When Do Employees Rise to the Challenge?
September 11, 2020 | By Ryan Decker
Researchers: Christopher Rosen, Lauren Simon
When you hear the phrase “world-wide epidemic,” job stress isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. High workplace stress, however, impacts employee well-being and carries an annual price tag of over $300 billion for U.S. companies. Add to that the stress brought on by COVID-19, and employees are facing more stressors than ever.
Managers and organizations want to improve performance while maintaining the well-being of their employees – especially as companies adapt to the “new normal” of work.
Academic research separates work demands into two categories: challenge stressors, such as high workload and job complexity, and hindrance stressors, such as daily hassles and a lack of resources. In the past, scholars recommended that managers increase challenge stressors – claiming that these stressors create higher levels of job performance and organizational commitment that offset any negative effects of strain. But is that always the case – can employees always rise to the occasion?
A study done by Christopher Rosen, Nikolaos Dimotakis, Michael Cole, Shannon Taylor, Lauren Simon, Troy Smith, and Christopher Reina explores the stressors employees face at work and how they impact performance and well-being. In their article, “When Challenges Hinder: An Investigation of When and How Challenge Stressors Impact Employee Outcomes,” the authors go “beyond the levels of challenge stressors to consider how employees are influenced by stressor patterns.” They question the conventional wisdom that an increase in challenge stressors leads to improved employee performance and well-being. Instead, they state that the benefits of challenges may not outweigh the costs when challenges vary over time and become unpredictable.
More Isn’t Always Better
The authors focused primarily on challenge stressors in their research, focusing on how employees react to challenging situations. Research on work stressors showed that both challenge stressors and hindrance stressors provoke strain and negative emotions, as completing the new tasks require more resources such as time, energy, and attention.
What makes challenge stressors different is that positive feelings of attentiveness, achievement, and personal growth often overcome any negative effects. Previous research found that challenge stressors also promote goal attainment and generate a sense of determination and energy. These findings suggest that the more an employee is challenged at work, the better the outcomes are for managers and the organization.
While there are certainly benefits to challenges, “prior research has touted the benefits of challenge stressors without considering the conditions under which those stressors and their subsequent benefits occur.” The authors suggest that managers should weigh factors outside of just the levels of challenge stressors before increasing an employee’s responsibilities. If a manager assigns a large project to an employee who has had few responsibilities in the past, would they be overwhelmed by the challenge and, in turn, do poorly? This study finds that stressor patterns over time may be more important in predicting employee performance and well-being outcomes.
Consistency is Key
“One’s ability to anticipate the occurrence of a stressor plays an important role in the stress appraisal process,” the authors state. “When stressors can be anticipated, individuals can prepare for them by stockpiling or conserving resources so that they can be directed toward managing expected demands.” In the workplace, consistent treatment (whether fair or unfair) produces more positive outcomes than inconsistent treatment. If you know your boss will continually ask you to rework a report, you have less of a problem with that than a boss whose preferences and whims you never can quite predict. Similarly, employees are more effective at accomplishing tasks when they can predict work demands – allowing for planning and allocation of resources to meet the demands.
Drawing from this research, the authors state that “the positive effects of challenge stressors are diminished when such stressors are experienced inconsistently” or without warning. For example, giving an employee complex, unfamiliar tasks to be completed in a short amount of time likely causes the employee to perform more poorly than if they had time to prepare. They conduct two studies to test this theory. In the first study, they analyze how challenges create anxiety and attentiveness and how these feelings affect performance and workplace behavior. In the second study, the authors focus on how the anticipation and appraisal of stressors impacts performance and perceived stress levels.
Anxiety and Attentiveness
Prior research has shown that anxiety and attentiveness explain the indirect effects of challenge stressors on performance outcomes. Anxiety represents the strain provoked by challenge stressors because it reflects “an anticipatory emotional state that reflects a lack of self-confidence and self-doubt” and threatens goal-attainment. In contrast, attentiveness helps offset the strain because it creates high levels of alertness and engagement.
The authors first examined how changes in challenge stressors impact levels of anxiety and attentiveness. As expected, when challenge stressors became unpredictable, anxiety increased and attentiveness decreased. The authors explain that unpredictable challenge stressors are more likely to interfere with goal attainment and “are, therefore, likely to generate more anxiety because they can be appraised as a threat, rather than an opportunity.” Attentiveness decreases because employees must expend resources to remain vigilant to threats, thus reducing one’s ability to concentrate and focus on work tasks.
When challenge stressors remained both high and stable, anxiety and attentiveness were higher compared to low and stable levels of challenge stressors. Even if an employee knows about a tight, firm deadline in advance, the deadline will still create feelings of anxiety. The stable nature of the stressors, though, allows employees to plan ahead and direct more resources to the work demands. This predictability improves attentiveness and enables an employee to capitalize on these growth opportunities.
