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The Paradox of Stress: Its Dual Role in Success and Failure in the Workplace

The Stress Curve
The Stress Curve
Summary. Stress is a double-edged sword in the workplace, capable of driving both success and failure. On one hand, it can motivate and push individuals to achieve their best. On the other, chronic stress can lead to burnout, reduced productivity, and health issues. Understanding how to balance and manage stress is key to harnessing its potential for success while mitigating its detrimental effects.

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In the labyrinth of the modern workplace, stress emerges as both a villain and an unlikely hero, influencing the trajectory of careers and organisations. While conventional wisdom often vilifies stress as a harbinger of burnout and failure, scientific and philosophical perspectives reveal a more nuanced interplay between stress and success. Understanding this dual role of stress can equip individuals and organisations to harness its potential for growth while mitigating its detrimental effects.


The Dual Nature of Stress

Stress, in its essence, is a physiological and psychological response to perceived challenges or threats. The seminal work of Hans Selye in the mid-20th century introduced the concept of “eustress” (positive stress) and “distress” (negative stress) . Eustress is the kind of stress that motivates individuals to overcome obstacles, fostering resilience and stimulating personal growth. Conversely, distress is the chronic, overwhelming stress that erodes health and performance.


Philosophical Perspectives on Stress

Philosophically, stress can be viewed through the lens of existentialism, particularly the ideas of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. Kierkegaard posited that anxiety and stress are inherent to the human condition, emerging from the freedom to make choices . This existential anxiety, while daunting, can also lead to profound personal growth and self-actualization.

Sartre, on the other hand, argued that individuals create their own meaning in life, and stress can be a catalyst for this creation. The confrontation with stress and anxiety can propel individuals to transcend their limitations and achieve higher states of being. Thus, from an existential viewpoint, stress is not merely an obstacle but a necessary component of personal evolution and success.


The Science of Stress in the Workplace

Scientific research provides a wealth of insights into how stress influences performance and well-being in the workplace. The Yerkes-Dodson Law, formulated in 1908, illustrates the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance, suggesting that moderate levels of stress enhance performance, while excessive stress impairs it . This inverted-U model underscores the importance of managing stress to maintain it within an optimal range.


Stress as a Catalyst for Success

When managed effectively, stress can serve as a powerful motivator and enhancer of performance. High-stakes situations, deadlines, and challenges can trigger a “fight-or-flight” response, releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones that heighten focus and energy. This heightened state can lead to exceptional performance, innovation, and problem-solving. I mean, how often to hear someone saying I deliver better at the ‘last minute’, or I thrive on ‘extreme circumstances’.

Different people have different thresholds to accepting and dealing with, tolerating, and leveraging stress. Organisations that foster a culture of resilience and provide support for stress management can transform potential distress into eustress. Techniques such as mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral strategies, and resilience training can equip employees to handle stress constructively. Leaders who model adaptive stress responses and create environments that encourage open communication and support can further mitigate the negative impacts of stress.


The Dark Side of Stress: Pathways to Failure

As usually known for this side, the reality is, despite its potential benefits, unmanaged or chronic stress can lead to significant negative outcomes. Prolonged exposure to stress without adequate recovery can result in burnout, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment . Burnout not only diminishes individual well-being but also hampers organisational productivity and morale.

Furthermore, chronic stress is linked to a host of physical health problems, including cardiovascular disease, weakened immune function, and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety . These health issues can lead to increased absenteeism, reduced work capacity, and higher healthcare costs for organizations.


Balancing Stress for Optimal Performance

At the organisation level

The key to leveraging stress for success lies in balance. But how to get to the balance and keep it consistent is the most difficult lesson to learn and practice. Organisations must cultivate environments that challenge employees while providing the necessary resources and support to manage stress effectively. This includes promoting work-life balance, offering wellness programs, and fostering a supportive culture that recognises and addresses stress-related issues. Understanding the diversity of individuals in dealign with stress is also crucial as adaptation is a necessity to accommodate employees who might be more vulnerable to stress. Putting a sound policy for mental health related sick leave is a must.

At the individual level

At the individual level, cultivating self-awareness and resilience is crucial. Techniques such as regular physical exercise, adequate sleep, mindfulness meditation, and time management can help individuals maintain optimal stress levels. Seeking social support and engaging in meaningful activities outside of work also contribute to overall well-being and stress resilience. But before all this starts, once should be very clear on their attitude towards stress, do not toughen up to put a strong facade if this will only cause burnout. The stress bell curve is different for each individual, and understanding one’s curve and thresholds is key to creating a consistent and sustainable strategy to not only cope but leverage stress. From my experience, I know what makes me immediately happy and relaxed, so I use these tricks when I feel the negative stress creeping in, and getting too much. Personality and being an introvert versus extrovert also contributes to the definition of stress for each of us. Introverts lose energy by being with people and needs down time by being by themselves. This means being around many colleagues for longer parts of the day might lead to exhaustion and reduction of creativity. For extroverts it is the opposite, so working in silos might increase the stress as energy is drawn from social settings.

Our 5 steps recommendations

To prevent and protect yourself from entering the negative stress zone, we recommend the below few steps:

1. Reflect: learn your personality type, energy management style, how you succeed and how you thrive, your preference of work, your limits, strength and weakness.

2. Identify the signs of negative stress that are applicable to you, and listen to what your body is telling you. For me for example, when my back and shoulder start to ache, I know I’m pushing towards negative stress. These signs should serve as a detecting mechanism, and your radar should be up constantly if your workplace is a source of stress.

3. Identify and practice coping mechanisms. This should include how to remove yourself from the stressful situation, including the ability to say ‘No’ to others, push back, and delegate responsibilities to lighten the weight. Practice makes better, but it all starts with identifying how to cope in the first place.

4. Identity the path back to happy: list what makes you go back to your happy default status, and use this list when you are in distress. This can be a simple break listening to the Calm app, a short conversation with someone from your support system, reading a page of a wisdom book, and so on.

5. See the professional, do not shy away from seeking help, whether a physician, a phycologist, a career coach, HR, it depends where the stress is being sourced. Honesty with yourself and others does not make you weak, it makes you stronger and more resilient for yourself.



The relationship between stress and success in the workplace is complex and multifaceted. While stress can undoubtedly lead to failure and burnout, it also has the potential to drive extraordinary performance and personal growth. By understanding and managing stress through both scientific and philosophical lenses, individuals and organizations can harness its power for success while safeguarding against its pitfalls. Embracing this balanced approach to stress can lead to healthier, more productive, and ultimately more fulfilling work environments.



  1. Selye, H. (1976). The Stress of Life. McGraw-Hill.
  2. Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Holt Paperbacks.
  3. Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The Concept of Anxiety. Princeton University Press.
  4. Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459-482.
  5. McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Avery.
  6. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Burnout: A Brief History and How to Prevent It. Harvard Business Review.
  7. Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 607-628.

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