What Is Stress?

Outages are stressful events. But what does stress actually mean, and what effects does it have on the people working to resolve an outage?

The term stress was first used by engineers in the context of stress and strain of different materials and was borrowed starting in the 1930s by social scientists studying the effects of physical and psychological stressors on humans[4]. We can distinguish between two types of stress: absolute and relative. Seeing a hungry tiger approaching will elicit a stress reaction — the fight-or-flight response — in most or all of us. This evolutionary survival mechanism helps us react to such absolute stressors quickly and automatically. In contrast, a sudden need to speak in front of a large group of people will stress out many of us, but the effect of this relative stressor would be less universal than that of confronting a dangerous animal.

More specifically, there are four relative stressors that induce a measurable stress response by the body:

  1. A situation that is interpreted as novel.
  2. A situation that is interpreted as unpredictable.
  3. A feeling of a lack of control over a situation.
  4. A situation where one can be judged negatively by others (the “social evaluative threat”).

While most outages are not life-or-death matters, they still contain combinations of most (or all) of the above stressors and will therefore have an impact on the people working to resolve an outage.

Performance under Stress

In 1908, the psychologists Robert ...

Get The Human Side of Postmortems now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.