Our approach to stress management is completely wrong

When knowledge workers suffer from work-related stress, the prescription is often to give them fewer complicated tasks and tell them to try to relax a little. But approaching stress management that way only makes things worse, says management researcher Helle Hein

By: Tine Santesson

Why is it that some people get even more stressed out when you tell them they need to learn to relax a little? And why is that people come back from their stress-management course just as wound up out as when they started?

Helle Hein, who holds a PhD from the Copenhagen Business School and who has spent years working with topics like motivation, management and stress, has some insight.

One example: when we say someone is stressed out, what we typically mean is that there is a gap between the demands placed on them and the resources available to them. And, just as typically, employers respond by giving the person more resources to accomplish fewer things. But, for a lot of people — in particular knowledge workers — that actually makes matters worse, Hein believes.

When we experience an unhealthy level of stress, the symptoms are always the same: trouble sleeping, difficulty remembering things, restlessness, an inability to plan, lack of energy, elevated pulse and headaches. But the things that cause stress for one person can have the complete opposite effect on someone else.

More than one type of stress

Hein uses personality tests to put people into one of two categories she’s come up with: equilibrium-seeking and excitement-seeking. By her estimates, between 40% and a half of people are excitement-seeking, but amongst knowledge workers the figure is higher. We all fall into one category or the other, though most of us will have characteristics of both.

“An equilibrium-seeking person is most comfortable and performs best when there is some kind of balance, whether it be work-life or whether it be when there is a balance between how competent they feel and the demands of their assignments. This type of person burns out when the demands placed on them exceed the resources available. This is the classic definition of stress.”

When people who fall into the excitement-seeking category get stressed out, it is for completely different reasons, according to Hein: a lack of purpose or because they don’t feel challenged professionally.

“For this type of person, a complicated assignment would give them an enormous sense of purpose, since, unlike an equilibrium-seeking person, they don’t get stressed out in a situation where demands exceed resources. An excitement-seeking person can deal with a lot of pressure, but there has to be a connection between the amount of pressure on them and the sense of purpose they feel.”

That means that, if you’re an excitement-seeker, you won’t get as stressed out when demands exceed resources the way an equilibrium-seeker would. On the other hand, you will get stressed out if you find your assignments to be a bore and neither challenging nor rewarding.

Bored to stress

The main reason why excitement-seekers get stressed out, according to Hein, is because they feel they lack a sense purpose.

“Your might have some complicated responsibilities at work, but maybe you find that the reality is that you can’t perform your job in a way that gives you a sense of purpose. That could be things like being forced to do your work a particular way or having to attend meetings all the time or because you work in an open-plan office or because you don’t feel you have enough time. Or whatever. The effect is that you are prevented from immersing yourself in your work, and you never get that feeling of contentment you seek.”

A situation like that creates what Hein calls “limitation boreout”, essentially stress brought on by boredom. But, as serious the condition is, there is something even more unhealthy that knowledge workers face, but which is generally less recognised.

Hein describes it as moral stress. For an excitement-seeker, it’s the feeling of being eaten up inside by doing a job they feel forces them to cut corners or do work they don’t feel is entirely up to snuff.

“This happens when you are convinced you would be able to make a difference, but you never get the chance for one reason or another.”

That eaten-up-inside feeling, according to Hein, comes from feeling like you aren’t doing as much as you can.

“What happens then is that you react by telling your boss that you don’t feel you are being allowed to do your best work. Then, most often, you’re told back that ‘That’s just the way things are.’ That leaves an excitement-seeker feeling utterly powerless, which stresses them out even more. People who are morally stressed,” Hein says, “often develop depression.”

Making matters worse

When an excitement-seeker experiences these sorts of limitations, they develop the same symptoms that an equilibrium-seeker develops when they get stressed out. So, when bosses try to help, they do so by treating their symptoms the same way.

