Employees and companies can work together to address higher performance standards

January 9, 2023 - Megan Borders

A UNM business school researcher has a new approach to help workers cope better with job stress caused by higher expectations and performance standards. Dr. Trevor Spoelma, assistant professor at the Anderson School of Management, shares his findings on some simple strategies that show promising results.

How Employees React to Work Pressure

Dr. Trevor SpoelmaEmployees can face pressure to perform well at work. These pressures can come from rising global competition, advances in technology, or simply not enough workers to do the work. Higher workplace stress can be both helpful and harmful to employee productivity. Outcomes can range from good – employees becoming more efficient and skilled at tasks, to bad – employees cheating to meet company goals. Harmful effects can cause a person to enter a "self-protection" mindset to avoid severe backlash like being fired.

“Helping employees find ways to overcome the harmful effects of performance pressure is important, because there will always be pressure to perform at work,” Spoelma said. “It’s also more practical to give employees tools to deal with it in a positive way than to try and remove the increased pressure altogether.”

In his 2021 study recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, he talks about his process for testing the role of personal values affirmations in lab and field studies with university students and working adults.

The Studies

In the lab experiment, half the students were given a task to work on with high performance pressure and half were given the same task with no performance pressure. Before starting the task, some completed a personal values affirmation exercise where they spent a short time writing about beliefs and traits that were important to them. Of the group that faced performance pressure, those who did not do the short reflection felt angrier and were more likely to cheat on the task to avoid failure. However, those who did the reflection had similar responses to those who did not face pressure. This finding was repeated among a sample of working adults facing performance pressure in their jobs.

How Companies can Adopt this Approach

Dr. Spoelma suggests that companies encourage this practice by suggesting it along with other stress management tips, as well as giving employees time to do personal values affirmation exercises at work, specifically during very busy or high-stress times.

“Companies should also be open to employees bringing items with positive meaning into their work environment,” Spoelma said. “For example, the shoe store Zappos encourages employees to decorate their workspaces to show their personalities. These kinds of symbols at work can help employees remember important non-work parts of themselves.”

Spoelma also suggests companies allow employees time off to work on self-affirming activities like volunteering.

Trevor Spoelma, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of management at The University of New Mexico Anderson School of Management. His research focuses on helping organizational leaders manage diverse teams effectively and reducing the negative effects of unethical and deviant behavior in the workplace. He teaches courses on negotiations, organizational behavior and diversity.