Workplace challenges can help employees excel and learn. But without the right support and resources, some challenges may harm performance and even affect employee health, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.

The study, published in Work and Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health and Organizations, surveyed hundreds of employees and their supervisors. It found that even performance-enhancing challenges can become major impediments if employees cannot see them as an opportunity to excel.

Prof. M. Gloria González Morales, Department of Psychology, worked with a colleague at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon, Portugal, to survey Portuguese workers and their supervisors.

The workers came from many fields, including sales and marketing, education, health care, consulting, police services and restaurants.

The researchers looked at whether challenge stressors — more responsibility, more difficult tasks, time constraints – were necessarily always positive.

“Obviously, negative stressors such as red tape or organizational politics are a hindrance, but we didn’t buy into the idea challenge stressors always trigger productivity and learning,” said González Morales, who is a member of U of G’s Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being.

“It depends on the employee having the resources to not feel overwhelmed. We found those employees who perceive challenges as threats report more distress, such as backaches, headaches, sleep problems, exhaustion, stomach problems and anxiety. They also have lower levels of commitment to the company, and their supervisors gave them lower performance scores.”

Being stressed out at work can become an issue for employees as supervisors try to control costs and improve performance, she said. But stress can also offer opportunities for workers to excel.

“If employees see their jobs as challenging opportunities, they will likely have a connection to the organization and the engaged behaviour companies want,” said González Morales. She researches effective management of occupational health and performance in organizations.

“But if they feel they don’t have the resources to be successful, their physical well-being, connection to the company and actual performance are damaged.”

Supervisors have to provide resources, while employees can do their part by changing their mindsets, she said.

“For supervisors, resources can be as simple as material ones, such as a faster computer, or more complex, such as emotional support and recognition. Employees can see demands more as opportunities by developing personal resilience and a sense of optimism.”

The researchers are beginning a pilot training program in managing emotions and controlling stress. They are also looking at organizational policies that help employees manage the demanding work environments they may face.