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More PsychNotes: Stress and Coping

July 11, 2017       

When Stress Management Training in the Workplace Can Be Harmful
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can. Nikos Kazantzakis
Although stress management training is generally effective in decreasing the negative effects of stress, for some people it can worsen existing problems. Instead of seeing stress management as a one-size-fits-all employers need to be more aware of the individual differences and reactions to training.

Companies committed to reducing stress for employees are rewarded with improved performance and productivity from the employees. However, to reduce stress in the workplace it may not be enough to provide stress management training and it can even be counter-productive to insist that all employees attend such training.

Stress management training has often been one-sided in which the employer offers the employee the opportunity to learn how to reduce the effects of stress. However, without the employer's participation in reducing the workplace stress such efforts can be fruitless. In other words, the employer doesn't take responsibility for the workplace stress but places it on the employee: “You should learn how to cope with the stress in the workplace. We shouldn't have to change policy and procedures or the workplace environment to make it less stressful for you.”

Early research that found stress management training to be helpful only looked at the overall effects of the training. As with much psychological research, when stress management training is examined more closely individual differences may be evident showing that what is true in general may not be accurate for certain groups of individuals. For instance, researcher Joda Lloyd and colleagues (2017) found that employees most likely to benefit from stress management training were those who felt less competent to perform work tasks but had a desire to perform well.

In contrast, the researchers found that those who felt less competent but had a low desire to perform well at work tasks had a worsening of stress outcomes particularly in the area of being negative or cynical towards customers. Since the training involved self-awareness through mindfulness and goal-setting methods this group may have felt a greater burden from the training rather than the alleviation of stress. Without the belief in their ability to succeed, the training likely represented greater possibility of failure.

How can stress management training be improved?

1) Identify workplace stress. The employer needs to make a commitment to identifying causes of stress that can be changed by the employer. By doing so the employees will see the employer as a partner in the process rather than training being a demand placed on the employee.

2) Increase intrinsic motivation. The personal desire to perform well is considered an intrinsic motivator which is more likely to improve performance than an extrinsic motivator such as increasing salary. Training that includes an initial component to help the employee discover their personal reasons for using the stress management methods prior to receiving the training can make it more effective. Moreover, allowing the employee to choose if and when to continue the training may help self-select those who are less likely to be harmed by it.

3) Identify vulnerable employees. Those employees who have low personal motivation for improving job performance or learning stress management methods can be offered additional coaching. However, this must be done cautiously because it could be seen as a burden rather than as assistance.

Lloyd, J., Bond, F.W. and Flaxman, P.E. (2017). Work-Related Self-Efficacy as a Moderator of the Impact of a Worksite Stress Management Training Intervention: Intrinsic Work Motivation as a Higher Order Condition of Effect. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22, 115–127. DOI:10.1037/ocp0000026

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