Merriam Webster defines these as:
Stress: n. A physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes inner strife, unrest or imbalance
Pressure: n. The constraint of circumstance; the burden (or oppression) of physical or mental distress
I believe these two words have always seemed synonymous. So much so that I used them interchangeably. As an individual immersed in the culinary industry for nearly a third of my life I can attest to an environment laden with both. But it is crucial to note that, while similar, these terms are different. Stress derives from the unknown or uncontrolled, exterior factors, although not exclusively, whereas pressure is the application of these factors, that can occasionally create stress.
The expectation to complete a task quickly, safely and comprehensively is a mainstay. “Sense of urgency”, as it is more often referred, is a characteristic demanded from anyone in the food industry. This creates situations or tasks where any participant will feel pressure. But when verbal abuse or physical provocation are applied as a motivator or disciplinary action, the same participant will feel stress.
One of the greatest satisfactions for any chef is executing a service with no mistakes But, just like pitching a no-hitter, the level of synergy and teamwork must be superb. Chefs who have experienced and executed such a night knows the feeling. Metal is clanking, burners roar; in some kitchens the communication between stations can be almost deafening, while in silent kitchens, the work and focus creates its own noise. The pressure to execute a perfect night is perceived by all participants. To some its anxiety, others adrenaline, but at the core each person is striving to achieve the same goal. Inevitably there will be mistakes and its how they are handled that really matters. A plate comes back, the steak is undercooked: the pressure is felt by that section to, with a sense of urgency, produce the same another dish to correct the issue. But when the section is hounded for the steak by anyone – who more than definitely understands the reality of cooking food and its time constraints – the pressure dissipates and is replaced by stress.
It’s seldom that anyone pushes as hard as possible. Some strive to do their best but when the pressures on, even their best can be outclassed. It’s one thing to, through various practices, push someone to give more. It is something else entirely to attempt the reach the same conclusion by creating stress. I previously believed that I enjoyed stress; the butterflies in the stomach, mind accelerating to its terminal velocity of processing, and heartbeat racing, sometimes far above healthy levels. But after much consideration I realized i was wrong. I really enjoy those sensations but they really are derivatives of pressure. I don’t enjoy frustration or anger, spite, contempt, toxicity, and pettiness: all components of stress.
These observations aren’t only relevant to the food industry; I have concluded they apply, more generally, to life. Next time you encounter a situation that makes you feel pressured, persevere. But recognize when pressure – and that fine line quickly fades – becomes stress. I believe pressure really comes from within and stress comes from external factors. Pressure can be used as a tool or motivator, but stress is nothing more than a distraction – a distinction that I have failed to make for a large part of my life, but now recognize and won’t forget.