Stress and Performance

A Review of the Literature and Its Applicability to the Military

by Jennifer Kavanagh

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Abstract

There are many stressors associated with military life, particularly with deployments, and it is important to understand how such stressors affect individual functioning and performance. This report reviews literature on how stress affects performance generally and applies the most relevant findings to military operations and training. While some literature suggests a negative linear relationship between stress and performance, other literature implies that performance may in fact be optimal at moderate levels of stress. This is in contrast to low levels of stress, in which activation and alertness may be too low to foster effective performance, and high levels of stress, in which arousal is too high to be conducive to task performance. While stress may contribute to reduced task performance and weakened decisionmaking processes, there are intervening variables, or moderators, that can help offset some the negative effects of stress on individual and group functioning. The author concludes that stress exposure training, in which individuals are exposed to simulated stressors and forced to perform target skills under them, can be the most important moderator in the military context. Groups that undergo this type of training tend to have better communication, teamwork, and feedback strategies that help them to work together under stress.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Stressors and Stress Responses in the Military Context

  • Chapter Three

    The Effect of Stress on Performance and Other Outcome Measures

  • Chapter Four

    Moderators and Other Ways to Reduce the Negative Effects of Stress

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusion

This report results from the RAND Corporation’s continuing program of self-initiated independent research. Support for such research is provided, in part, by donors and by the independent research and development provisions of RAND’s contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers. This research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division, which conducts research and analysis for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Commands, the defense agencies, the Department of the Navy, the U.S. Intelligence Community, allied foreign governments, and foundations.

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