A closer look at distress tolerance

Curiosity without Barriers

At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we are investigating the relationship between curiosity and innovation to understand how we can help businesses thrive. From discussions with experts and data gathered from employees and employers across three continents, we developed a curiosity model defined by four measurable dimensions: Inquisitiveness; Creativity in Problem Solving; Openness to New Ideas; and Distress Tolerance. 

In our research, we often found low distress tolerance – the ability to meet the unfamiliar with bravery rather than anxiety – to be the largest barrier to curiosity; employees and employers across the board consistently demonstrated difficulty practicing tolerance towards stress. 

So, we decided to take a closer look to not only understand why distress tolerance matters, but also to identify how to increase it.

What Is Distress Tolerance?

In today’s fast-paced work environment with looming deadlines and a constant pressure to adapt, employees can experience an unhealthy strain. This pressure makes it challenging to block anxiety and face unfamiliar territory head-on. 

However, the ability to overcome obstacles is a key dimension to being curious and making strides in innovation – it is what we call distress tolerance.

Distress tolerance is broadly defined as an individual’s ability to cope in difficult situations. We define distress tolerance more narrowly, given our focus on the workplace, as a trait that enables an employee to approach the new and unfamiliar with courage and perseverance and to have an interest in taking calculated risks.

So, Why Does Distress Tolerance Matter?

Distress tolerance as a barrier to curiosity

It is natural to feel distressed when confronted with the new, complex, or unfamiliar, particularly at a time when the World Health Organization calls stress the “global health epidemic of the 21st Century.”

However, our research found that the ability to cope with that distress is crucial to how curious employees are in their workplace – and, in turn, how successful the business is at innovating.

We saw that, no matter how creative in problem solving, open to new ideas, or inquisitive one may be, it can be difficult or even impossible to ever fully express curiosity without a significant level of tolerance for distress. 

One of our research partners, Dr. Todd Kashdan Ph.D., a professor and senior scientist at George Mason University, explains, “Distress tolerance tends to determine whether that person will act on his or her curiosity in a meaningful way, or instead become discouraged and move on.” 

So, when a person scores high in three curiosity dimensions (inquisitiveness, creativity in problem solving, and openness to new ideas), but low in distress tolerance, they may appear less curious, overall, than someone with a high tolerance for distress. Distress tolerance is the requirement to activate other dimensions of curiosity, moving from initial piqued interest to an active practice of curiosity.

And to be curious has benefits not only for the individual employee, but for the business. Curiosity is the most effective strategy for coping with stress in the workplace, according to Andreas Steinle, Managing Director of Zukunftsinstitut Workshop GmbH. “It gives you the strength and aplomb to handle the unexpected. The curious mind is not afraid of uncertain pathways, but wants to find out what’s beyond the next turn. For companies, this strength is essential for survival in turbulent times.” When asked for an example of how this looks in practice, Steinle cites innovation company, 3M, “At 3M you see how curiosity very strongly characterizes company culture and has impacted the bottom line. On a regular basis, employees show their extraordinary hobbies at an event called ‘marketplace of passion’. The coworkers learn what really drives a person and which unknown talents and traits could be used for projects at work.”


The distress tolerance problem

Our survey of employees in Germany, China, and the United States revealed distress tolerance as the weakest dimension in all three countries. Interestingly, while employees score low on distress tolerance, they scored their employer high on distress tolerance. This suggests that some employees may find it difficult to tolerate distress in the workplace despite suggesting their employers score high on distress tolerance. 

For more examples of distress tolerance and other dimensions of curiosity in the workplace, explore the State of Curiosity Report.


Work environments that foster distress tolerance

While distress tolerance is low among employees across countries and sectors, it is a trait that can be easily influenced – employees can grow to be less fearful of taking risks and feel more courage to persevere through challenging times. With some further analysis, we saw trends in how the level of distress tolerance among employees varies depending on their work environment.

For example, our research found that when a workplace encourages recognizing, seeking out, and preferring things that are new, unusual, and outside one’s normal experience, the employee’s distress tolerance naturally increases. 

Furthermore, when employees answered that their organizations would punish, rather than reward them for pursuing new or uncertain ideas, they had a lower distress tolerance.

