Stress and Work Impairment

Stress is a daily struggle for a lot of people, it originates from work, keeping your finances in order, maintaining relationships and many more places. This article will focus on the first, while at the same time keeping in mind a spillover effect from and to other areas of life. The effect of stress on work efficiency is explored and in that light is stress really as bad as it sounds? Lets first start with defining stress.



Stress is generally seen as a deviation from the balance, both in mind and body. The balance, or so-called homeostasis, is disturbed by prolonged exposure to stressors (e.g. the boss at work), and which have a prolonged effect even after work is done. The body has an adaptive system that is very good at handling stressors that happen only once, longer exposure, however, will pose an allostatic load. If stress will lead to disease is dependant on many factors. One of these is the personal differences between people. Every person sees and interprets the same situation in a slightly different way, also the body of every person is different and thus reacts differently to stress.


Level of Stress

Some general conclusions about stress and work impairment can be made. When the pressure is very low a person performs sub-optimal, he is not challenged and feels bored. On the other hand when under very high pressure, he is engulfed by tension and is less focussed on the task at hand (all of the selective attention is consumed by stress). And in the middle there lies the perfect amount of stress. It should be enough to motivate a person, yet not too much that it disrupts the homeostatis for prolonged periods.

This framework is perfectly in line with the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This law states that the performance is at its best when the level of pressure is medium. The curve of performance follows an inverted U-shape. Not only for performance, but also learning under stress does this framework hold. Some pressure is stimulating, finishing a deadline in the night before a big presentation not so much.


In the workforce, stress can even lead to a burnout. And when someone has a higher score on a burnout measure (the Maslach Burnout Inventory) the performance is also impaired. Exhaustion as a part of burnout symptoms is related to negative work performance. This is mostly visible in lower client ratings, less organizational citizenship behaviour, and worse in-role performance. Research in this area supports the happy-productive worker hypothesis, when employees are more happy, they are too more productive.

It is clear that not all stress is bad for a person, when there is just the right amount of stress a person can be at its most productive. Negative consequences of too little stress may not be to big, but too much stress has far reaching consequences for both work performance and health. One should be wary of environments that are very stressful and take time to recover from this.


References & Further Reading:

1. McEwen (2006). Stress, Adaptation, and disease. Allostasis and Allostatic Load Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 840, 33-44.


3. Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A law for all seasons. Theory & Psychology4(4), 525-547.

4. Taris, T.W. (2006). Is there a relationship between burnout and objective performance? A critical review of 16 studies. Work & Stress, 20, 316-334.