Talent Management Column on Stress

New research on resilience finds it might be possible to teach people how to interpret stressful situations as something useful and thereby enable them to change the way they respond to them.

Monday, February 25, 2013
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The topic that has most interested me in my academic career has probably been how jobs and employment have been changing over time. The biggest change in our lifetimes has occurred for executives, managers and other white-collar workers, and that is the end of lifetime employment. A generation ago, white-collar workers of all kinds essentially had a job for life. The downside was that it was in the same company, and if you were not happy there, you were pretty much stuck because opportunities to get a similar job elsewhere were just about zero.

Being laid off is just one of the important forces behind this change. Another is trying to get a new job. And that goes beyond simply getting another job after losing one. People who already have jobs obviously try to change employers to get ahead. So, the pattern of losing jobs, hunting for new ones, interviewing to secure a new offer, goes on and on.

Ok, so what's interesting about that? For one thing, most people find not only being laid off, but particularly the near-constant process of shopping for and trying to secure another job to be very stressful. It's a high-stakes exercise. It was certainly unpleasant - and perhaps more political and personal -- when career advancement took place only inside the same company. But the ability to get yourself up after losing a job, and then get out there and sell yourself to a new employer, requires something unique.    

And that takes us to the general topic of resilience. Some people really can't handle this different environment, but others probably thrive in it. Why is that? And what -- if anything -- could be done to help people better prepare for it?

There's a lot of research that might point to an answer, but I recent was particularly struck by the findings of a survey of studies about the role of genetics in handling stress, featured in the New York Times. Some of the research studied young students who were taking high-stakes exams such as the SATs but, in countries such as Taiwan, with even more consequences for their future. These studies point to differences across individuals in their abilities to process dopamine, a neuro-transmitter that is released in large quantities when we experience stress. The more stress, generally speaking, the more dopamine. If your genetic make-up allows you to process the surge of dopamine quickly, you actually do better in such stressful contexts. You are sharper mentally than those who process dopamine more slowly in these stressful situations. But people in the former group may actually do worse in other less-stressful contexts.

Perhaps most interesting about this research is the suggestion that it might be possible to teach people how to interpret stress as something useful in order to change how they respond to it, perhaps overriding the genetic predisposition.

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A very reasonable response to research such as this is to think: "Isn't it odd that we are talking about how we can change people to overcome their genetic background in order to accommodate the quirky nature of the contemporary job market?"  There are already pills that do a lot of this, of course. Performers and professional musicians often take beta blockers to prevent the jumpiness that comes from high stress, for example. But these are for very short-term events. Preparing oneself for a career of self-marketing is something quite different.

On the other hand, we already do a lot of time-consuming and difficult things to get ahead. (How many networking events have you been to?)  So, maybe this is no different.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.




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