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3.5: Avoiding and Managing Stress

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Understand what individuals can do to manage their own stress.
    2. Understand what organizations can do to help their employees avoid and manage stress.

    Individual Approaches to Managing Stress

    The Corporate Athlete

    Luckily, there are several ways to manage stress. One way is to harness stress’s ability to improve our performance. Jack Groppel was working as a professor of kinesiology and bioengineering at the University of Illinois when he became interested in applying the principles of athletic performance to workplace performance. Could eating better, exercising more, and developing a positive attitude turn distress into eustress? Groppel’s answer was yes. If professionals trained their minds and bodies to perform at peak levels through better nutrition, focused training, and positive action, Groppel said, they could become “corporate athletes” working at optimal physical, emotional, and mental levels.

    The “corporate athlete” approach to stress is a proactive (action first) rather than a reactive (response-driven) approach. While an overdose of stress can cause some individuals to stop exercising, eat less nutritional foods, and develop a sense of hopelessness, corporate athletes ward off the potentially overwhelming feelings of stress by developing strong bodies and minds that embrace challenges, as opposed to being overwhelmed by them.


    Turning stress into fuel for corporate athleticism is one way of transforming a potential enemy into a workplace ally. Another way to transform stress is by breaking challenges into smaller parts, and embracing the ones that give us joy. In doing so, we can enter a state much like that of a child at play, fully focused on the task at hand, losing track of everything except our genuine connection to the challenge before us. This concept of total engagement in one’s work, or in other activities, is called flow. The term flow was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is defined as a state of consciousness in which a person is totally absorbed in an activity. We’ve all experienced flow: It’s the state of mind in which you feel strong, alert, and in effortless control.

    Figure 7.5

    Table 7.5: A key to flow is engaging at work, yet research shows that most managers do not feel they are engaged in purposeful work.
      Low Energy High Energy
    High Focus 20% of managers are disengaged at work 10% of managers engage in purposeful work
    Low Focus 30% of managers are procrastinators 40% of managers are distracted at work

    A key to flow is engaging at work, yet research shows that most managers do not feel they are engaged in purposeful work.

    Sources: Adapted from information in Bruch, H., & Ghoshal, S. (2002, February). Beware the busy manager. Harvard Business Review, 80, 62–69; Schiuma, G., Mason, S., & Kennerley, M. (2007). Assessing energy within organizations. Measuring Business Excellence, 11, 69–78.

    According to this way of thinking, the most pleasurable way for a person to work is in harmony with his or her true interests. Work is seen as more similar to playing games than most activities adults do. This is because work consists of tasks, puzzles, surprises, and potentially rewarding challenges. By breaking down a busy workday into smaller pieces, individuals can shift from the “stress” of work to a more engaged state of flow.

    Designing Work That Flows

    Keep in mind that work that flows includes the following:

    • Challenge: the task is reachable but requires a stretch
    • Meaningfulness: the task is worthwhile or important
    • Competence: the task uses skills that you have
    • Choice: you have some say in the task and how it’s carried out (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997)

    Corporate athleticism and flow are two concepts that can help you cope with stress. Next, let us focus more on exactly how individual lifestyle choices affect our stress levels. Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and employing time management techniques are all things we can affect that can decrease our feelings of stress.


    Figure 7.6

    Tomatoes, Cucumbers, and Cauliflower

    Eating healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables is a key to stress management.

    Yukiko Matsuoka – Vegetable – CC BY-NC 2.0.

    Greasy foods often make a person feel tired. Why? Because it takes the body longer to digest fats, which means the body is diverting blood from the brain and making you feel sluggish. Eating big, heavy meals in the middle of the day may actually slow us down, because the body will be pumping blood to the stomach, away from the brain. A better choice for lunch might be fish, such as wild salmon. Fish keeps you alert because of its effect on two important brain chemicals—dopamine and norepinephrine—which produce a feeling of alertness, increased concentration, and faster reaction times (Wurtman, 1988).


    Exercise is another strategy for managing stress. The best kind of break to take may be a physically active one. Research has shown that physically active breaks lead to enhanced mental concentration and decreased mental fatigue. One study, conducted by Belgian researchers, examined the effect of breaks on workers in a large manufacturing company. One-half of the workers were told to rest during their breaks. The other half did mild calisthenics. Afterward, each group was given a battery of tests. The group who had done the mild calisthenics scored far better on all measures of memory, decision-making ability, eye–hand coordination, and fine motor control (Miller, 1986).

    Strange as it may seem, exercise gives us more energy. How energetic we feel depends on our maximum oxygen capacity (the total amount of oxygen we utilize from the air we breathe). The more oxygen we absorb in each breath, the more energy and stamina we will have. Yoga and meditation are other physical activities that are helpful in managing stress. Regular exercise increases our body’s ability to draw more oxygen out of the air we breathe. Therefore, taking physically active breaks may be helpful in combating stress.


    It is a vicious cycle. Stress can make it hard to sleep. Not sleeping makes it harder to focus on work in general, as well as on specific tasks. Tired folks are more likely to lose their temper, upping the stress level of others. American insomnia is a stress-related epidemic—one-third of adults claim to have trouble sleeping and 37% admit to actually having fallen asleep while driving in the past year (Tumminello, 2007).

    The work–life crunch experienced by many Americans makes a good night’s sleep seem out of reach. According to the journal Sleep, workers who suffer from insomnia are more likely to miss work due to exhaustion. These missed days ultimately cost employers thousands of dollars per person in missed productivity each year, which can total over $100 billion across all industries.[1] As you might imagine, a person who misses work due to exhaustion will return to work to find an even more stressful workload. This cycle can easily increase the stress level of a work team as well as the overtired individual.

    Create a Social Support Network

    A consistent finding is that those individuals who have a strong social support network are less stressed than those who do not (Halbesleben, 2006). Research finds that social support can buffer the effects of stress (Yperfen & Hagedoorn, 2003). Individuals can help build up social support by encouraging a team atmosphere in which coworkers support one another. Just being able to talk with and listen to others, either with coworkers at work or with friends and family at home, can help decrease stress levels.

    Time Management

    Time management is defined as the development of tools or techniques that help to make us more productive when we work. Effective time management is a major factor in reducing stress, because it decreases much of the pressure we feel. With information and role overload it is easy to fall into bad habits of simply reacting to unexpected situations. Time management techniques include prioritizing, manageable organization, and keeping a schedule such as a paper or electronic organizing tool. Just like any new skill, developing time management takes conscious effort, but the gains might be worthwhile if your stress level is reduced.

    Listen Up and Learn More

    RescueTime is a tool that evaluates your productivity using data from your computer. The RescueTime software is available online and is currently free to use.

    Multiple graphs: The bar graph shows hours spent on different activities, and two other graphs show efficiency of time usage
    Figure 7.7. This is an example of output from a RescueTime user. Source: Used by permission from RescueTime.