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How workplace learning can reduce employee stress

Stressed at work? Try learning something new.

3 min read


How workplace learning can reduce employee stress


This post is sponsored by the Part-Time MBA: Online at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

American employees are under stress. An estimated 1 million American workers are absent every day due to stress, according to The American Institute of Stress. It’s become a chronic issue for employers as they see increasingly poor health, reduced productivity, and low employee morale in their workplaces.

So what can we do? The answer might be easier than we think: Learning.

It turns out that exerting the effort to learn new skills at work can help reduce workplace stress. That’s according to research done by Professor David Mayer of The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, along with co-authors Chen Zhang and Christopher Myers. They discovered that one of the best ways that professionals can relieve stress is to funnel their efforts into education.

Learning as a stress reliever

Though it may seem counterintuitive, putting time towards a new challenge can actually improve moods, interactions and loyalty among employees. The research, published in Harvard Business Review, showed that employees, across industries and job roles, who approach work with a learning mindset saw a reduction in the negative effects of stress. They had fewer incidents of burnout, conflicts with co-workers and acts of unethical behavior.

Mayer has insight based on this issue beyond his latest research. In his role at Michigan Ross, Mayer witnesses firsthand the positive impact learning can have on business professionals, and he also sees the stress students are under at work. Finding a way to empower students to balance the demands of a current career with continued learning is a goal not only for Mayer, but also the school, which will roll out its Online MBA program this fall.

Along with his co-authors, Mayer began research by looking at the two most common ways that employees handle mounting workplace stress: “buckling down” to power through or taking a break. In the first case, the researchers noted that professionals who push themselves too hard often become less productive in the long run and can experience feelings of resentment and frustration towards their jobs. In the second case, while breaks can offer temporary reprieve from the responsibilities of tasks, they do not address the core feelings of being overwhelmed.

When new learning is introduced, however, employees’ interest piques, generating feelings of competence and resilience. People involved in a portion of the study that engaged in learning activities for two full weeks demonstrated less detrimental behavior at work, including treating colleagues poorly and taking company property when under stress. The people engaged in focused relaxation for the same time period exhibited no change in their behavior triggered by stress at work. Relaxation was enjoyed during the time it took place but did not seem to translate to time back “on the clock.” Other connections were made in the research, all laddering up to one key takeaway: learning had the power to reduce the negative effects of stress.

So, what does this look like in practice? Here are some ideas:

  • Look for ways to weave learning into workplace culture
  • Give employees ample outlets to think strategically and creatively
  • Encourage collaboration and idea exchanges across departmental teams
  • Empower employees to engage in academic pursuits

Giving employees regular opportunities to expand their knowledge base can help build confidence in their skills and counter the negative workplace emotions and behaviors associated with stress.

Learn More

The Michigan Ross Online MBA launches its first class of students in the Fall of 2019. The deadline to enroll is May 20, 2019.