Study: Learning something new could help reduce stress

September 29, 2017

Research by Professor David Mayer and PhD students Chen Zhang and Eun Bit Hwang shows on-the-job learning helps curb counterproductive behavior.

Work stress can lead to a whole host of problems for employees and organizations. While our own intuition and some studies suggest the value of relaxation techniques such as meditation or exercise, there’s another alternative that could work even better.

Michigan Ross Professor David Mayer found that doing more on-the-job learning led to less counterproductive behavior in reaction to stress than relaxation.

“When jobs are consistently stressful, managers may feel that they are rather constrained in trying to reduce transgressions in the workplace,” says Mayer, Michael R. and Mary Kay Hallman Fellow and associate professor of management and organizations.

Workplace deviance refers to employee behavior such as taking company property, acting rudely, or discussing confidential information in a way that threatens the well-being of the organization.

In two studies with U.S. employees working in a variety of industries such as finance, healthcare, and education, Mayer and his co-authors Chen Zhang and Eun Bit Hwang, both Ross PhD students, found that learning buffered the workplace stress, while relaxation did not.

“When it comes to addressing negative emotions and actions in stressful work environments, building positive resources by learning something new at work could be more useful than relaxing,” Zhang said. “When an individual comes out of relaxation activities at work and realizes the stressful situation hasn’t changed, it may generate frustration and reverse the benefits of relaxation.”

Relaxation is useful in helping employees reduce fatigue or to calm the mind. But when it comes to applying it to workplace deviance issues, managers and employees may not find it useful.

“Managers may want to offer opportunities for employees to learn new things in their work. Similarly, employees who wish to prevent their own conduct from falling prey to stressful factors can also seek ways to learn something new in their everyday work,” said Zhang.

Although our body may tell us to rest when under stress, this research suggests that doing something positive, such as learning, may be a better way to overcome the perils of stress.

This article was originally published in Ross Thought in Action.