Aiming for the sweet spot in the middle, where the right pressure equals peak performance and health, takes careful self-management and practice.
The pressure performance curve is a management tool that can help. Its zones of comfort and stretch show the path to peak performance, avoiding the dangers of boreout, burnout, and the zone of delusion along the way.
Pressure, performance and stress
The pressure performance curve is a bell-shaped trajectory that charts the relationship between pressure and performance. You may know this curve as the stress curve. They are one and the same, but it’s more useful to think of ‘pressure’ instead of ‘stress’ because stress, for most people, is a negative experience. Strictly speaking, stress can be positive, but if we use the word pressure instead, we remove any negative connotations.
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed a first version of the pressure performance curve back in 1908. They used it to show the relationship between arousal (pressure) and performance for Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Our version, above, incorporates several fresh ideas that make it a useful tool for understanding, and managing, pressure in the workplace.
You can see from the graph that pressure runs along the x-axis horizontally from low to very high. Performance is along the y-axis from low to high. We’ve segmented the bell-shaped pressure performance curve into zones of various colours. These colours represent a traffic light warning system. Green is good; amber is caution; and red is bad.
I’ll step through the various zones on the curve so you can better understand the relationship between pressure and performance as well as their implications for stress and our mental and physical health.
Let’s start on the left in the first zone with low pressure and low performance. Long-term, this low pressure state can result in what Phillipe Rothlin and Peter Werder call “boreout”. Think the opposite of burnout in terms of workload pressure, but with the same debilitating effects.
Boreout can occur when someone is without motivating forces and has no reason to do anything. Imagine just drifting aimlessly, completely bored. It can be fun doing nothing for a while. But sitting watching TV in your pyjamas all day every day is not good for your performance and not good for your health.
Don’t confuse boreout with laziness. Boreout is being perpetually bored because of a lack of challenge.
Everyone needs a minimum amount of pressure to motivate themselves. If a task is too easy, or there are no targets, deadlines or expectations to meet, then performance is usually poor. We rarely get much done unless we have a goal. Either somebody sets our goals for us or we create them ourselves.
Human beings need a sense of purpose in life, just like any other animal does. Ever seen a bored lion pacing back and forth in a zoo? It’s not a healthy state to be in having nothing to do all day long.
For hundreds of thousands of years human survival has been based upon hunting and gathering food, finding shelter, seeking a mate and raising a family. That powerful sense of purpose is hard wired into our genetics. We can’t feel good unless we have a purposeful goal.
You may sometimes find yourself in the boreout zone if your work is repetitive, easy and mundane with little opportunity for social interaction. Even varied work that you see as having little value can lead to boreout.
Boreout sometimes occurs in those who retire. Leaving work without firm plans for the future, or without creating any new motivating forces, goals or deadlines can be a recipe for long-term boredom.
Gardening, volunteering, hobbies, pastimes and helping out with the family can all provide a much-needed sense of purpose. If retirees don’t go after positive pressures, they often end up going back to work. This is not for financial reasons, but to get some structure and sense of purpose back into their lives.
According to a study by the RAND Center for the Study of Aging, nearly 50% of all retirees in the US continue to work part time, or return to work fully, after they have retired.
Remember, everyone is unique. Personality traits, skill levels, experience and particular preferences for certain types of work mean it’s impossible to predict which situations will cause boreout in everyone. So you must look for the signs.
Signs of boreout
Not only do we not perform well with insufficient pressure, the resultant tedium can also be very stressful. The signs of boreout include:
The boreout zone is red for a reason. Spending too long in that zone is not a good place to be. Long-term boredom can be very stressful, even though there’s negligible pressure.
What to do about boreout
Managers need to provide a level of challenge that moves team members out of the boreout zone. If colleagues appear to be languishing, consider how you can help them progress, take on new skills and feel more challenged. What can you do to make the job more interesting and rewarding? Can their role become more varied, perhaps? Or could you set challenges that will motivate them?
Moving on from boreout, there’s a transition and then we are into the comfort zone. You’ll recognise this as a moderate level of pressure that feels comfortable. It’s enough to motivate you to get things done and you can function happily here.
We can’t quantify what a moderate level of pressure would be. It’s not hours worked or problems solved. The levels of pressure are deliberately vague because one person’s idea of moderate can differ from another’s.
For example, if I’ve spent the last ten years in a job writing reports for senior management and today I have to produce an important report for the CEO, writing that report might be comfortable for me. An experienced writer used to an audience at that level should be in their comfort zone. However, if I ask a new starter to produce the same report on their first day, that would be a very high-pressure situation.
