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Most organisations operate in a very competitive environment where there is constant pressure to achieve more with less. There can be times when working smarter is no longer enough, and many people find themselves working harder and feeling stressed.

Even in organisations undergoing expansion and growth, the pace of change can make work feel like a pressure-cooker. Having the right skills for the job does not guarantee that people can work for long periods of time under high pressure. This has implications for workplace wellbeing.

Stress and performance There is an interesting relationship between performance and stress. Stress is not all bad. It’s the type and level of stress that matters. Stress can be positive or negative. Too little stress results in boredom. Some stress is good and helps motivation.

People can generally maintain high levels of performance-based stress for short periods of time. However, prolonged, high stress can result in overload. When people feel that challenges are un achievable, they can begin to feel a sense of “learned helplessness”. This can ultimately affect wellbeing, performance and morale. Leaders are wise to be aware of this.

What can leaders do? One of the fundamental questions that children ask is “why do we do this?”. Asking “why” and “how” are fundamental questions that help people make sense of their environment. This continues throughout life. It’s easy for leaders to forget that people need reminding of the “why” and “how”.

There are important leadership tasks that can make a significant difference to high-pressure work environments. One of the most important is the need to keep people engaged around a positive vision. This may seem like a hackneyed phrase. However, for most people, work forms an important part of life. People are generally motivated by goals that make sense and seem achievable. When people feel positive, they relax and are more likely to see challenges as achievable. Maintaining a positive vision helps to build resilience.

A vision needs to be more than lofty statements. It needs to be meaningful. It also needs to demonstrate why goals are important and provide clear pathways that show how the work that people do contributes to overall outcomes. This is not a once-a-year exercise - it needs to form part of a business as a usual approach to work.

Creating psychological capital Done well, connecting people to a positive vision helps them to make sense of challenges as worthwhile, rather than a waste of time and resources. It also creates a sense of confidence, hope, optimism and resilience. These positive psychological states are a form of psychological capital. There is a significant amount of research that demonstrates that, in many workplaces, psychological capital is an untapped resource that leaders can mobilise to help people succeed at work, even under periods of high stress.

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