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A Positive Approach to Workplace Stress
Business Journal

A Positive Approach to Workplace Stress

A Q&A with Shelley E. Taylor, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at UCLA and recipient of the inaugural Clifton Strengths Prize

Shelley E. Taylor, Ph.D., is one of the world's greatest social psychologists. She's been called a "pioneer," a "sculptor of thought and theory for three decades," and "an uncommonly thoughtful and creative scientist." But her many insights aren't just of interest to academics -- they have tremendous practical value to anyone who leads a workgroup or an organization.

The best thing is to reduce chronic stress. That's the most debilitating kind -- chronic, unrelenting, grinding stress.

A professor of social psychology at UCLA, Dr. Taylor has been elected to the Institute of Medicine in the National Academies of Science. She's written more than 300 papers and books, and she has received many highly prestigious honors, including the Donald Campbell Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution to the Field of Social Psychology, the Outstanding Scientific Contribution Award in Health Psychology and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, and Yale University's Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal. Her most recent award was the inaugural Clifton Strengths Prize.

The Clifton Strengths Prize, which will be presented every two years, recognizes groundbreaking theory, research, and practice in strengths-based psychology -- an area of growing interest to business leaders. The $250,000 award, the largest in the field, is intended to recognize an individual's enduring influence on the field of strengths-based psychology. Dr. Taylor received this recognition because her research into positive psychology has resulted in an innovative integration of social and biological sciences, because her findings have provided much-needed insights into adversity and recovery, and because a number of people who point to her as a mentor have since become leaders in their own fields.

Dr. Taylor is an impressive scientist, researcher, and teacher. She's also a compelling conversationalist. In this interview, Dr. Taylor discusses the intersection of health and positive psychology and the toll chronic workplace stress takes on people. She also explains why the typical male response to stress can be deadly, and why you should never assume that workplace norms are universal.

GMJ: Tell me about your research into stress and socio-emotional resources.

Dr. Taylor: Socio-emotional resources include positive illusions: a sense of hope and optimism, both personal and general; a belief in personal control, that you have some degree of control over the things that go on around you; and self esteem, the feeling that you are a person of worth who is able to do good things. People who are able to develop or maintain these socio-emotional resources cope much better. (See "Hope, Optimism, and Other Business Assets" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

These resources not only reduce anxiety and depression, which are two common side effects of stress, but they reduce biological stress responses too. And that offsets or prevents wear and tear on biological regulatory systems. People stay healthier longer. Nurturant environments in childhood and adulthood help promote these beliefs and guard against the ravages of stress. And to some degree, a current supportive environment can offset factors early in life that may have an adverse effect.

GMJ: What are "the ravages of stress"?

Taylor : There are several. Anxiety and depression are the most common psychological symptoms. But a big toll is taken on biological stress regulatory systems; people who have been through a lot of stress tend to lose their resiliency. Signs of that include insulin resistance, which leads to the propensity to put on weight and the increased likelihood of adult diabetes. Cells in the hippocampus can atrophy, which leads to problems in cognitive function and memory loss. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenalcortical system gets activated so that you have glucocorticoids like cortisol streaming through your system. In the short term, these responses are protective, but long term, they erode health and put you at risk for heart disease and other chronic disorders.

GMJ: What can managers do to prevent this? It can't be good for people, let alone productivity.

Taylor : The best thing is to reduce chronic stress. That's the most debilitating kind -- chronic, unrelenting, grinding stress. Every time people encounter a stressful event, there's a jump in their stress responses. They eventually lose some of their resiliency if they have lots of jumps. Getting startled once or twice a day isn't going to do anything to them, but if they have the kind of job where it's always something, that can erode health.

GMJ: But some people gravitate to high-stress jobs because they find that stress motivates them.

Taylor : There are a lot of people who get off on that adrenaline rush, but people burn out of these jobs. They don't typically stay in them as long as people who have less stressful jobs. And the evidence that health is compromised is quite good. (See "Your Job May Be Killing You" in the "See Also" area on this page.)

That said, if people actually have some control over the amount and types of stressors they encounter, they seem to fare pretty well in high-stress jobs -- control can be an offsetting factor. It's in chronically stressful circumstances where people don't have a whole lot of control over either the job pace or the job activities where there really is an impact on health.

GMJ: How can the positive beliefs you mentioned, such as optimism and hope, protect you?

Taylor : When you encounter circumstances that have the potential to be stressful, you're more likely to appraise them favorably as challenges or as things that you will probably be able to do. You're able to come up with ways to cope. You come up with more plans and ideas for how to deal with problems in a way that holds off the stress.

It's a very, very robust relationship; people who have high levels of social support maintain their health far longer.

People who hold these beliefs are more likely to believe that they will succeed, so they persist more at the tasks that they need to do. That increases the likelihood that they'll succeed. So there are really a lot of ways in which these beliefs can be helpful at work.

GMJ: You've studied support systems as they relate to stress. What did you find?

