,” Preston explained. “When they were not stressed, the men performed slightly better. When people are stressed everybody learns slower, but the women actually got better at the task while the men got worse.”

She added that this comes down to reaching an optimum level of “arousal” – and while stress can induce this for some, for others it can be a distraction.

“I think how we interpret the results in conclusions of paper is an ‘inverted U function’,” she continued. “Everyone has an ideal amount of arousal to be motivated learn at a good rate – but it’s easy to overshoot this and lose the ability to focus on the task at hand.”

“Women typically are not engaged by this task, as they tend to display less competitive behaviour, but stress sharpens their focus,” Preston said. “Males find it inherently exciting to win the game, but under stress they often slip down the ‘hill’.”

What this means for employers

“In a work environment, it’s important to have people motivated enough to care about task,” Preston advised. “But once it turns into a stressful situation then it usually impedes the ability to be productive.”

Preston referred to financial decisions as an example of a situation the experiment may be applicable to.

“In any financial situation there’s going to be people who are naturally more interested and invested in the task,” she said. “Others find these to be stressful and have opted out of making these decisions for themselves.

“In general if you want people to perform at their best you have to make sure that they don’t perceive the task too daunting or difficult. If you want the best performance out of employees you should stimulate them – but remember that while adding pressure might make them work hard at the task, it won’t necessarily make them better.”
She noted that stress tends to lead to fatigue and confusion.

“Sometimes people are pushed to produce the best quality, but this often reduces their productivity.”

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