Want to stress less at work? Sign up for that workshop.

Stress balls at work may be less effective than attending a workshop. (Photo: MorgueFile)

By Vickie Elmer

Stress levels in the workplace seem to rise and rise, as competition, new technologies and demands for speed and innovation — not to mention toxic bosses or coworkers — all crash in on workers.
 A one-hour webinar or training session, where the worker learns something new, could reduce that stress — or some of the negative effects, researchers at the University of Michigan found. 
 On-the-job learning works better than exercise or meditation to reduce stress-induced inappropriate behavior, such as stealing, sharing confidential information and acting out, according to the Michigan findings.

“When it comes to addressing negative emotions and actions in stressful work environments, building positive resources by learning something new at work could be more useful than relaxing,” lead author Chen Zhang, a doctoral student, said in a press release on the findings. 
 “Managers may want to offer opportunities for employees to learn new things in their work. Similarly, employees who wish to prevent their own conduct from falling prey to stressful factors can also seek ways to learn something new in their everyday work,” Zhang said. 
Co-author David Mayer said workers learned in a variety of ways — webinars, workshops and online tutorials. “They could have done something on their own to learn something new that challenged them,” said Mayer, an associate professor of management at the Ross School of Business. He, Zhang and another doctoral student conducted two studies with 545 workers in finance, health care and education.

“Our findings do not suggest that learning reduces the levels of stress felt by employees but does help reduce the likelihood that stress will be associated with these dysfunctional behaviors,” such as unethical or rude actions, Mayer said in an email interview.
 The Michigan findings mirror those of other researchers, including some in Italy who found that an opportunity to learn may reduce stress and promote workplace satisfaction. Their findings were published in 2010 in the Journal of Workplace Learning.

The University of Michigan paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Mayer said.

Stress costs U.S. employers an estimated $300 billion a year in lost time, health problems and health care costs and employee turnover. Some 60 percent of workers told Compsych they have high levels of stress and feel out of control and 32 percent say they have constant but manageable stress levels. The epidemic is blamed for high blood pressure, heart disease and a host of other ailments.
 Employers have responded with stress-reduction training, focused on such topics as resiliency, mindfulness and managing change and conflict, according to ComPsych, which provides employee assistance programs and call in lines.

Learning something challenging — and seeking to master it — is key, Mayer said. “It is less about learning for fun and more about learning because it brings about a feeling of mastery” or competence developed, Mayer said in an email interview.

Yet too much stress also may inhibit learning. The optimal learning occurs when the brain is in a state of “relaxed alertness.”

This story has been updated with additional information provided to me by U-M’s David Mayer, one of the authors of the research.

© Vickie Elmer 2017