Taylor : Social support is the ability to perceive or construe other people as available to you if you need help. It's not just that you feel down, so you call someone. It's more that you feel down, but you think, "I'm going to see my family this weekend," or "If I need to, I can always call my friend and talk to her about this problem." It's reminding yourself of the important people in your life who are there for you if you need them.

We have been very interested in the capacity of social support to improve health. It's a very, very robust relationship; people who have high levels of social support maintain their health far longer. Even animals that have warm social contact are healthier longer. It's a big [positive] effect; it's on a par with smoking and lipids (in the negative direction).

GMJ: Asking for help or for social support makes some people really uncomfortable, though.

Taylor : Oh yes, and in some cultures more than others. We found one factor that interested us quite early on in our research -- the form of social support that is beneficial is culturally based. People from East Asian cultures -- [from] Japan, Korea, or China, for instance -- don't draw on explicit social support. They're less likely to ask other people for help, they don't construe their social networks in terms of people who can be of help to them, and in fact, they find explicit help-seeking to be aversive.

We recently did a study where we asked people to write a letter to someone they were close to, asking [this person] for help in dealing with a forthcoming stressful event. People from East Asian countries actually had higher stress responses after doing this, both psychological and biological -- their cortisol levels were elevated, and they experienced a lot of anxiety. But when we asked them to just reflect on people in their lives who were important to them, their stress responses were much lower.

The reverse was true of the European Americans, people whose families are originally from Europe. They were calmed by actually writing the letter to the close friend or family member, asking for help. Their stress responses were lower, and their psychological reactions were less anxious. But when all they did was reflect on the people in their environment, their stress responses were higher. We think it was because we were not giving them the opportunity to make use of their social support. We were giving them a task where they were supposed to think about people, but then they were going to go through stressful events anyway. It just raised their anxiety levels to do that.

GMJ: How does that affect teamwork?

Taylor : In the United States, we think about teams as supportive networks of people who are there to help each other. Asian teams are not necessarily warm and fuzzy. Teamwork is a cultural obligation; it's the way the culture operates.

I'll give you a specific example: At UCLA, we have lots of Asian students. The Asian students are more likely than the European American students to study together in study groups, but those study groups are often highly competitive. They will help each other, they will quiz each other, they will grill each other, and they'll all do better, but they're not typically supportive in the way that European Americans think of support. [This kind of support] works very well -- here and in its original cultural context. It's a culturally appropriate form of social support.

What's interesting is that in the United States, not only do we not have the same norms and values that other cultures have for teamwork, but we don't even have an understanding of what their vehicles are. We assume if people work in teams effectively, it's because they have a sort of rah-rah team spirit, [where everyone is] supportive and everybody pulls together, but that's not true everywhere. Even when people in another culture do something that looks like what we do, the cultural translation may be very different. The cultural forms of social support are very effective in their context, and the system works quite well. It's when the different systems try to interrelate that they run into trouble.

Women are more likely to seek and provide social support in times of stress.

GMJ: Tell me about your theory of "tend and befriend" as a stress-reduction strategy.

Taylor : "Fight or flight" has been the way that most researchers have thought about stress. It came from animal studies, from what Wild Kingdom shows us all the time. Certainly we see people who respond aggressively to or withdraw from threats, but for the most part, human beings come together in small groups to solve stressful problems -- we tend and befriend. We protect our offspring (tend), and we band together with friends, relatives, and even strangers to combat joint stressors (befriend).

So fight or flight isn't the only way humans respond. To examine what humans actually do, we did a qualitative meta-analysis; we identified more than 350 studies that looked at biological and/or psychological responses to stress. We discovered very quickly that there's a gender difference: Women are more likely to show tend-and-befriend responses than are men.

If men encounter stressful events, there's a fairly high likelihood that they will become challenging or aggressive in response. Men also show pretty high rates of social withdrawal for coping with stress. They may not want to interact with other people, and they're more likely to use substances for coping with stress. Men are overrepresented as alcoholics and drug abusers, and they're overrepresented in homicides and suicides. So fight or flight is a pattern of coping with stress that has potentially lethal consequences.

Women are more likely to seek and provide social support in times of stress. That's not to say that women don't get upset by stress; they do. They show a lot of the same biological responses that men do, but the tending and befriending actions are healthier responses to stress. Seeking and providing social support are both associated with better health, a reduced risk of illness, and lower mortality. We think that this difference in the stress responses helps account for the fact that women live six and a half or so years longer than men do.

GMJ: What is it about positive psychology that intrigues you?

Taylor : Oh, this was something that excited me from the very beginning of my career. The puzzles themselves are intriguing: how positive psychological responses are adaptive. Take resilience, for example: You look at people who are really good at fighting off what would seem to be an extraordinary amount of stress. It's also very rewarding to focus your work on the positive side. I have a lot of friends who study depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders, and I have to say that focusing on the positive qualities that the human mind confers on difficult situations is enormously uplifting. And it's a good antidote to stress.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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