stressAcute stress in the workplace negatively affects people’s ability to think critically, use reasoning and make practical day-to-day decisions, according to research.

The research, released by mutual healthcare provider Benenden Health and carried out by independent research company Mindlab, was conducted to discover the relationship between short-term stress and cognitive impairment.

Two groups of 100 people took part in tests, but with one group completing a series of stress-inducing tasks before and in-between trials. The aim was to measure how short-term stress affects critical thinking and decision-making abilities. The results showed that the stressed group were more likely to make the wrong decision, choose the wrong answer or react emotionally to an answer, such as make a snap judgement/decision based on a gut feeling. These traits are similar to that of small children, who tend to react to problems they don’t quite understand with an emotional (snap) response, rather than a considered logical solution.

For instance, one of the tests focused on critical thinking. Questions included problem solving, tested concentration and the respondents’ ability to work with a number of different facts at once. The stressed group answered just 22% of the critical questions correctly, compared to 25% of the control group. This test created problems similar to those that people would have to deal with in the workplace every day. A total of 88% of participants reported that short-term stress had a negative impact on their everyday lives, while 52% said stress affected them at least every week. 

Practical decision-making was also impaired, with the stressed group performing worse when presented with an important decision. Participants were asked to identify which house description out of three was the best: 69% of the control group made the correct decision, compared to only 64% of the stressed group. A 5% difference between these small test groups shows that some people are massively impacted by short-term stress, and are prone to make snap decisions about important life choices – such as buying a property.

The test that the stressed group found the most difficult was spatial abstract reasoning, which looks at our ability to spot, manipulate and work with patterns and sequences. Although it was a difficult test, 44% of the control group answering all questions correctly. But the stressed group managed just 39%, which could indicate that the more difficult the problem, the more likely stress is to affect the decision made.

Richard Carlton-Crabtree, services director at Benenden Health’s counselling service provider, Insight Healthcare, said “The research demonstrates just how important it is that businesses ensure that staff feel comfortable and are not put under even minor stress whilst at work.

“Many people harbour the view that a little bit of stress may be healthy as the added pressure that stress causes can positively affect their performance; but this research shows that even small amounts of stress can have negative effects. This should reassure people that they should seek help and support when the onset of stress begins, because it can have a detrimental effect from day one.

“These findings also show that 79% of people tend to deal with stress on their own – which is a concerning proportion. Social support and talking through stressful situations can be the best coping mechanism.”

Neuroscientist Dr David Lewis added: "When stressed, the focus of our attention tends to narrow and, if associated with strong emotions, we tend to act less rationally on occasions. Of course, this depends both on the stressor and other factors such as personality and the coping strategies available to the individual. When stress arises unexpectedly and is especially overwhelming, rational thinking tends to be replaced by impulsive and often faulty decision making. This can be compared to a small child who responds emotionally to situations he or she finds stressful and frustrating.”