Why leaders should expect their employees to react to stress differently

John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at Myer-Briggs details why some employees will experience more stress than others

Stress, as much as we try to avoid it, is for most people a fact of life. Everyone gets stressed on occasion due to work, personal relationships, or events happening in the world around us. For the most part, this is something we must learn to live with.

However, the events of 2020 have amplified stress levels for everybody to beyond the norm, with the arrival of the COVID-19 health crisis placing a huge strain on our mental wellbeing.

The pandemic has thrown the world into disarray, causing major uncertainty and rapidly transforming how we lead our day-to-day lives. Without being able to meet people, personal relationships are harder to maintain, which, in turn, limits people’s support networks and their ability to deal with stress.

Working lives have also been massively impacted, as many people have been pushed into a sudden transition to remote working, coupled with either uncertainty or guilt surrounding job security.

As a result, many people are experiencing significant difficulty with managing and addressing this heightened stress. In a recent survey from leading business psychology provider The Myers-Briggs Company, 47% of respondents were somewhat or very concerned about their ability to manage stress during the crisis, with the economy and the health of family and friends the top concerns.

As much of the population continues to work from home, a lack of contact makes things more difficult for employees. While previously it was possible for colleagues to spot when an employee was experiencing elevated stress, these indicators have now largely been removed. It’s also trickier for some people to raise concerns about their own stress levels and those of their colleagues without this face-to-face contact.

The Myers-Briggs Company’s research also shows that 70% of European employees find their work stressful. Elevated stress levels, combined with limited opportunities to switch off from work due to restrictions on travel and socialisation, risks causing many workers to experience burnout, and the research also shows that 25% believe they risk health problems due to stress at work.

Excessive stress is not only dangerous for staff’s mental and physical wellbeing, but can also be bad for business, making it harder for employees to remain focused and productive.

It’s more important than ever that we act to combat workplace stress and its repercussions. This is evidently no easy task given the circumstances, but the key is to be empathetic and understanding of each person’s individual situation and needs.

Stress is not a problem that can be resolved with a blanket response, as every employee has different triggers and reactions to stress. It is therefore crucial for leaders to take personality into account when dealing with workplace stress.

Different people different reactions

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality model looks at four areas of personality type –Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I), Sensing (S) or Intuition (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F) and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – and how these areas combine dynamically to describe the whole person.

The model shows the different ways in which each individual sees and reacts to the world around them, and by using it we can illustrate how people with different personality types will react differently to increase stress.

For example, when people with preferences for ENTP or ENFP become stressed, their initial reaction will be to try to get more and more interaction with other people, to come up with and share new ideas and possibilities. In the current situation this may not be easy, adding further to the stress.

When stress becomes severe, they can suddenly become overwhelmed by small details, obsessing irrationally about them. To recover, and to avoid things getting this far, it helps to remind them that they can say ‘no’ things, and to encourage them to set boundaries.

In contrast, those whose core driver is thinking through and making logical decisions in their inner world (ISTP and INTP) may obsessively work out the answers to their problems and losing touch with reality. During COVID-19 lockdowns, this can be a real danger.

Under severe stress, they may have emotional outbursts and lash out at people, especially when ‘provoked’ by someone trying to comfort them. It will help to have a good listener who can encourage them to look for new perspectives on the situation.

By taking the time to understand how each member of your team is uniquely responding to the stress that we are all feeling at the moment, employers can provide the necessary advice and tools for teams to both manage stress, and remain engaged and productive through these difficult times.


By John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company

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