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Business school research: the pros and cons of sweaty palms

Who among us hasn't at some point in our working lives – whether in a job interview or a performance review – experienced stress and anxiety? Have you ever wondered whether your nervous tics, sweaty palms and obvious unease has cost you a job or promotion?

Research by Julie McCarthy, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, suggests employers would do well to minimize anxiety levels among potential job candidates to ensure that the best people are chosen for the position.

"Some people might argue that we want to hire someone who can handle anxiety and if you can't handle it in a job interview, how can you handle it on the job," she says. And in some cases, that may be true. But, for the most part, the intense pressure that candidates face in job interviews isn't characteristic of the day-to-day performance that's required of them, argues Dr. McCarthy. "Just because someone is anxious in a job interview doesn't mean they aren't going to be a phenomenal employee," she says. "They might actually be superb."

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The research has important implications for companies that want to ensure they use fair and objective hiring and advancement practices and select the best qualified people. "You want to get as accurate a picture as possible of the individual," she says.

Dr. McCarthy has been studying workplace anxiety since she was a PhD student, when she developed work selection tests for various companies. Friends and colleagues used to turn to her for advice on how to curb their nervousness during job interviews. Her research work now focuses on analyzing the impact of employee anxiety on test and interview performance. She collaborates with numerous employers to gauge the impact of anxiety on an employee's performance in job interviews, annual reviews and promotional exams, and to identify strategies to reduce the negative effects of anxiety. She has worked with police services, retailers, the armed forces, government agencies, and other organizations in Canada and the U.S.

In one research study, she partnered with the Ontario Police College, a police training institution that develops and administers promotional exams for many of the province's police officers. One aim of the project was to assess what role anxiety played on test performance. The research, which was published in the journal Personnel Psychology, yielded some interesting results: Anxiety can be "a double edged sword," it found. Some candidates who experienced high levels of anxiety during the test found it more difficult to concentrate, which had a negative impact on their exam performance. However, others who experienced high stress levels were able to channel those feelings, resulting in better exam results. The goal for employers, Dr. McCarthy suggests, should be to implement coping strategies to help employees manage their anxiety in order to reduce the negative consequences while increasing the positive ones.

Dr. McCarthy also studies anxiety levels in the daily workplace. Her research has shown that workplace anxiety can lead to emotional exhaustion among employees, which can result in absenteeism. It isn't only those who work in what we typically think of as high-stress jobs, such as air traffic controllers, who face stress and anxiety. "Even people in retail sales experience it," she says. And it's just as important to teach those individuals techniques and strategies to help them manage their stress, she adds.

Implementing workplace practices that mitigate stress can save employers money by reducing employee absenteeism and turnover. "If you have a work force that has high levels of anxiety and stress, it can be really detrimental to productivity, morale and satisfaction" she adds, and ultimately to the bottom line. Some estimates put the cost of lost wages due to employee absenteeism in the billions of dollars, she notes.

Dr. McCarthy's research aims to help companies identify and implement strategies and practices that reduce employee anxiety, such as flextime. Having understanding managers who maintain good relationships with their employees can also go a long way toward offsetting the effects of anxiety, she explains. In job interviews, organizations should ensure that those conducting the interview are able to interact effectively with people and aren't too intimidating.

Her research is now expanding into new areas. One line of study looks at how employees can best manage anxiety through specific behaviours and activities, such as exercise and rest. "It's a complicated process because there are individual differences," she says. What works for some may not for others. Determining what works best for each individual employee will be "critical," she says.

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