“They want to help, so they say, ‘Let’s stary by giving you easier, simpler tasks,’ which works great for an equilibrium-seeker, but just imagine what that does to someone who is feeling stressed out because they are bored and don’t feel challenged. What a boss should say in this situation is ‘Okay, I’ll give you some complicated assignments, and I’ll take away some of the boring and irritating ones for a while so you can find your sense of purpose again.’”

Sending an excitement-seeker to a stress coach who tells them try to relax is only going to make things worse, according to Hein.

“And something like being sent on a mindfulness course that doesn’t do a thing for them will be deeply frustrating. More often than not, what causes an excitement-seeker to be stressed out has something to do with the workplace itself: the culture there, the management or something else they can’t do anything about on their own, even if the help they get from a psychologist or a stress coach. The only person who can do anything in that situation is the manager or the company itself.”

Requires individualised stress management

It doesn’t help the situation any that excitement-seekers themselves don’t understand what the source of their stress is, or what can be done about it.

“The equilibrium paradigm is so ingrained that it affects how an excitement-seeker views stress, and they end up buying the idea that they should do less on the job and take a little more time off. But my research shows that they get frustrated when it doesn’t work for them.”

Hein, though, warns that there is a limit to how much work even an excitement-seeker can shoulder.

“My point is that people react differently to the two forms of stress. I’m not saying that an excitement-seeker can’t burn out. All I’m saying is that it’s more likely they will experience boreout and moral stress. Nor is it to say that an equilibrium-seeker can’t experience moral stress. It’s just that it’s more normal for them to burn out.”

It should go without saying, but, according to Hein, just like managers can’t treat their employees the same when they are well, neither can they treat them same when they are stressed out.

“The equilibrium-seeker finds it hugely rewarding to be able to finish a project. Open-ended projects stress them out. But, for the excitement-seeker, it’s the process that’s the rewarding thing. For them, knowing that there is some finish line they have to reach by a certain time is stressful.”

Situations like these, Hein believes, are where managers can show their worth.  

“A company can have general goals for itself, but it’s up to the manager to tailor those goals to the individual. A manager can evaluate an equilibrium-seeker on quantitative metrics and an excitement-seeker on something more qualitative and abstract.”

Hein herself is an excitement-seeker, she says.

“But it’s important to understand that I — like many other excitement-seekers — seek equilibrium when we need to recover if we’ve been going at full speed for a long time. When that happens, I’m satisfied doing things that I don’t find particularly rewarding, but which provide me with the satisfaction of being able to tick some things off my to-do list. But, before I know it, I start to feel the need to do something that challenges me professionally.”


What’s your type?

Characteristics of an equilibrium-seeker

  • Likes doing things the way they’ve always been done
  • Structured
  • Prefers well-defined, practical tasks over abstract assignments
  • Good at seeing projects through to completion
  • Focused and effective
  • Gets irritated when others ignore the rules or don’t live up to agreements
  • Finds that working well with co-workers contributes to a sense of purpose
  • Weighed down by conflict and lack of consensus
  • Unsettled by too much change

Characteristics of an excitement-seeker

  • Spontaneous
  • Prefers abstract assignments over well-defined, practical tasks
  • Good at developing ideas but often loses interest once an idea becomes operational
  • Often procrastinate
  • Critical of other people’s arguments and always has to check whether they’re valid
  • Questions the status quo. Always
  • Pushes back against groupthink
  • Will argue on behalf of an idea that challenges the status quo, even if they don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea
  • Unsettled by change only when it prevents them from doing their work

Source: Helle Hein

Helle Hein

MSc, PhD; independent researcher, speaker, consultant and author specialising in motivation and management.

Her current research deals with knowledge workers and how they work, where their sense of purpose comes from and the sources of their stress.

Author of "The Prima Donna Management Theory, Når talent forpligter" (English: Talent Oblige), "Ledetråd" (English: Hints) as well as a forthcoming book about the how motivation, management and stress are related to each other.

This article was originally published in Danish in Djøfbladet 

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