Friday, March 28, 2014

Stress Test

Among the 17* surveys that I had the opportunity to take this week, there was one that involved questions apparently designed to examine how respondents deal with stress: how and whether stress affects one's life and well-being, and so on.

This particular survey was totally flawed in that the assumption of the stress-related questions was that stress is always bad. If you have stress (in your job, in this case), you are going to score low in wellbeingness.

I get that. I think, however, that there should be the possibility of considering a situation in which stress is a normal part of your job, and this is OK. Could we even entertain the possibility that it is more than OK?

Here is an example of a stress-is-always-only-bad survey question:

Select the response(s) that are relevant to how you respond to job-related stress (check all that apply):

o I have trouble sleeping
o I do not want to go to work in the morning
o I am unable to eat a healthy diet
o I am unable to get sufficient exercise
o My personal relationships are negatively affected
o I am frequently ill
o I cannot quit smoking, I binge drink, and I watch bad TV shows

I think that there should at least be an option of 'none of the above', and even better would be

o I thrive on most types of job-stress. Bring it on.

* Note: I did not take all 17 opportunities, and there weren't actually 17, it just seemed like there were a lot. That was stressful.


Alex said...

I respond to job-related stress by spending time at other universities, where the med school professors give me advice and potent chemicals while students run their hands over my body and poke me with tools.

If my school paid me more for what I put up with, I'd probably feel less stress, and the insurance premiums would go down. Win-win, really.

Anonymous said...

You must clearly be in a stable, tenured position. Sure, there is stress-on-the-job. That stuff I also find is easy. What is not easy is knowing that I can lose this job at any moment. That it boils down to a lottery draw in a study section, and regardless of how hard I work, I have little or no control over the outcome in this climate. This is what I lose sleep over. Do I plan experiments that I may not be able to finish, or do I put my efforts into closing shop? People who work for me are also aware of this. It sucks.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous @8:26 - that kind of stress is clearly not going to cause you to thrive in any way. It does suck.

However, I absolutely agree that stress defined in other ways - deadlines, slightly too many projects, etc, pushes me to get things done in an efficient but still high-quality way. Without these things, it's too easy to get distracted and let the day slip away. Of course, when there are way too many things to get done, work paralysis often results. But there is a sweet spot where stress is not only not bad but really needed.

Walt Lessun said...

Back in the day when we had workshops on this sort of stuff, we were taught some differentiation: stress, distress and eustress. No stress was defined as death. Distress messed with getting something done; eustress improved the process of getting stuff done. Alcohol and drugs in moderation...oops, I forget.

Anonymous said...

The term 'eustress' is awkward but I like the concept. Better would be if the stress was not defined in a negative way and required an adjective or prefix if it is the bad kind of stress.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I am always irritated when the implication is that stress or being busy are necessarily bad things. There are bad stresses and those are damaging for your health but the types of stress I regularly encounter aren't those kinds. I like my busy, sort of stressful life and am tired of having people assume that it's a problem my job isn't more low key. I think busy women make some people nervous.

EliRabett said...

Constant stress sucks. Occasional stress associated with a deadline can be motivating. If it goes on too long you are going to suffer and those near you are going to suffer even more

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 8:26 on 3/28: your comment really resonates with me.

It's great to have a fast-paced job with many exciting tasks all vying for my time, and I do find that the urgent need to meet deadlines brings out the best in me.

However, if the stress is tied to job security and ability to feed my family and continue to live in the city I call home, then it is not good stress.

Another kind of bad stress can arise from relentlessly disrespectful colleagues, and a socially dysfunctional workplace.

wombat said...

In psychological and/or physiological research, "stress" is a term of art, specifically referring to strong pressure which evokes survival behaviors ("fight or flight", colloquially). The physiological and psychological reactions to stress are known to be harmful long term regardless of individual characteristics (as well as such things can be known), though (for obvious reasons) may be beneficial in the short term.

It's not simply working a lot, or having deadlines. That's "pressure", which may be positive or negative, depending on the psychology of the person involved.

So... the study may have been fine, except that it wasn't clear enough about what was meant by "stress".

That said, in psychological research, often you can't carefully define something to the subject without it affecting the results. So, in this case, it may be that defining the term of art stress to the respondent might have biased the results. Not defining it could result in, for instance, your response, where your colloquial definition of stress (as opposed to the term of art definition) will blur the results. That is, sadly, the nature of psychological research, and why r-square values of around 40% are causes for celebration. :-)

(That said, there certainly should have been a "none of the above" option. Or better, Likert scales for the individual symptoms / coping strategies, but it's difficult to really argue that without seeing the survey in question.)

Walt Lessun said...

While some may fight and some may flee
Playing "dead" works best for me.

Phindustry said...

What exactly is a bad tv show?

The answer to this question will drastically change the answer to how stressed I am.

Anonymous said...

The speaker in this talk suggests that the effects of stress depend on how the person who experiences stress views it in the first place :

I know its a TED talk so a huge grain of salt must be added, but you might be on to something.