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Why pressure doesn't deserve it's bad name

Updated: Jul 23, 2021


Pressure kills! We’ve all heard the headlines where individuals have been worked so hard, they’ve dropped dead. Did you know that ‘Karoshi’ is the Japanese word that translates as ‘death from overwork’ and describes suicides, heart attacks and strokes due to long hours of work?

A bit’s okay but not too much


Current thinking around pressure is that its ok as long as its kept moderate, and doesn’t become excessive, as once it goes there it becomes dangerous to our health.

In this article I’m going to talk about pressure, and why it might not be the villain its being made out to be. Maybe there are benefits to pressure that we miss out on by thinking of it in overly black and white terms.

A game of two halves

When we talk about pressure, we tend to focus on just one end of the scale. But clearly there’s a spectrum, with far too much pressure and feeling overwhelmed at one end, and absolute boredom at the other. The overwhelm end of the scale gets all of the attention and negative press, whilst the boredom end seems to get off scott-free.

A 1997 research paper in the BMJ (British medical journal) describes an experiment where researchers screened 6191 men aged 40-59 years old, who had been in continuous employment for the previous five years. They then followed them for a further five and a half years, and found that the men who had been unemployed during the 5.5 year follow up period were twice as likely to die as those who had remained in continuous employment.

This was even after factoring in for lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking etc. They also found that even those who retired early for non-health reasons and were in good health, were at greater risk of death than those who remained employed.

Too much or not enough?

According to Occupational Psychologist, Brian Simpson, “those who suddenly lose their sense of challenge frequently enter a period of mental and physical decline”. So maybe there is a solid argument to be made that its not just excessive pressure we need to avoid, but also a lack of pressure and responsibility.

Learning to give up

In a previous article I've talked about 'Learned Helplessness', the 'giving up response' that can be harmful to health. We can give up at either end of the pressure scale.

We can give up when we feel so overwhelmed, we can’t continue, and we can also give up when we experience constant defeat and failure, such as in the example of the long term unemployed, long term sick, homeless etc... It’s easy to see how apathy can kick in when every day is the same, and things never seem like they’re going to improve.

Responsibility is health enhancing

According to Organisational Psychologist, Dr Rob Briner, “there is some evidence that people who have a lot of responsibilities and goals actually thrive more than others who are focused on one goal”. Have a think about how you feel in your own life when you have lots going on, where you’re at a level where you’ve got plenty to juggle, but you feel in control. How does that feel?

A question of balance

So maybe we’ve been getting it wrong when it comes to pressure. Maybe by fearing stepping into discomfort, we’ve at the same time been missing out on something that’s actually health enhancing rather than destructive.

Famous Psychologist, and the inventor of the concept of ‘Flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi certainly seems to think so. He talks about how, “One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated, and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them”. So maybe pressure is something we should be seeking more of rather than less...

Enjoyment and flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a slightly different conception of ‘enjoyment’ than most of us tend to use in our everyday conversations. To him, ‘enjoyment’ is different from pleasure, which he says can be found in good food, entertainment, holidays etc.

He believes enjoyment is what makes our lives rewarding, and he says that “enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation, or satisfied a need or desire, but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before”. Here he’s clearly talking about stepping outside of our comfort zone to achieve enjoyment.

When describing ‘enjoyment’ Csikszentmihalyi goes on to add that “none of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “that was really fun”, and wish they would happen again”. He adds that “after an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect we have become more complex as a result of it”.

This appears to point to the fact that it is by placing ourselves under the right amount of pressure we actually grow rather than deteriorate. Therefore, by fearing pressure we miss out on these growth-enhancing opportunities

The Goldilocks pressure principle

We can maybe think of pressure in life like the bowls of porridge in the story of Goldilocks and the 3 bears... Rather than focusing on avoiding pressure, we actually need to focus on ensuring our pressure porridge never becomes too cold for long (boredom) and also never becomes too hot for long (overwhelm), but rather we concentrate our efforts on ensuring its ‘just right’ (enjoyment) so we can be constantly thriving and growing.

By doing the above we avoid the two extremes of the pressure scale which lead to resignation and giving up, and all of the detrimental health impacts that come along with them.

Workers in Flow

In ‘Flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous book, he talks about a research paper they conducted where they gave a group of 100 men and women pagers and asked them to report how they were feeling when they received pager messages across the week.

They also asked them to record the skill level of the task they were working on, alongside how much of a challenge it was. Their findings showed that when the level of challenge and the level of skill required were both high people felt happier, more cheerful, stronger and more active.

Flow - aka the ‘zone’

Flow occurs when the level of the challenge meets the skill level of the individual, and is often referred to as an 'optimal state'. The remedy when somebody moves into overwhelm due to their pressure porridge being too hot, rather than reducing the challenge, we might try to develop them and increase their skill level so they can move back into flow. And at the other end of the scale, if somebody is experiencing boredom, we need to heat up their pressure porridge by increasing the level of challenge.

A lesson from our hobbies

Think of a skill you currently have. Maybe you play tennis or play chess, or another competitive activity. Think back to the opponents you struggled against at first and maybe felt overwhelmed by, and consider how that level of opposition would make you feel now. Bored perhaps? So, the obvious answer was to increase the level of challenge (opponent) as your skill level increased, otherwise you would have become bored.

But this increase in challenge can’t be too drastic as we may feel overwhelmed and out of our depth. Both of these extremes might lead to us giving up (resignation)

According to Csikszentmihalyi, “it is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery”. To repeat his earlier words, “one cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We either grow bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them”.

More responsibility = more flow

The earlier mentioned workplace study also found that managers and supervisors experienced the most flow (64% of them), clerical workers (51%) and blue-collar workers at 47%. These findings indicate a connection between greater work pressure and responsibility and greater flow, contradicting the common thinking that high levels of pressure and responsibility have a detrimental effect.

So, what does all this mean?

Maybe pressure isn’t the villain it’s been labelled as after all. Maybe the very thing we’ve conditioned ourselves to avoid contains health enhancing properties that stay tightly locked away when we believe pressure is bad for us.

The studies mentioned above highlight harms that come from not enough pressure, as we saw in those unemployed, and that many of those with the most pressure find more reward and fulfilment in their jobs.

By helping employees get into and maintain flow we offer them a valuable gift that will serve them in life, as knowing how to avoid the extremes of boredom and overwhelm and the resulting ‘giving up’ can only ever be a good thing.

Where to next?

Let’s start welcoming pressure and apply the ‘Goldilocks pressure principle’ and coach our team members to hit that ‘just right’ spot where they move into enjoyment by stepping slightly outside their comfort zones, as according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “these periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives”. He goes on to add that “by stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual”.

If you take a look at the activities many of us do for leisure you'll notice that pressure and tension play a key role in what draws us to them, ranging from competitive sports and gameshows, through to horror films, soaps, board games and extreme sports! Remove the pressure and tension and you remove the appeal!


Jonathan Pittam

Mental Health Educator


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