The Science of Stress & Motivation in the Workplace

The Science of Stress & Motivation in the Workplace

Stress is considered a normal part of everyday life, but it is one of the most misunderstood concepts plaguing our society today. We stress about everything from paying the bills to meeting deadlines, maintaining relationships, and getting our kids to school on time.

Unfortunately, stress can activate in milliseconds, turning on and off like a light switch multiple times a day. In the world of psychology, stress is viewed an imbalance between the perception of danger and our ability to manage or overcome that danger. When we’re stressed, our brain is processing a complex set of risk factors including body sensations, internal thoughts, and our external environment in order to make a rapid decision about how to react to the perceived threat. The threat could be external (we see a snake on our hiking trail) or internal (we miss a deadline at work and fear losing our job). This triggers our stress response to turn on instantaneously, shooting our adrenaline and cortisol levels through the roof.

This is otherwise known as our body’s “fight or flight” mechanism. While this is a very good biological mechanism for survival, most of the time our lives are not at risk – but the light switch is still turning on, even when it doesn’t need to. Feeling hungry? The light switch goes on and our body switches into survival mode. Didn’t sleep well? The light switch flips on and reminds our body we haven’t taken care of our physiological needs. Got into an argument with your coworker? Light switch turns on and we stress ourselves out about relationships and our sense of belonging. Our brain often subconsciously activates our stress response and perceives the threat in a greater capacity that it actually needs to be.

Thinking about stress this way is paradigm shifting. It allows us to better understand our stress response and learn how to turn it off just as easily as we turn it on. In doing so, we become more productive, engaged and happy. Let’s take a look at how this would affect our work day.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs applied to employee engagement

At any given point during our workday, we can become more or less engaged depending on a number of both internal and external factors: how interesting we find the work, if we like our co-workers, maybe we had to skip breakfast and now find it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Our engagement can fluctuate on a minute-by-minute basis, just like our stress response! 

Abraham Maslow, who is most well-known for his Hierarchy of Needs, suggests that all human actions are motivated to satisfy five basic needs:

  1. Survival: our need for food, water, air, and shelter
  2. Safety & Security: our need for financial security, good health, and protection from potential threats
  3. Belonging: our need for friendships, family, love, and human connection
  4. Importance: Our need for appreciation and respect from others, as well as self-esteem
  5. Self-actualization: Our desire to fulfill our highest potential

At the time this theory was proposed, Maslow believed that humans needed to satisfy the first level in the pyramid before ascending to the next. Since most of us have food, water, and shelter, we’ve satisfied the “survival” need and can now focus on security. We must then have financial security and good health before committing to a relationship.

In reality, we are moving up and down these hierarchical levels in milliseconds! If our brain is in sympathetic activation (the light switch is turned on) because we are hungry, we are at the very bottom level of the hierarchy. We are most likely disengaged and find it difficult to focus on the task at hand because we haven’t satisfied a basic physiological need. The very next minute our boss might give us praise for a project we recently completed and wants us to roll it out across the company. Zoom! We go right on up to the “importance level”. We feel respected, valued and that we have the support we need to do a good job.

Whether we like it or not, our thoughts have direct control over our stress response and have the ability to turn the light switch on and off all throughout the day. Sometimes, our thoughts are unconscious and this happens without us even realizing it. If we tell ourselves that our day is going to be awful and that we’re going to totally blotch our big presentation, we will immediately notice how this affects our body. We become tense, our breathing may become shallow, and our posture may slouch. Our brain has perceived this threat to be bigger than we can handle. Now imagine if instead, we said to ourselves “today is going to be a tough day, but I know I can handle it. I will focus on one thing at a time and am excited to give this presentation I’ve been preparing for weeks”. Would our body still feel the same? Probably not, because we haven’t activated our sympathetic nervous system. Bringing awareness to our body’s natural stress response is the first step to understanding how our productivity and engagement are affected at work.

Maslow’s hierarchy allows us to figure out what we need to focus on first so that we can become more engaged, productive and happy while at work. By understanding the way our brain interprets the world around us, we can gain control over our stress and begin to use it to our benefit.



  • nice i liked this types of motivation

    - keshav
  • I really like the hierarchy applied to employee engagement. Very succinct and interesting!

    - Ruthie

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