Stress IS good for you – but you have to learn to control it

Despite all the negative effects of stress, I’ve always thought there was an upside.

Stress ­concentrates the mind, keeps you alert, improves your efficiency and even hikes up your productivity.

New research says, however, that to enjoy these benefits of stress you have to feel in control of the task in hand and be involved in decisions such as timetables and deadlines.

Researchers from the University of Indiana’s Business School have followed more than 10,000 workers in their sixties since 2004.

To measure the stress of their jobs, employees were asked how hard they worked, how much they needed to concentrate and if they were overworked.

Seven years later, those who worked in high-stress, low-control jobs were most likely to have died.

Cancer was found to be the leading cause of death among the study group, with stress known to be a risk factor.

People also died from circulatory diseases, with the authors speculating that those who were stressed may overeat and smoke as a coping mechanism.

Those with the most demanding jobs – and no control over them – are 15% more likely to die than those with less taxing careers. Also, people in high-stress, low-control jobs tend to be overweight.

But on the other hand, being in a stressful job with control over your deadlines and the freedom to set your own goals has health benefits.

Workers in more demanding jobs, who felt in control, were a third less likely to die than those in less stressful careers. They also find stress stimulating.

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City

Lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mule said: “These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision making.”

The message for employers is ­restructure jobs to give employees more say about how work gets done.

Professor Gonzalez-Mule said: “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow people to set their own goals, set their own schedules, and prioritise their decision making and the like.

“When you don’t have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you might eat more or smoke more to cope with it.”

Stressful jobs cause you to find ways to problem solve and work through ways to get the work done. Having a higher amount of control gives you the resources you need to do that.

A stressful job then, instead of being something debilitating, can actually be something that is energising.