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The Effects of Stress on Productivity

It has long been acknowledged that job stress plays a role in employee performance.  This notion has its roots in what is called Attention Theory.  Simply put, Attention Theory asserts that the experience of stress has the effect of reducing an individual’s ability to concentrate on multiple tasks.  Attention is thus focused on a few critical tasks and all of an individual’s energies into completion of those tasks.  Anyone who has worked feverishly to meet a deadline understands this relationship intimately.  It has been standard fare in basic management training to point out there exists some optimal level of stress below which employees are unmotivated and above which they are overwhelmed.

Understanding types of stress

Unfortunately, managers who attempt to find an optimal stress level for their work groups frequently find their efforts produce inconsistent or downright negative results.  One reason for this may be that stress comes in more than one flavor.  Red tape, organizational politics and bureaucracy are classified as “hindrance-oriented” stressors.  These sources of stress do not usually contribute to the overall mission fulfillment of an organization but rather serve as distractions to it.  “Challenge-oriented” stressors include things such as high work load, deadlines and time pressure and directly contribute to the purpose of the organization.   Even if we identify the sources of stress, how can managers be expected to use this knowledge in their quest to increase the effectiveness of their employees?

So what is missing?

The answer may lie in a deeper understanding of attention theory and how other, perhaps less obvious considerations, may play into the relationship between stress and productivity.  Research has identified these considerations and suggests that managers can have a role in preparing for periods of high stress. Some of the factors that impact individual employees’ responses to stress may be both understandable and controllable.  In addition to stress level, organizational commitment and experience in the job interact to impact an employee’s productivity level.


Individuals with high levels of organizational commitment view the goals, tasks and mission of the organization as important and worthwhile.  They experience a sense of satisfaction when they believe that their efforts help to achieve organizational goals.  This commitment provides the motivation for employees to expend effort but not necessarily the know how to direct their energies in the most productive way.

Practice doesn’t always make perfect

Of course, experience alone does not equal greater productivity.  While experience on a job provides an opportunity for skill improvement and mastery, it may also result in bad habits becoming more and more ingrained.  Most everyone can remember a college instructor whose numerous years of experience were overshadowed by a painfully obvious inability to effectively communicate the subject matter to students.  Experience that leads to greater productivity is defined by a mastery of important skills and the knowledge about which tasks are truly important to goal attainment. When both organizational commitment and experience are high, job stress tends to focus employees motivation on tasks critical to goal attainment and energies toward those value rich tasks over which they have mastery.

What can be done?

Managers who try to manipulate the stress level of a position may be missing the boat in terms of employee motivation and subsequent productivity.  Managers can engage in the following proactive tasks to maximize performance:
  • Identify and Buffer Employees Against “Hindrance-Oriented” Stressors
No one is motivated by red tape, politics, or bureaucracy.  Managers can help keep employees directed toward goal attainment by shielding them from distractions that do not add value to the organization.  Ask yourself, “Does what we are asking our employees to do contribute to the overall value of the end product?”  If the answer is no, find a way to eliminate or reduce it.
  • Facilitate Mastery of Skills Which Contribute to Attainment of Organizational Goals
Managers can break the “experience = excellence” fallacy by identifying “critical-to-goal attainment” skills and designing training and mentoring programs to improve them.  In addition, communicating to employees what the mission and goals of the organization are and linking these skills and their efforts to organizational outcomes helps employees to understand the relevance of their activities.
  • Increase Organizational Commitment Through Employee-Centered Behaviors
Managers are often the face, voice, and tone of the organization to their employees.  The way that you treat your employees can impact how they perceive their value to the organization.  Ensuring that employees feel valued by being active in their development and career path, being empathetic to their needs, and creating an environment in which they feel they belong are a few of the areas where managers can contribute to increased organizational commitment.  While often dismissed as “soft skills,” these behaviors and efforts can pay off when employees are in stressful situations. Creating a workplace environment conducive to employee commitment and professional development may be important to inoculating employees against “feeling the heat” in periods of high stress.

Interpretation by:

Mark Baker

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Hunter, L., Thatcher, S.M. (2007). Feeling the heat: Effects of stress, commitment, and job experience on job performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 50 (4),953-968.