You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust the sails.

Proverb

Chronic stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States. Not only that, it’s directly related to heart disease and declining mental health.[1] Over the last few decades, studies in Industrial and Organizational Psychology have identified a trend of escalating job-related stress. Research has also confirmed that pressure on-the-job is a major source of stress for American adults. In fact, 80% of workers report feeling stress on the job, and 40% report their jobs to be ‘extremely stressful.’[2] Job stress is often dismissed, or even encouraged, as a natural part of the workplace environment, but how much stress is too much? How do we filter the good from the bad? Research suggests that the answer lies with emotional intelligence.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability and willingness to attend and modify emotions in the self and others. This is done through empathy and controlled emotional expression. People who are high in EI are both self-aware and self-controlled. They are also able to empathize with others.

Stress and EI

In addition to having many interpersonal benefits, research shows that EI can act as a buffer for stress – both inside the workplace and out. A study done by researchers at Athens University of Economics and Business at the University of Greece found that higher levels of EI were associated with lower levels of stress in the workplace. Similarly, researchers at the University of Maryland Business Administration Program found that employees with higher EI handled pressure and performed better under stress than employees with low EI.[2]

To the average observer, it may appear that emotionally intelligent individuals tend to be less stressed. The reality, however, is that people high in EI aren’t less stressed, they simply respond more adaptively to the stress they do experience. Studies comparing participants’ performance under pressure find that individuals who scored higher in EI demonstrated less mood deterioration, less physiological arousal, lower physical discomfort, and better performance on memory tasks than those who scored low in EI. High EI also correlates with better psychological wellbeing, educational attainment, and job-related success.[3] In this way EI is more than just a buffer against workplace stress, it subsequently enables strong performance as well.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and Cognitive Reframing

A common misconception is that all stress harms mental health and performance. In reality, stress can be highly motivating when it is experienced at the right level, in the right way. One model for the relationship between stress and productivity is the Yerkes-Dodson Law. This law outlines how moderate levels of stress enable optimal levels of performance. On the other hand, too little stress may be unmotivating, and too much stress may be overwhelming (Figure 1).[4]  

workplace stress

On the Yerkes-Dodson curve, individuals who are high in EI have a higher threshold for optimal arousal. This can be attributed to the fact that emotionally intelligent individuals frequently engage in ‘cognitive reframing.’ Cognitive reframing is the process of taking negative experiences and intentionally perceiving them in a positive light (i.e. top-down pressure, tight timelines, large workloads). This allows people who are high in EI to cope with larger levels of stress, because they consider it an enabler rather than a disabler of productivity.

A simple way to practice cognitive reframing is to recognize physiological stress responses and think of them as your body’s way of equipping you for battle. Stress responses are generally physical before they become emotional. Under pressure, the brain produces hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. We feel emotional stress once these hormones enter the bloodstream and can lead to fight or flight responses (i.e. increased heart rate vs. paralysis and fear). Rather than allowing sweaty hands and a racing heart to escalate into outbursts of anger or nervous breakdowns, you can choose to recognize these symptoms as positive. Reframing stress in this way not only prevents it from becoming a disabler, it allows stress to boost confidence and improve performance.  

Three Ways to Boost EI and Lower Workplace Stress

Social skills like EI are commonly considered innate; either you have them or you don’t. Biopsychosocial models highlight the importance of genetic influences, but they also emphasize gene-environment interactions in childhood and adult development. Research is increasingly supporting the idea that social skills, including EI, can be developed and improved. In light of those findings, here are three easy ways you can boost your EI and lower workplace stress at the same time:

  1. Practice Mindfulness. People who are emotionally intelligent take time to observe and reflect. They control their impulses and do not act irrationally. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to learn how to think, speak, and act with intent. If you’re unfamiliar with mindfulness, click here to read SIGMA’s resources on the benefits of mindfulness for individuals and organizations.
  2. Be Authentic. Studies have shown that people often experience feelings of inauthenticity at work. This lack of transparency can quickly damage trust, disable communication, and dismantle teams. Being authentic is one of the simplest ways to reduce stress and anxiety associated with strained relationships. It’s also one of the best ways to build confidence and network meaningfully with others.
  3. Seek Coaching. Evidence suggests that coaching can increase an individual’s level of insight by more than 60%.[5] Not only that, 1 in 2 employees who receive coaching report improved work relationships and the ability to see other perspectives. These results are likely due to the fact that coaching scaffolds the cognitive mechanisms involved in EI. Coaches ask probing questions and model active listening. They give constructive criticism, but also offer motivation and support. SIGMA’s coaching philosophy builds on a behavior change model where self-awareness is the first-step; we intentionally work on developing EI first. If you want to improve your EI, pursue opportunities for guidance and mentorship, and be intentional about mentoring others, SIGMA’s individual and group coaching services are a great place to start. 

How SIGMA Can Help

Are you interested in understanding and developing your emotional intelligence more? Take a look at SIGMA’s Multidimensional Emotional Intelligence Assessment-Revised (MEIA-R). The MEIA-R is a brief, personality-based assessment that measures 11 distinct facets of EI. The workplace version, the MEIA-W-R, tailors the content of the MEIA-R to assess EI in a work setting. Both assessments can help to understand human behavior and emotion, develop self-awareness, build critical people skills, assist with guidance and career counseling, and conduct research in a variety of settings.

Contact us if you have questions or would like to speak with an executive coach about how we can help you understand and develop your emotional intelligence.


[1] Whitener, S. (June 26, 2019). How Emotional Intelligence Can Increase Your Stress Resilience. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/06/26/how-emotional-intelligence-can-increase-your-stress-resilience/#51dc1bad3ae4.

[2] Deutschendorf, H. (March 16, 2017). 7 Ways Emotional Intelligence Can Help Us Cope With Stress and Prevent Burnout. Business 2 Community. Retrieved from https://www.business2community.com/human-resources/7-ways-emotional-intelligence-can-help-us-cope-stress-prevent-burnout-01797637.

[3] Lea, R.G., Davis, S.K., Mahoney, B. & Qualter, P. (2019). Does Emotional Intelligence Buffer the Effects of Acute Stress? A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00810.

[4] Gino, F. (April 14, 2016). Are You Too Stressed to be Productive? Or Not Stressed Enough? Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/04/are-you-too-stressed-to-be-productive-or-not-stressed-enough.

[5] Marber, J. (2007). ARE THERE ANY TANGIBLE BENEFITS TO COACHING ARE THERE ANY POSITIVE FINANCIAL RETURNS? Clear Coaching Ltd.