We all know that stress can have negative effects on mental and physical health but another important question that we need to ask is how does stress affect performance and decision making abilities in the workplace? This is something that many employers find themselves worrying about when their employees are stressed.
Like many things in life there is a fine balance between when stress is good and when stress is bad. There is a lot of research showing that stress affects people’s abilities to make decisions but whether this provides an advantage or disadvantage depends on the task at hand. For example, when a stressful task is seen as a challenge rather than a threat it can enhance the cognitive abilities that people need to make a good decision . Often, however, work pressure can be such that stress starts to impair people’s abilities to make good decisions. When people are stressed they are more likely to make hasty decisions without considering all of the possibilities .
Secondly, when people are stressed they are more likely to succumb to what is called the ‘reflection effect’. This is the tendency to make conservative decisions when there is a chance of gaining something and risky decisions when there is a chance of losing something . Thirdly, the more decisions that people have to make the more likely they are to suffer from what is called ‘decision fatigue’ or the inability to make any further decisions due to a depleted amount of self-control. For example, researchers found that people who are faced with multiple decisions, no matter how inconsequential, were more likely to give up on tasks early than those who had not previously had to make multiple decisions . Add stress to the mix and you may find employees who end up making hasty, risky, fatigued decisions. Not something that you want to encourage in the workplace.
So what can be done to improve decision-making under stress in the workplace? We have already written about the benefits of building resilience to aid decision making (see link here). In our next installment we will discuss other methods that may reduce stress and improve decision making in your workplace.
- Starcke, K. and M. Brand, Decision making under stress: a selective review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2012. 36(4): p. 1228-1248.
- Keinan, G. (1987). Decision making under stress: Scanning of alternatives under controllable and uncontrollable threats. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(3), 639.
- Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2014). Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative.