Stressed. Anxious. Disengaged. Ask 10 people how they feel about their jobs and more than half will give respond with descriptors like these. Longer work hours, poor management, the need to do more with less combined with overwhelming responsibilities at home have all been shown to impair personal and organizational performance.
There are typically two ways people try to deal with this stress. One is to grind through it. Many people take pride in a work ethic that enables them to tough it out despite being stressed and mentally and physically fatigued. Another way is to withdraw. Temporarily disconnecting from the stressors is becoming more accepting as research shows that more frequent workday breaks boosts mood and energy and ultimately improves productivity.
Unfortunately, both of those options have potential pitfalls. The brain has limits in handling heavy workloads and the stress that comes with it. “Grinding through it” while stressed and fatigued ultimately depletes our cognitive resources and impairs performance. While temporarily disconnecting may provide some relief, it’s often short-lived.
The good news is that new research suggests a third option to decrease stress at work: learn something new. Researchers have found that stimulating the brain’s learning center counters the detrimental effects of stress including negative emotions, unethical behavior, and burnout.
There is a wealth of research that has established that in the face of stress people tend to engage in unethical behavior at work (e.g., stealing, falsifying time sheets, or being rude to co-workers). More recent studies have examined the effectiveness of learning new things and relaxing/taking frequent breaks as potential stress reducers at work. In two complementary studies with more than 300 U.S. employees from various organizations and industries, researchers examined both the stress levels and the behaviors of employees who used these strategies to reduce on-the-job stress.
The first study used daily surveys to track employees’ feelings and activities at work over two weeks; the second study used paired survey responses to link employees’ activities and feelings with what their supervisors observed. In both studies, employees reported the extent to which they engaged in learning activities at work (e.g., doing things to broaden their horizons, seeking out intellectual challenges, or learning something new), as well as their relaxation activities at work (e.g., taking breaks, chatting with colleagues, taking a walk, or surfing the web).
The first study revealed that employees who were stressed experienced fewer negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, distress) and engaged in less unethical behavior (e.g., taking company property or taking credit for others’ work) on days when they engaged in more learning activities at work compared to other days. Similarly, in the second study, these benefits were more common among employees who reported taking on more learning activities at work than other people.
In contrast, employees experienced the same levels of negative emotions and engaged in just as much unethical behavior on days when they took on more relaxing activities at work, compared to other days (study 1), and when they generally focused on relaxation more than others (study 2).
What’s the bottom line? The best way to reduce your stress and chill out is to learn something new. Every. Single. Day.
“LIVE AS IF YOU WERE TO DIE TOMORROW. LEARN AS IF YOU WERE TO LIVE FOREVER.” ―MAHATMA GANDHI