Is it Possible That There’s an Upside to Stress? #CAHR15

By Stephanie Hammerwold

This morning I drove up to Anaheim for day two of the California HR Conference. Things got off to a good start on the first day with Robert Safian’s keynote address on generation flux. Along with his talk, there were a number of excellent sessions on everything from California’s new paid sick leave law to retaining top talent. Today’s keynote speaker was Kelly McGonigal, a lecturer at Stanford University and author of The Upside of Stress and The Willpower Instinct.

I was a bit skeptical of McGonigal’s topic. Having worked in HR, I am no stranger to stress and how it can affect employees in the workplace, so the idea of there being an upside to stress? Well, I had my doubts. But McGonigal changed my mind just a few minutes into her talk. She said, “Stress is a signal that people are pursuing things and relationships that have meaning.” This resonated with me because it got me thinking about sources of stress in my life and just how many of those things have meaning and value for me.

She went on to ask the audience how they would feel if they gave up everything that caused them stress. This could mean giving up your family, your job, your friends, your body and almost everything that makes you who you are. You would essentially be left with nothing. She explained that dealing with stress is not about getting rid of it; it is changing the way we think about stress. McGonigal said, “Stress is not just a toxic mindset that needs to be avoided.” How we think about stress and respond to it plays a huge part in determining how it will affect us.

McGonigal showed examples of the signs and literature we typically see in the workplace. The message tends to be that we need to get rid of stress because stress is a bad thing. She pointed out that it is not a helpful message to say stress is toxic because stress will always be present in the workplace. Of course, as I mentioned in a recent post on Blogging4Jobs, there are times when the workplace is toxic and stress is a sign of that. Those are the times there is a downside to stress. But there are plenty of times that there is an upside, and we can support our employees by helping them to shift their mindset about stress.

There is something powerful about seeing that we have the ability to shift our mindset about stress. In a way, it gives us control over it and we can then harness that energy to drive us forward. For me, I think what can make stress challenging is that it makes me feel like I do not have control over a situation. Using McGonigal’s approach helps me to see that stress is not necessarily something that stands in the way of sanity.

I would like to leave you with McGonigal’s four tips on how to embrace stress:

  1. Notice and accept stress as a part of being alive and being human.
  2. Connect to the meaning that stress signals. What (goals, values, roles, relationships, communities) do I care about?
  3. Channel the energy of stress. What can I do? How can this moment be a catalyst?
  4. Find the courage to grow from stress. What is the opportunity, lesson or possibility?

The California HR Conference wraps up with keynote speaker Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google. Come back tomorrow for thoughts on his speech and some final thoughts on the conference. You can also follow me on Twitter as @HRHammer for live updates from the last day of the conference.