What leaders need to know about the work/life stress spillover

When I was doing my Masters dissertation about the effectiveness of mindset interventions in the workplace to reduce stress and promote psychological capital, the concept of work/life stress spillover kept appearing in research papers.

Research also supported the view that this is a hidden cancer costing your organisation a lot of money in terms of lost profitability, increased sick leave and mental health leave and staff turnover.

So what is the work/life stress spillover?

This is the phenomenon where stresses in one domain begin to impact performance and wellbeing in another domain. Many studies have shown that this is a bi-directional phenomenon. So more specifically there is a work to life spillover and a life to work spillover.

Work to life spillover – This occurs when demands and stresses of work negatively impact personal life. For example, long work hours, tight deadlines and workplace conflicts can lead to stress which results in reduced time for social and family activities and general irritability at home, which impacts on personal relationships.

Life to work spillover – Conversely, this occurs when the stresses and demands of personal life start to negatively impact a person’s work. For example, personal stresses such as family conflicts, financial stress, health issues and care-giving responsibilities, can lead to reduced productivity and concentration and increased absenteeism and negative behaviours towards others.

A downward spiral…

Naturally this can create a downward spiral which continues. For example, if home stress is causing reduced work performance and negative behaviours, this can lead to increased workplace stress which is then again carried into the personal domain.

Compartmentalising isn’t really a thing

This goes to show that compartmentalising isn’t really a thing for many people. It’s not just a matter of leaving your troubles at the door when you turn up to work.

Studies performed on people using MRI machines showed that suppression of emotion burns through lot of cognitive energy – cognitive energy which could obviously be put to better use.

So even if people were trying to “block out” their stresses when they move from one domain to another, they would end up with reduced productivity and negative behaviour due to additional cognitive fatigue.

How do we solve the problem?

Both employers and employees play a crucial role in reducing work/life stress spillover.

Employers need to provide the environment and coaching on how to reduce it and the employees – well they need to implement said coaching and utilise said environment.

Build psychological capital

Psychological capital refers to attributes which research has shown to have a positive impact on performance AND wellbeing (yep it’s not an either/or situation).

These elements are hope, self-efficacy (self-confidence), resilience to stress and challenges, and optimism.

My critical review of the literature around this for my dissertation showed that psychological capital is like a muscle and can be increased with the use of mindset interventions.

So what are some of these mindset interventions and are they effective?

Short answer – yes they can be very effective, and there are actions we can do to increase the effectiveness.

Firstly, running sessions to help people understand the mechanics of how these interventions work on the brain and the mind (i.e. from both neuroscience and psychology perspectives) was a crucial first step to increasing the effectiveness as without the science, people were less likely to use the interventions.

The more often the interventions were done, and the more domains they were done in, also increased the effectiveness. For example rather than just utilising these interventions at work, they were more effective when people were doing these interventions at home as well.

And the simpler the invention, and more likely it was to be implemented. No surprises there really!

Gratitude was shown to be very effective in promoting positive emotions. So regularly practice being grateful for even the small things. Interestingly you can’t have a negative thought at the same time as you are being grateful for something, so it’s a great circuit breaker for negative thinking.

Exercises celebrating the great work that you did at the end of each day was shown to increase the self-efficacy element of psychological capital.

Having a good understanding of how to use stress for performance was also an important part of building resilience.

Overall both employers and employees need to take responsibility for decreasing the work/life stress spillover. Simple mindset interventions can be effective when you partner with the right people to help you implement these – all based on science.

At Next Evolution Performance, we have many workshops covering the foundations of performance mindset, to building psychological capital and then developing an advanced performance mindset (for high performers with big targets).

If you are interested in helping your team to build their psychological capital, please book your performance call to discuss you current and desired situation. Get in touch.