Story by Rebecca Hannam, a U of G student writer with SPARK (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge)

Prof. M. Gloria Gonzalez-Morales

Research into workplace stress has traditionally focused on the health challenges associated with job-related pressures, but according to psychology professor M. Gloria Gonzalez-Morales, experiencing stress at work isn’t always negative.

She’s leading research about the positive aspects of stress in the workplace and trying to determine what causes people to perceive stress positively and what organizations can do to lessen negative stress on employees.

“Stressful tasks at work can hinder your health and emotional state, she says, “but they can also be perceived as challenges that can help you grow and learn in a positive way.” She says stress sources are usually considered positive when workers feel dedicated to their job and when the opportunity for personal growth is clear.

Past research has fingered physical and emotional exhaustion as outcomes of perceiving stress negatively. But more recent studies have determined that perceiving stress in a positive manner leads to workplace engagement.

With that in mind, Gonzales-Morales is now focused on determining what types of company resources and individual coping mechanisms motivate positive stress perception. She’s looking for employee engagement, not only exhaustion.

In the workplace, she’s found that workers who feel valued and supported by their organization are more likely to see job pressures as positive challenges, rather than obstacles. Preliminary results indicate that an effective strategy for companies to boost employee support involves supervisors communicating their support directly to individual employees. Genuinely listening to employee concerns and providing assistance with job-related tasks is a leading example of this support, she says. “We are finding that employees are more engaged when they feel they are being treated as a person and not just another number within the company.”

The effectiveness of an individual’s coping mechanisms may also contribute to the way stress is perceived. Previous research led by Gonzalez-Morales showed coping mechanisms are matched with gender in the workplace. That means some types of coping strategies are more effective for men than women, and vice versa. For example, direct action coping ─ dealing directly with the source of pressure through planning and management ─ is most beneficial for men. On the other hand, looking to other people for instrumental and emotional support ─ an approach called social support seeking ─ is more beneficial to women.

The stress perception study was conducted through questioning social service workers and their supervisors about workplace experiences. This method allows researchers to analyze overall perceptions of job-related stress and examine how direct relationships between supervisors and employees relate to the perception of stress and the experience of work engagement and exhaustion.

This research is funded by the Valencian Community Government, Conselleria d’Empresa, Universitat i Ciència, Spain; the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Social and Behavioral Sciences; the Foundation for Science and Technology; and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Education, Portugal.