Stress vs Pressure: Why It Matters When You have Too Much To Do

Written by Emotional Intelligence Experts, JP Pawliw-Fry and Bill Benjamin

In a 12,000 person study conducted for the New York Times bestselling book, Performing Under Pressure, it was identified that people who are top performers are able to differentiate between stress and pressure when they feel the pressure of doing more with less.  Understanding this differences is important because it has a direct influence on doing our best when it matters most in environments when there is too much to do and too little time and resources. Why? Because we can waste precious time, focus and energy – the very things in short supply – if we don’t.

You can think of pressure moments as stressful moments in which the consequences or results matter. In other words, pressure moments or situations might feel like stress in our bodies and in our thinking, but they are different because something — your success or your survival — is truly on the line. Stress, on the other hand, can feel very similar in our bodies but less is on the line.

A longer meeting than you expected or a colleague letting you down on deliverables might feel like a pressure situation when, in fact, it is certainly an inconvenience but it may not be significant to your success. If you don’t see this difference, you start to feel that you are always “under the gun,” that you always have to produce. You start to develop anxiety. Everything becomes super-important, which needlessly intensifies and elicits feelings of pressure. Here is the problem: we react physically, mentally, and behaviorally in ways that are out of proportion to the circumstances and when a true pressure moment is facing us, our energy and focus are low and we can’t deliver up to our best ability. In a moment that truly matters most, we are far below what we are capable of.

While this is true for both women and men, there are some differences. In our research on women under pressure, we found that women face an extra layer of pressure. Women consistently have less of a built-in network and more challenges or obstacles to gain status in organizations.  They can feel alone as the only woman on a team, senior or not, and whatever style they use may not fit the established norms. They face a juxtaposition of both being under represented and thus less supported yet simultaneously being more visible than men and garnering more attention simply on the basis of being female (because there are so few in the room). This creates a pressure where ‘more’ feels on the line with every decision they make or behavior they engage in.

For women, this exacerbates the confusion over what is stressful – something that has to get done but is not going to have a career impact – for what is truly pressure, something that feels stressful (in the body and mind) but also needs to be delivered on or it will have a material impact on our success.

To gain further insight and learn strategies on managing the pressure of having too much to do more with less, join Sara Ross of the Institute for Health and Human Potential for a free Webinar exlusive for WINiT Members: Managing the Pressure of Doing More With Less, on May 26th at 11:00-12:00 EST.   You can register by clicking here.