Not All Work Stress is Created Equal: Challenge vs Hinderance Stressors
The terms stress and work may be synonymous for you.
At work, it may seem that you are better equipped to handle some stressful situations and then completely collapse when faced with others. What you may not know is that these differing reactions are anything but random. Recent research suggests that it is not the amount of stress that matters but the type of stress. Researchers have identified two main types of stressors: challenge and hindrance stressors.
What’s the difference?
Challenge stressors can motivate workers to work harder and be resilient by supporting or offering personal, emotional, and material goals. In other words, people will work harder when stressed if they believe that the increased workload will lead to a raise, a promotion, or a sense of achievement.¹
Examples of challenge stressors:
1) Large workload
2) Time pressure
3) High level of responsibility
Experimental studies have shown that introducing challenge stressors to a team can improve team performance. Challenge stressors are also positively related to organizational loyalty and job satisfaction.
Hindrance stressors are perceived as barriers to goals that cannot be overcome through hard work and dedication. For this reason, hindrance stressors can deplete motivation and lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Examples of hindrance stressors:
1) Role ambiguity
2) Red tape
3) Office politics
Research has demonstrated that hindrance stressors can lower team performance and increase psychological withdrawal.²
It is important to note that both stressors can cause strain (the effect of stress on our minds and bodies), but challenge stressors can provide positive outcomes.¹
In other words, challenge stressors create opportunities to be resilient whereas hindrance stressors deplete the capacity for resilience.³ When both stressors are present at the same time, workers experience negative effects.
Challenge stressors do not offset the negative effects of hindrance stressors. When both stressors are present, team members avoid communication and participation, leading to lower performance.² Due to heightened brain and body activity when faced with stress, both stressors often lead to exhaustion.⁴
How do stressors work?
The way we perceive a stressor is personal, but some stressors will almost always be perceived as a hindrance or challenge.¹ The challenge-hindrance model is based on the Transactional theory of stress. This theory focuses on how we assess different stressors and our coping styles.
According to the Transactional theory of stress, when we encounter a stressor, we make assessments or appraisals such as:
Is this stressor important?
Can it have a positive or negative effect on me?
How should I cope with this stressor?
If someone sees a stressor as a challenge, they cope through rational thinking. In contrast, if they see a stressor as a hindrance, they cope emotionally.²
Stress in Leaders
Supervisors can attest that stress is not reserved for employees alone.
A large aspect of stress in supervisors is employee voice. Employee voice occurs when employees speak up and offer solutions in a constructive way. Similar to other stressors, employee voice can come in the form of a challenge or a hindrance. When referring to employee voice, the distinction is referred to as a promotive voice or a prohibitive voice.
Promotive voice takes the form of employees sharing forward-looking ideas for the future and offering solutions.
Prohibitive voice looks like employees focusing on past problems. When a supervisor is the target of these expressions, they tend to see their own past inadequacies in the complaints.
Like all stressors, the interpretation of employee voice is personal to the supervisor and does not necessarily represent the intentions of the employees.⁵
There are several well-researched tools to help with stress at work. One is mental health awareness training for office leaders. It is helpful for bosses to know how to identify someone struggling with mental health in the workplace and to know how to provide appropriate resources.⁶
In addition to leader-directed intervention, employee-directed interventions have also been shown to be effective.
Mindfulness programs and yoga-based programs have both been shown to significantly decrease employee stress levels.⁷
Another employee-directed resource is Solution-Focused Cognitive Behavioral (SFCB) coaching. SFCB can be used to reduce the likelihood of stress-induced fatigue and burnout. SFCB focuses on developing strengths as well as setting and attaining solutions to problems.⁸
Finally, pairing mindfulness training with wearable devices has been shown to lower employee stress levels. One study showed that employees who used a breathing device after mindfulness training had lower stress levels.⁹
Understanding why we get so stressed at work is the first step toward dealing with that stress. Using the tools and information provided, you can begin to take control of your own stress and that of your employees.
Webster, J. R., Beehr, T. A., & Christiansen, N. D. (2010). Toward a better understanding of the effects of hindrance and challenge stressors on work behavior. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 76(1), 68–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2009.06.012
Pearsall, M. J., Ellis, A. P. J., & Stein, J. H. (2009). Coping with challenge and hindrance stressors in teams: Behavioral, cognitive, and affective outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(1), 18–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.02.002
Crane, M. F., & Searle, B. J. (2016). Building resilience through exposure to stressors: The effects of challenges versus hindrances. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 21(4), 468–479. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040064
LePine, J. A., LePine, M. A., & Jackson, C. L. (2004). Challenge and Hindrance Stress: Relationships With Exhaustion, Motivation to Learn, and Learning Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 883–891.
Sessions, H., Nahrgang, J. D., Newton, D. W., & Chamberlin, M. (2020). I’m tired of listening: The effects of supervisor appraisals of group voice on supervisor emotional exhaustion and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(6), 619–636. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000455
Kelloway, E. K. (2017). Mental health in the workplace: Towards evidence-based practice. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 58(1), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000084
Wolever, R. Q., Bobinet, K. J., McCabe, K., Mackenzie, E. R., Fekete, E., Kusnick, C. A., & Baime, M. (2012). Effective and viable mind-body stress reduction in the workplace: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 17(2), 246–258. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027278
Grant, A. M. (2017). Solution-focused cognitive–behavioral coaching for sustainable high performance and circumventing stress, fatigue, and burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69(2), 98–111. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000086
Smith, E. N., Santoro, E., Moraveji, N., Susi, M., & Crum, A. J. (2020). Integrating wearables in stress management interventions: Promising evidence from a randomized trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(2), 172–182. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000137