These findings illustrate that distress tolerance is not a trait that some people innately have and others do not. Rather, it is malleable and has the potential to improve with not only employee-driven changes, but also through employer-led support and modifications to the work environment.

   A person pulls out a piece from a Jenga tower    A person pulls out a piece from a Jenga tower

Increasing Distress Tolerance Among Employees

There is good news; distress tolerance can improve. Rich Fernandez was formerly the Director of Learning and Organization Development at Google. He discusses personal resilience and how it can impact an employee’s work performance. Resilience-promoting factors can be influential in adopting and cultivating a trait such as distress tolerance. These factors include optimism, the ability to stay balanced and manage strong or difficult emotions, and a sense of safety and support. 

To create a positive workplace culture, Sophie Von Stumm, Senior Lecturer of Psychology at the University of London, says that employers should encourage their employees to push their boundaries and be daringly curious, which will in turn spur innovation within the company. 

Stumm explains, “If you take your people out of their working context every now and then, and you show them something new, you allow them to explore, they will come back with much better ideas on how to improve the company’s own processes and how to take the company forward.”

Increased distress tolerance can also come from being granted the space to complete work on one’s own terms, thereby allowing employees to approach tasks when they’re most mentally prepared. They will then be motivated to work out their own solutions to problems and challenges, thus enhancing curiosity. 

Employers can also help increase distress tolerance in their employees by creating a sense of security in the workplace where risk – and even failure – is encouraged as long as it happens in the pursuit of new ideas and innovation. 

Here at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we hosted our second annual F*$% Up Night at our Innovation Center in December. These events bring employees together to talk about examples of failures in their work lives and how they’ve learned and grown through those experiences. The event serves to acknowledge that fear of failure exists, but also to make strides towards resolving that fear.

Kashdan agrees that it is crucial to view failure positively and encourage employees to take risks. “We can help people become more curious by providing a safe haven where their anxious feelings and thoughts are validated, understood, and cared for by another person.” In other words, a workplace environment that provides a safe haven for risk encourages curiosity and innovation in all employees.

Interventions to Increase Distress Tolerance

There are several tested strategies to increase distress tolerance and encourage curiosity among employees. Employers can:

  • implement strong support systems
  • encourage good mental health
  • create favorable environments for all employee personality types

Additionally, the strategies below can be implemented to increase the distress tolerance dimension of curiosity and helps businesses innovate.



Mentorships provide coaching within an organizational setting that will encourage perseverance and increase distress tolerance. Through one-on-one professional development and informal learning practices, coaches help employees set forth goals and action plans to achieve those goals. 

Research shows that strong social support not only improves goal fulfillment of employees, but also professional growth, and employee resilience. 

However, it is not just the employee that benefits. Additional research indicates that while coaching programs initially target individual development, organizations that utilize coaching programs are more likely to achieve their goals and missions.



Workplace mindfulness strategies for stress management not only benefit employee mental health and wellness by increasing distress tolerance, but also drive self-learning and therefore curiosity and innovation. 

Employees can practice mindfulness by keeping diaries, participating in breathing space exercises or meditating

A multitude of studies have found that neurobiological changes occur during meditation, ultimately improving mental health and stress-related coping mechanisms. Many leading organizations have begun to employ meditation practices within the workplace in response.


Person-centered approaches

By using a person-centered approach and profiling employees through psychological tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, employers can predict how employees with unique personality traits will thrive within a work setting. For example, if an employee prefers introversion, he or she may benefit from working in a quieter environment.

Results indicate that employee classification through person-centered testing did, in fact, prove to be significantly associated with various positive job outcomes and promote organizational curiosity and innovation. 


By diving deeper into the role of distress tolerance, we have found that the other dimensions of curiosity – inquisitiveness, creativity in problem solving, and openness to new ideas – cannot be activated in the workplace without employee distress tolerance. Distress tolerance plays a crucial role in ensuring employees exercise their curiosity in order to innovate. Our research suggested that employee distress tolerance is molded by both individual efforts and employer-driven initiatives. Employer support for distress tolerance has the power to ensure employees activate their curiosity to drive future personal and professional growth.

Take the Curiosity Self-Test to determine your personal distress tolerance. Or, to learn more about our Curiosity initiative and how curiosity can play a role in your workplace, explore the State of Curiosity Report here.

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