Stress is a Good Thing…

Or Not!

Part of a leader’s job is to create stress.

But before you get stressed about that statement, let’s dig a little deeper.

Eustress vs. Distress

StressIn 1974, Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye introduced the term “Eustress” (Greek prefix “eu-“ means “good) to distinguish positive stress from its negative form, “distress”.

Stress, in itself, is a normal response to pressure. Putting weight on a steel beam will stress that beam. As long as the beam has the capacity to carry that weight, the beam is just doing what it was made for. Put more weight on it than it can handle and that beam will be in a state of distress.

Human beings are more complex than steel beams, so our stress may come in different forms, such as physical, emotional, mental, or relational. But stress is essential to growth. Your muscles, for example, will become weak if never stressed. Change always creates stress, and without it we can’t change and therefore can’t grow.

It’s a leader’s job to help their followers reach their full potential. That growth requires change, and that means stress. So a leader who seeks to remove all stress is not helping their followers grow. But a leader who injects distress into the environment isn’t promoting growth either.

The Leader’s Dilemma

A big challenge in growing our leadership skills is learning to recognize whether we’re inducing eustress or distress into our followers and our work environment. Let’s look at some characteristics of each:



Energizes and motivates; challenging but manageable Creates anxiety and concern; overwhelming
Within our coping ability; resources are available to feed confidence Hard to cope with – feel helpless; lack resources to handle successfully
Increases focus and performance Decreases focus and performance
Only lasts a short time; can see a solution or way out May last a short or long time; no light at the end of the tunnel
Strengthens physical/mental/emotional capacity Negative physical/mental/emotional impact

As leaders, we need to be aware that what creates eustress in one person might create distress in another. Not everyone brings the same skills, knowledge, or other resources to bear, so capacity to handle a particular stress will vary. As leaders, our job is to make sure each of our followers has the resources they need to do the job.

Stress capacity isn’t broken into compartments like “work”, “family”, or “school”. So our ability to handle stress at work will be impacted by the stresses outside of work. That’s one reason why your star performer may suddenly not be able to carry the same load as before.

So a good leader will seek to recognize the current capacity of each follower to handle stress as eustress without inflicting distress. Like with our physical muscles, be sensitive to the need for even strong people to rest between workouts. They will burnout if you keep the pedal-to-the-metal all the time.

Next time we’ll explore the impact of our mindset on stress. (

© 2023 enLumen Leadership Services

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