Why stress can be a good thing - good stress and bad stress

In 1908, two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, studied the relationship between stress and performance (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). As a result of their research, they came up with a model that has become a classic in psychology. It’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve (see Figure 2.1).

This graph expresses the relationship between how stressed you are and how well you perform at a task. The curve shows that when stress is low, performance is correspondingly low. In other words, if you’re bored and there’s no challenge or stimulation at work then the quality of your work is likely to be poor. However, as stimulation and stress increase, so does performance. If your job has more of a sense of urgency and importance, you’re likely to do it better. So in this sense stress (which everybody seems to think of as being a bad thing) can be very positive - but only up to a

The Yerkes-Dodson curve

Figure 2.1 The Yerkes-Dodson curve.

point. At the top of the stress curve is a point that produces optimal performance. But what happens if stress continues to increase? We can see from the Yerkes-Dodson curve that if stress continues to increase, performance rapidly drops off, eventually becoming very poor. When this happens consistently, it results in burnout.

So, too much stress is very bad for you. But too little stress is also bad for you. Yerkes and Dodson found that stress can actually be a positive force, if it’s managed properly. This applies both to you as an individual and to teams and organisations.

Stress in itself isn’t good or bad; it’s simply another force to be managed. By understanding and managing stress you can learn how to improve performance - both your own and that of the people you lead. When stress reaches its optimal level and you’re flying, you get a real buzz. This is what the psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high) calls flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This state of mind happens when you’re fully immersed in an activity, feeling energised and focused. You’re so involved in what you’re doing that it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. This is good stress, or eustress.

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