For example, public accountants working on large corporate clients experience a three-month period of high stress every year. This three-month period is accompanied by very long hours (sometimes 80+ hours a week) and strict deadlines. Despite this well-known “busy season,” college graduates flock to the top accounting firms to start their careers because they know that the experience gained from these roles will lead to better opportunities later. Consistent with the authors’ findings, high and predictable levels of challenge stressors (such as those in an accountant’s busy season) would increase both anxiety and attentiveness.
The ideal employee performs well, helps others, and does not engage in counterproductive workplace behaviors. But to what extent do anxiety and attentiveness impact employee behavior? As expected, when employees experienced anxiety, both stable and fluctuating levels of challenge stressors reduced task performance and helpful behavior and increased counterproductive behaviors.
These results suggest managers who want to improve performance and positive behaviors should stabilize the pattern of challenge stressor levels to increase attentiveness and decrease anxiety. It is important to note that the results of this study were collected from a single source and did not consider how employees anticipate or appraise stressful situations. To address these limitations, the authors conducted another study of public university employees in the United States.
Anticipation and Appraisals
Just as investors draw from past experiences to forecast the future, employees do the same thing to anticipate stressors. The authors found that if challenge stressors vary over time, employees are less likely to anticipate them. In addition, employees can anticipate high and stable levels of challenge stressors better than low and stable levels of challenge stressors.
After an employee anticipates a challenge stressor, they appraise it as either a challenge or a hindrance. A challenge appraisal is defined as “an individual’s subjective interpretation that demands have a potential for personal gain, growth, development, and well-being.” To a single employee starting their career, this could be a unique opportunity to work abroad. It may be scary, but it is a great opportunity for someone with fewer personal responsibilities. A hindrance appraisal is defined as “an individual’s subjective interpretation that the demands have a potential to result in loss, constraints, or harm.” The same opportunity to work abroad could be perceived as harmful or constraining to a different employee’s relationship with their family.
For both challenge and hindrance appraisals, the authors found that employees felt more stressed when stressors varied over time. For both employees who worked abroad, sporadic changes in responsibilities would lead to higher stress.
The authors also concluded that while hindrance appraisals were associated with higher stress levels and lower performance when challenge stressors fluctuated, challenge appraisals were not associated with performance. In this example, the employee with the family would perform worse but the single employee would not.
This study supports the results from the first study by “indicating that when challenge stressors are experienced in a consistent way from one time period to the next, they exert a more positive influence on employees [through] lower stress levels and increased performance.” As before, challenge stressors have a more negative influence on employees when they are experienced inconsistently.
Practical Implications For 2020
These studies challenge the notion that challenge stressors always have a net positive impact on employee and organizational outcomes. Employees may not, in fact, be able to rise to the challenge if they can’t predict their next challenge. Inconsistency diminishes the benefits of challenge stressors, and managers should consider this before increasing responsibilities or creating challenging opportunities for their employees.
“More broadly, our findings suggest that managers should engage in practices that ensure stability and predictability in the work context,” the authors state. “Employees respond favorably to organizational policies and procedures when applied consistently across people and time.” While this study was focused on challenges given to employees by managers, the authors suggest environmental, social, and personal considerations as an opportunity for future research.
The authors suggest that individual differences, workplace climate, and support/interpersonal resources provided by managers and coworkers could also affect performance. As employers place a higher emphasis on diversity and inclusion efforts within their organizations, consistent treatment of all individuals shows likely benefits.
It is a difficult time for managers and employees, as the pandemic has created many challenges and hindrances for organizations. Some employees are thriving, but some are struggling. The needs of employees differ, but this study suggests that managers should resist radically changing their leadership style or the responsibilities of their employees to respond to the “new normal.” Consistency may be what employees need right now.
Interestingly, the authors find that “volatility, even when outcomes are positive (e.g. an unexpected promotion or additional job responsibilities), has the potential to offset the benefits of positive work experiences.” As it turns out, the best way to help an employee grow is to challenge and reward them consistently over time.
Lauren Simon is an associate professor in the Department of Management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. She earned a Ph.D. in management, focused on organizational behavior/human resources at the University of Florida. Simon has a passion for career development and helping students successfully transition into the professional workforce, as well as for partnering with organizations to help them better manage and engage their workforce. Her research focuses on individual and social factors that influence career success, including personality and ability, organizational socialization, interpersonal work relationships (particularly among managers and employees), and leadership. Professor Simon’s work has received the Academy of Management HR Division’s Scholarly Achievement Award and the Southern Management Association’s Overall Best Conference Paper Award. She was also the recipient of the Academy of Management HR Division's Innovative Teaching Award and the Golden Tusk Award from the University of Arkansas Division of Student Affairs.