We must consider people’s skills, capabilities, experience and personality traits because this is a perception of pressure, not an objective measure. We should also consider the other pressures everyone of us has in our lives. Pressure is cumulative and it doesn’t respect work-life boundaries.
The comfort zone results in a good level of performance, but staying in the comfort zone all the time is not to be encouraged. Everyone needs to stretch.
There are two crucial reasons everyone needs to stretch:
- Peak performance occurs when you stretch
- You cannot grow unless you can stretch
Taking yourself outside your comfort zone to the point of stretch is akin to reaching a flow state. Flow is being totally immersed in a task that requires your full attention and effort so you are fully utilising yourself.
At the point of stretch, your body’s stress response releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which help us perform at our best. We think more clearly, our vision is sharper, our hearing more acute. The fight-or-flight response raises our game to deal with short-term stress.
We don’t want people stretched all the time, though. That would be exhausting. No-one can perform at their peak all day long. That’s why chunking tasks and interspersing breaks is a smart work strategy. An ideal zone for work is one which cycles between comfort and stretch.
Evenings and weekends are important times to unwind and reduce the pressure over a longer period, but don’t forget about lunchtimes, mid-morning and mid -afternoon breaks. If you are managing your own work, chunk it into blocks of stretch, then rest.
I recommend the Pomodoro Technique of chunking up work into 25 minutes of stretch and then 5 minutes of rest. After four stretches I have a complete half-hour break. That way, over an 8 hour day, I get a mid-morning break, a lunch break, mid-afternoon break and five minute micro breaks every 25 minutes throughout.
I am not mandating breaks of complete rest for everyone — although ideally you should get up from your desk if you are a sedentary worker — but they should be time for you to get back into your comfort zone. Do something easy and familiar to you at the very least.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but you get more done by working less. It’s your level of performance when you are working that counts.
So, you’ve been in the stretch zone too long, the pressure’s increased and you’ve had no time to recover. What happens? You enter the strain zone.
When pressure is too high, performance decreases. For a while it will exceed that of the comfort zone but soon the effects of stress take over, fatigue sets in and errors are made. Stress symptoms will begin to develop. Frustration, anxiety, poor concentration and shame about not being able to cope take over. Performance begins to plummet.
When pressure is very high and sustained, we might enter the dangerous, burnout zone. In crisis, we experience exhaustion from chronic stress. Our body perpetually draws on its survival mechanisms as it believes it is in physical danger and the ‘fight or flight’ response takes over. Adrenaline and cortisol are now running the show and we have little chance of focussing on complex mental tasks or making good decisions. We need immediate rest.
In the short term, the symptoms may not cause lasting harm, but long-term stress can take a terrible toll on the human body. Gastrointestinal disorders, heart disease and immunosuppression are all exacerbated by too much stress. As are several mental health conditions.
If you find you or your staff are heading for the burnout zone, then immediately take steps to reduce the sources of pressure. You can’t demand more of yourself or others when performance and health are suffering.
Zone of Delusion
It’s easy to focus too much on the task at hand and not on yourself or your team. Getting the job done is the priority, but we fail to see that we are not getting the job done because we are stressed. If you look back at the pressure performance curve above, you will see that hovering above the strain zone is the Zone of Delusion.
The Zone of Delusion is where we falsely believe our performance will improve if we keep working harder. Rather than getting better and better, our performance decreases with too much pressure. We lose focus; we frantically multitask; make mistakes. The quality of our work suffers as a result.
Managers should be aware of their own tendency to enter the zone of delusion, but also look out for it in their team members. Staff may say they are working effectively, but actually have declining performance. Managers should step in and ensure they take measures to scale down the pressure where possible. They should ensure staff are taking breaks and holidays as well as doing so themselves to act as positive role models.
Managers and employees need to understand and regulate pressure to improve performance and minimise the harmful effects of stress.
We are rarely either totally stressed or completely relaxed, but often somewhere in the middle. Our position can change week-by-week, day-to-day, or even minute-by-minute.
Point to where you are on the pressure performance curve right now. Trace your movement along it over the last week, month or year. What caused you to shift along in either direction? How can you manage the pressures you are under?
Remember: Understanding and managing the relationship between pressure and performance is crucial for your productivity and your health.
Given that employees perform best when the level of pressure is just right, it makes sense to train managers so they know how to manage pressure in the right way.
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