Stress is an inevitable reality today. No one, irrespective of the age, has remained untouched by it. We see some people handling it very well, while some others succumb to it easily. The difference lies in the approach adopted while faced with stress.
Consider the example of two colleagues (let’s call them Mohit and John) going through a review meeting with their boss. Both had worked together on the assignment. The boss is known to be a task master and a critical reviewer. Knowing his nature, these two professionals had put in their best efforts and prepared for the meeting. Unfortunately, the boss is not happy with the output and asks them to re-look at the deliverables. And he does not mince his words while expressing his dissatisfaction.
This meeting undoubtedly created stress for both the colleagues. But, they deal with it differently. Mohit is upset immediately after the meeting. He heads for a 15 minute coffee break, after which he returns to his desk and reflects on the meeting. He tries to focus on things that they had not anticipated and how they could have foreseen them better. He revisits the initial information and expectations that were set by the boss. Based on past information and inputs received during meeting, he creates a draft plan on way forward. He calls John to discuss it, but John is in no mood to talk about the assignment.
Unlike Mohit, even after few hours, John is still upset. He feels that all his efforts are wasted. He has not been able to concentrate on work since the meeting. He feels that their boss in unreasonable in his expectations. He had been looking for distractions since the meeting, to take his mind off it. He had done some purposeless net surfing, chatted with few friends and had innumerable cups of coffee. He tells John, “I just want to forget that damn meeting. Nothing is ever going to be fine with our boss. He will always be unhappy. I have to get out of this mess. I am planning to head straight to the bar this evening and get myself a huge mug of cold beer!”
Needless to say, given this situation, Mohit has been able to handle the stress better. He has been able to do it because of the approach he adopted. Lazarus and Folkman (in 1984) had defined that human beings take two approaches while dealing with stress: problem-focused and emotion-focused.
Mohit had taken the problem-focused approach to deal with the stress. He tried to tackle the source of stress, instead of trying to escape from it. He analyzed the situation by reflecting on the meeting, inputs provided during the meeting and re-looking at past data. Post this, he focused on creating a plan for way forward in order to avoid future stress from same source.
In contrast, John adopted the emotion-focused approach. He blamed his boss for being unreasonable and felt helpless. He tried to take his mind-off the stress by looking for distractions. This could hardly give him the respite he was looking for, as his mind kept going back to the stress. It may seem natural to look for distraction while faced with stress. However, the benefit of such distractions are very short-lived. The emotion-focused approach does not give any long-term solution.
Emotion-focused approach would work well in situations where the person has absolutely no control over the situation. Take the case of death in a family. It’s a huge stress, and emotion-focused approach – leading to diverting the mind – would be an ideal approach to deal with such stress.
Problem-focused approach works best in situations where the person has control over the situation and can do something about the stress. It applies to most work-place related stress. It’s hard to accept, especially while going through the stress, that we have control over what’s happening to us at work place. But, if we look at things rationally, it’s obvious that we have at least some control over what’s happening to us at workplace. Thus, adopting an emotion-focused approach while dealing with work-place stress will only result in prolonged agony and shoving unresolved issues under the carpet.