While workplace stress can be a problem for employees and organizations, researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have found that doing more on-the-job learning led to less counterproductive behavior in a person’s reaction to stress than traditional relaxation techniques.
“When jobs are consistently stressful, managers may feel that they are rather constrained in trying to reduce transgressions in the workplace,” says David Mayer, an associate professor of management and organizations at the U-M Ross School of Business.
Workplace deviance refers to employee behavior such as taking company property, acting rudely, or inappropriately discussing confidential information that threatens the well-being of an organization. In two studies with U.S. employees working in finance, healthcare, and education, Mayer and his co-authors, Chen Zhang and Eun Bit Hwang, found that learning buffers the 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,” adds Zhang. “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.”
The study found that relaxation can be useful in helping employees reduce fatigue or to calm the mind, but not in reducing specific workplace deviance issues. Though our bodies may want rest when we’re under stress, the research suggests that doing something positive, like learning a skill pertinent to the job, can be a better coping mechanism.