How decision makers can overcome stress in the workplace

Professor John Maule

About the Author Asset 28

John is an Emeritus Professor in Human Decision Making, a chartered psychologist and holds a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Dundee. He is a past president of the European Association for Decision Making.

Most of us experience stress in our professional and personal lives. Being late for an important meeting, uncertain about our contribution to a crucial work group or having to manage a business in a turbulent environment are just three examples of the many stressful situations that occur in the workplace.

Stress is associated with secretion of key hormones into the blood designed to help mobilise the body into action, as well as other changes such as sweaty palms, enhanced heart rate, feelings of anxiety and worrying thoughts that dominate our thinking. These experiences can vary from mild to extreme.

In the Centre for Decision Research (CDR) we have been investigating the effects stress has on human decision making and how we can use this knowledge to help people overcome any negative effects it has on decision effectiveness.


Stress occurs when our progress towards achieving a goal is blocked. We have a broad range of personal, professional and survival goals:

  • PERSONAL eg to have a happy family life, to become a better friend.
  • PROFESSIONAL eg to meet our weekly sales targets, to increase shareholder value for our company over the next two years.
  • SURVIVAL eg to maintain a safe and healthy lifestyle

These goals are crucial in determining the decisions we take but are usually in the background of our thinking, so we are generally unaware of them. However, if progress towards achieving a goal is blocked then this triggers the need to assess the problem in foreground or conscious thinking. This involves assessing the importance of the goal and whether there are any actions that can be taken to alleviate the problem – academics call these activities primary and secondary appraisal. Stress increases as the primary appraisal indicates that the goal is important and the secondary appraisal indicates that possible actions to alleviate the problem may be inadequate.


Stress occurs in decision making situations in two ways. First, stress may be linked directly to the decision problem itself, for example choosing which action to take to alleviate a stress inducing serious drop in sales. Second, the decision may be taken in a stressed state that has nothing to do with the stress inducing problem – a relocation decision taken while experiencing stress caused by a serious drop in sales. Both situations occur in work environments and their impact on decision making is broadly similar.


When stressed our capacity for thinking is reduced. One reason for this is that we have worrying thoughts that disrupt and distract us, leaving less thinking capacity available to the decision in hand. Allied to this is a change in our thinking priorities. Just three of the many ways that stress can disrupt decision thinking are:

  • Thinking becomes narrower in scope. People focus only on what is initially perceived to be the core information, ignoring peripheral information. This leads to myopic thinking – thinking that is far too narrow. For example, a CEO experiencing a drop in sales may focus only on sales team performance issues (initially the most salient focus of the problem). This may lead the CEO to neglect other possible causes of the problem such as competitor activity and market changes.
  • If stress is directly related to the decision in hand then people often demonstrate premature closure – they make a quick decision and choose the first action that seems reasonable rather than the best. This is driven by the need to exit the situation so as to reduce stress levels rather than a desire to choose the best option.
  • Thinking becomes more simplistic and biased. For example, there is an increased tendency for people to use confirmation thinking ie gathering information that simply confirms initial or intuitive evaluations and systematically ignores or downgrades information contradicting this initial view.


Recent research in the CDR has shown that time pressure is a commonly occurring stressor in the workplace and that managers use six strategies to adapt to it when making decisions:


Focusing only on information initially thought to be important, ignore the rest.
Thinking more clearly.
Ignoring scheduled breaks and working beyond normal working hours.
Getting others to take on some of the work.
Choosing simply what feels right or immediately comes to mind.
Ignoring the deadline and carrying on as normal


Managers often use more than one of these strategies. Which strategy is adopted determines both stress levels and the quality of the decision. Our current research is designed to understand when and why people use each strategy, using this to develop advice to managers about how best to manage time pressure.


There are occasions when low to medium levels of stress can be positive. For example, feelings of time pressure can be the impetus for starting work on an important but hitherto neglected problem. Also, sometimes we enjoy the ‘buzz’ we get from the challenge of putting ourselves in stressful situations and successfully attaining our goals under adversity. However, in organisational settings the negative aspects occur more commonly and stress is generally a hindrance rather than a positive challenge.


Research suggests there are ways of limiting the damaging effects of stress:

  • Set realistic goals that are clearly specified along with some consideration of the things that could go wrong and the actions to be taken if they do. Since realistic goals are less likely to be compromised than unrealistic ones they are less likely to be stress inducing. Also, thinking about what to do if things go wrong when setting goals is better because it is underpinned by less biased thinking, given decision makers are in a neutral rather than a stressed state.
  • Facilitate social support by helping people to maintain good relations with family, friends and colleagues and understand how to involve these people to provide support during stressed periods. Social support has been shown to be invaluable at times of extreme stress and to limit some of its deleterious effects.
  • Help people to learn from adversity and losses by getting them to review previous stressful situations. This will help them to better understand what happened and to learn the lessons for improving performance in future stressful situations.
  • Try to keep a long term perspective and recognise that the current stress episode is likely to be short term. The thinking of managers taking this longer term perspective is less likely to be dominated by the current stress episode thereby reducing its negative impact on decision thinking.


Find out more

  • Asset 25 Read more about the Centre for Decision Research
  • Asset 25 Video: How stress impacts decision making - Tough choices on the ocean
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