When we first feel stress knocking on our door, our instinct might be to run and reach for what we conceive to be the opposite of stress—a carefree zone of comfort and relaxation. Our instinct is a natural impulse. Stress at its worst is a fear-based state, triggering a fight-or-flight reaction.
New research indicates that one of the best solutions to stress is not to flee from the challenge but to shift gears and embrace a different challenge—learn something new. These findings offer business leaders a way to improve wellness in the workplace while at the same time promoting resilience and a culture of growth and innovation.
Make learning a work break
The study on stress and learning—conducted by a professor and two PhD students at the Ross School of Business—uses what they call “counterproductive behavior” as an indicator of the adverse effects of stress. This behavior consists of unethical or rude actions that in some way threaten the wellbeing of the organization.
The study found learning activities to be the most effective means of reducing such behavior. Learning something new buffers stress by “building positive resources.”
Another study put learning at the top of a list of eight strategies effective at restoring energy and vitality at work. Like learning, all of the other strategies—such as seeking feedback or reflecting on the meaning of one’s work—are work-related and not an escape from work. They actively feed the work experience rather than just offering a diversion from it.
Learning builds resilience
Often it is not the challenge itself that stresses us, but the emotions and mindset that are surrounding that challenge. Learning experiences help us reframe the demands of work as welcome opportunities instead of threats.
Researchers measure stress in the workplace by comparing the level of a job’s demands with the resources available to the employee. Chief amongst those resources is our sense of self-efficacy. Do we feel we have the skills necessary to meet the challenges work presents us?
When we learn something new, we add to our skillset and thus to our sense of self-efficacy. When we make learning a regular habit, it can transform our mindset as well. Instead of seeing our abilities as fixed and limited, we see our capacity as evolving and elastic. We develop a growth mindset, a critical element in individual and organizational resilience.
Learning and relaxation are partners
If I have one issue with the Ross study, it is that the authors compare the benefits of learning and relaxation in a way that pits them against one another. It is more productive to see them as partners working together.
Relaxation gets a bad rap in the workplace. It is key to distinguish between passive relaxation (like watching videos or browsing social media) and more purposeful relaxation. The latter can include exercise, meditation, or taking a long walk. Purposeful relaxation does more than allow us to step away from the demands of work. It keeps our minds and our emotions supple, allowing us to take in new perspectives or to see old problems from a fresh angle.
Moreover, a wealth of new research indicates that downtime is, in fact, a misnomer. The brain does not shut down during downtime any more than it does during sleep. When we unplug from a task, we are plugging into a deeper level of thinking and allowing our unconscious mind to work its magic. It is no accident that people often report having breakthroughs while in the shower or taking a walk.
Be a learning leader
In almost every aspect of organizational culture, leaders must set the tone. You can foster a learning culture in your organization both by example and by suggestion.
Bill Gates takes two “Think Weeks” every year for study and reflection. Beyond giving him a chance to catch up on the important books of the year and take a look at the big picture, this habit sends a message to peers and colleagues. No matter your status or level of accomplishment, there is always room to learn more. Learning is implicitly an act of humility.
Basketball coach Phil Jackson was famous for giving books to his players. This technique was partly a reading assignment, a way of tailoring specific messages to individual players. It was also a way to say he saw them as human beings capable of growth and evolution, and not just as athletes.
Be creative in how you model and nurture learning in your organization. Every act of learning has a snowball effect—generating new energy, perspective, and possibility.
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Published on Oct. 16, 2018
Click here to read the article on Forbes.com