Sometimes people form the mistaken impression that improving and sustaining psychological wellbeing at work is about ensuring that people never feel under pressure. This is wrong! The misunderstanding is often based on confusion between pressure, strain and stress.

For all of us, some degree of challenge is an important ingredient in a job – and clearly challenge brings with it a degree of pressure – and quite probably the job holder will experience some degree of strain. This is not necessarily a problem and may quite possibly be healthy. If the balance of demands, resources, support and control are such that the job holder can deal with the pressure and achieve worthwhile goals, then all is well. The job holder has the opportunity to achieve and develop and benefit from the positive psychological experiences that go along with achieving valued results. But what is pressure and how does it begin impacting wellbeing? If, for some reason (e.g. lack of support), the demands exceed the job holder’s ability to cope – then problems arise and the pressures are likely to lead to stress – defined by the Health and Safety Executive in the UK as, “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.” Note the use of the term “excessive” in relation to pressure – it’s only a problem when pressure becomes excessive. The pressure – performance curve summarises the way in which pressure relates to performance and psychological wellbeing.

The Pressure Performance Curve

The “having a good day” section is where someone carrying out a job in which challenge, support, demands and control are in balance and creating positive pressure. In general, challenge pressures (e.g. achievable goals, reasonable time pressure) will push the job holder towards the centre of the curve where both performance and wellbeing are high.

By contrast, hindrance pressures (e.g. unrealistic deadlines, ambiguous goals) exert outwards pressure, leading to low performance and either stress and burn-out or switching off (low engagement).