Cognitive Reframing: A tool to mitigate Workplace Stress

Posted in: July 9, 2021 By: manager-mindfulneuroleader

Stress in the workplace can emanate from a multitude of factors. The precise etiology of workplace stress can be difficult to pinpoint due to the complexity and diversity of modern organizations. However, when left unchecked, stress can affect employee performance, team interactions, and the overall success of an organization. Numerous reports have documented the physical and mental health hazards resulting from chronic stress.

Benefits of Cognitive Reframing

One of the most successful approaches to circumventing the highly toxic stress conditions that can manifest in the workplace is “cognitive reframing.”

This technique helps individuals cognitive performance by: 

1) recognizing the stress for what it is (an emotional response to real or imagined factors); 

2) better understanding the natural ways our brains can turn situations into destructive thinking processes or positive opportunities; 

3) teaching us systems to realign our interpretation of circumstances (Cognitive reframing), allowing us to take charge of events rather than merely responding emotionally, and hence; 

4) seeing the world and events as they are; and 

5) increasing the accuracy of our response and the likelihood of success. 

Examining the Stress Response

One of the foundational elements of cognitive reframing is first understanding why and how humans react the way we do.  The human body is designed to respond to any form of stress with emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, and psychological “fight or flight” reactions. These automatic responses have had evolutionary survival benefits when stressors were encountered in the wild; however, in the modern workplace these responses are less helpful.  Indeed, one might be surprised by the extensive list of harmful responses to stress that can occur in the workplace, essentially wreaking havoc with team dynamics, and creating a dysfunctional work environment.  

Stress Distortion as a Coping Mechanism

Recognizing that stress can be based on a perception of a condition, and is not necessarily based on logic or the actual details of the situation is a first step in being able to reframe a situation or event.  The human brain continues to astound in its abilities and functions; however, part of its most basic purpose is survival. The resulting outcome can take the form of cognitive distortions in a stressful situation. Some of the most common distortions may be recognizable when correlated in a work environment:

  • Filtering to focus on only one negative portion of a situation.
  • Thinking in a polarized manner so that it’s believed something is all bad or all good.
  • Overgeneralizing by using a single event or incident to create an overly broad conclusion.
  • A “jump to conclusion” attitude based on an individual situation or behavior.
  • Minimizing or magnifying a situation or condition.
  • Looking at a situation from a purely emotional standpoint.
  • Catastrophe assumption that there has been a disaster.
  • Blaming others for all aspects of outcomes. 

Work-Related Stress Has a Cost

Companies of all sizes have been known to downplay the importance of stress in the workplace. Management may take the philosophy that stress is just part of business today, refuse to accept that a condition is stressful, or worse yet, get rid of the staff members trying to bring attention to unhealthy problems even when they might have solutions.

Stress.org details some sobering facts about work-related stress:

  • 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress
  • US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress.
  • Stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day.
  • Only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance.
  • Depression costs $51 billion due to absenteeism and $26 billion in treatment costs annually.
  • Work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly.

Cognitive Reframing Helps to Rectify Distortions

Understanding the value of cognitive reframing begins by recognizing that our brains may use certain distorted methods of perception that may not be entirely healthy in the modern workplace. In addition, unconscious attitudes can turn a favorable situation into something perceived as negative simply by focusing on it too much. In essence, it’s “thinking gone wrong,” and when allowed to continue unfettered, destructive thoughts can spiral into highly stressful conditions. Distorted thinking can be irrational and unhelpful, and in the workplace, the behaviors and attitudes can negatively affect everyone’s success. 

Therapists implement cognitive reframing techniques to assist people in identifying the unhealthy mindsets that may come naturally and put them to better use with more positive attitudes. This approach is used with overly optimistic and overly pessimistic individuals, as both extremes can cause stress when expected results are not attained. 

Cognitive Reframing in the Workplace

Using cognitive reframing in the workplace allows one to develop and utilize a healthy life skill on the job, and in so doing will interpret situations with greater clarity and experience interactions with enhanced insight and nuance. Cognitive reframing empowers an individual to examine where the positive or negative thoughts exist so that they can control their response and act thoughtfully, rather than allowing old habits to persist. Mastering the art of cognitive reframing does take time and focus; however, using it as a tool can shift the thinking process so that there is more beneficial life impact and overall work-life satisfaction.