Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review indicates that learning something new can be the gateway to reducing stress. Professors Chen Zhang, Christopher G. Meyers, and David M. Mayer note that human beings under stress at work tend to engage in some pretty negative behaviors. Among other things, they may act unethically—being unpleasant to colleagues, for example— make lousy decisions, and exhibit other less-than-wonderful side effects of exhaustion and burnout.
Two unhelpful approaches
Typically, stressed-out workers take a couple of approaches to the problem. They try to ignore the problem and push on through. The classic “gut it out.” Or they “temporarily disconnect from work and get away from the stressful environment.” They might, for example, pay a visit to a nap room or hit the company gym.
Unfortunately, neither approach works all that well. The professors point out that we humans hit the wall when we try to press on. And when we take a pleasurable work break, we don’t really address the underlying problem, which is waiting for us when we get back to our desks.
A third, better way
Fortunately, workers who want to deal with the anxiety, poor performance, and bad behavior engendered by stress can shift their focus to learning something new, gathering new information, or looking for intellectual challenges.
How can learning something new help? Instrumentally, say the authors, it can provide information, knowledge, and skills that can help solve the immediate problem and make it possible to meet challenges coming down the pike. Psychologically, it can help develop feelings of competence and the sense that we are capable of meeting our goals and achieving more. “This way, we can see ourselves as constantly improving and developing, rather than being stuck with fixed capabilities. These psychological resources enable us to build resilience in the face of stressors.?
What to do
The authors suggest a three-pronged approach. The first prong involves reframing a stress-inducing challenge as a “challenging but rewarding opportunity to learn.”
The second prong is to “work and learn with others.” That is, ask your colleagues for ideas. They may offer great insights or ask questions that get you started in a different direction.
Finally, look at learning as a different way to take a break from work. The authors say, “This might seem like a mere mental rebranding, but if a learning activity allows you to divert from the type of effort you use in regular work activities . . . it can replenish you psychologically.”
Ditch the cynicism
I believe it’s easy to get cynical about the value of learning something new, particularly if you’re under the gun to produce a quality product fast. But I wonder if taking a couple of extra hours to learn something that will help your performance might not be the best way to feel in better control of a trying situation and yourself.