Stress and Learning

Learning executives have a role to play in calming nerves and helping workers develop the resilience that drives higher performance.

According to one recent survey survey, 83 percent of American workers are stressed out. Though many employees deal with stress quietly and individually it can have serious long term effects.

Chronic stress can lead to health problems like cardiovascular disease as well as organizational problems, said Ian Kelleher, co-author of “Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education.” A report from Health Advocate found that stress can result in $300 billion in lost productivity.

Learning leaders can become more involved with teaching how to handle their stress and build resilience.

Doug Upchurch, chief learning architect at Insights, a training and coaching company, said that how people experience and handle stress varies widely. Some need time away from the office while others need to focus on one specific task.

One of the best ways to help employees deal with stress, Upchurch said, is for leaders to recognize how they themselves handle stress. Stress is often caused not by conflict but by something that is missing, such as a lack of control, connection with others or a lack of data.

What’s missing “might be calm relationships or time for reflection or getting things done,” Upchurch said. “So it’s understanding what’s actually missing that enables you as a leader to say, ‘Okay I need to get more of that.’ ”

Overcoming Learning Stress

Learning and development can actually add to employee stress. According to Dani Johnson, vice president of learning and development research at Bersin by Deloitte, that is often the result of an employee’s lack of control over how they learn.

“More stress is created by the barriers that keep employees from learning than any opportunities for learning or development,” Johnson said. “Those that are empowered to develop on their own terms in their preferred ways will most likely experience less stress than those not given the opportunity to develop at all.”

High-performance companies put more effort into making the learning experience engaging, Johnson said. “We’ve seen a really strong uptick in the number of organizations that are paying attention to the learner experience and better personalizing learning so that they are more motivating and relevant,” she said. “This means that less time, effort and stress goes into actually completing learning initiatives.”

Successful companies also remove barriers to learning and integrate it into work. “They focus on the culture over the specific courses and work to enable employees to drive their own development and learning,” Johnson said.

Emotional Intelligence an Antidote to Stress

Emotional intelligence also plays a role in how we handle stress. It’s important for learning leaders to help people deal with conflict rather than stifling their feelings and ignoring difficult conversations, Upchurch said.

“We need to be teaching our people how to have those difficult conversations, how to embrace disruption in a way that we know on the other side of this is something exciting for our business and our clients,” he said.

Taking time to have these conversations is crucial as it helps people form meaningful relationships. Working environments where relationships matter and time is set aside to build them makes a difference, Kelleher said.

There is a positive side to stress but Kelleher said it’s important to keep a balance between boredom and frustration to drive higher performance.

“There’s a sweet spot in the middle where some degree of stress is good if you link stress with challenge — the challenge that you can do but that is hard to do” said Kelleher. “So some stress and level of engagement is crucial for getting performance.”

For Upchurch, what’s most important is that companies help individuals handle stress in the ways that make the most sense for them.

“We think, ‘I have to be like everybody else,’ and that doesn’t work for us so we become less productive the more we try to fit into a mold that isn’t ours,” said Upchurch. “So it’s finding ways to bring our whole selves to work.”

Marygrace Schumann is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at