Work stress can be contagious: Here's how to fight back

Image: Stressed businesswoman
Stress is contagious and coping with it at work can be difficult, but there are some strategies to help. Copyright Rafal Rodzoch Caiaimage - Getty Images
By Jayson DeMers with NBC News Better
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Co-workers stressing you out? Try these tactics to stay calm and cool on the job.


According to a study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in coordination with the Technische Universitaet in Dresden, being around someone who's currently stressed can increase your own stress levels.

Described as a form of "empathetic stress," this effect is quantifiable — meaning it can be directly measured. It isn't a case of imagining yourself as more stressed while you're around a stressed person; it's a case of measurable hormones being released into your bloodstream that actively increase your stress levels.

As you might imagine, these effects are more strongly correlated with individuals who share a significant connection. In the study, subjects were more likely to exhibit a stress response while observing a stressed loved one than they were a stressed stranger. However, proximity wasn't much of a differentiator — watching a stressed person through a one-way mirror and watching a video of a stressed person yielded similar results to observing a stressed individual in person.

What does this mean for you, the stress-conscious professional who's constantly moving to reduce the stress in your life? First, it could lend some substantial reasoning to your situation — if you feel exceptionally stressed, look around you. Are your coworkers constantly stressed? Is your boss always stressed? Is your spouse always stressed at home? If any of these are true, the empathetic stress you experience could be compounding the natural stressors of your life.

If you feel exceptionally stressed, look around you. Are your coworkers constantly stressed? Is your boss always stressed?

Second, it means there are actionable steps you can take to reduce the amount of stress in your life, in addition to personal habit changes like eating healthier and exercising; you can modify your environments by shaping the behaviors of others, thereby reducing the collective stress of your home or workplace.

1. Remove yourself from stressful situations

It's not always possible to remove yourself from a stressful situation, but when it is possible, make an effort to do so. For example, if two coworkers near you are venting to each other about the increased workloads of the group, get up and take a walk away from them.

If you find yourself especially frustrated about a particular task or a recent event at your desk, go outside for a breath of fresh air. This is going to do one or both of two things; first, it could reduce your exposure to other stressed people, thereby reducing your empathetic stress reaction. Second, it could prevent your personal stress from affecting others, thereby reducing the empathetic stress reaction of the group.

Of course, avoidance is neither an effective nor a possible strategy in all situations. If a coworker is venting to you as a confidant, getting up to leave might cause more stress than it reduces. Use your best judgment, and remove yourself only as you feel it is appropriate.

Stress Rx

2. Work with others to introduce stress-relieving habits

Help everyone in your environment understand the effects and dangers of empathetic stress, and work with individuals in the group to introduce and enforce stress-relieving habits. For example, you could lead a lunch break workshop on stress relieving habits, such asdeep breathing exercises or regular physical exercise. You can't always prevent stress in your life, but you can take measures to stop it from affecting you chronically.

If everyone in your office or household started practicing one new stress-relieving habit, each individual's stress would decrease slightly. This individual decrease would have a cascading effect as the cumulative effects of empathetic stress gradually reduce and everyone is able to function more efficiently.

3. Fill your environment with stress reducers

Habit changes are tough to enforce, especially in coworkers or family members who refuse to try to change. Because of this, it's effective to make changes to your environment that naturally reduce stress for the group.

For example, in an office, you might put up more inspiring or humorous posters and artwork in the office or a lead weekly desk yoga sessions. You could also bring stress-relieving balls or similar objects in for your team.

Even if only half the team shows any reduction in overall stress, it will be worth the long-term cumulative reduction of stress for the group.


4. Change your environment if necessary

Finally, understand that your stress levels are, in part, a product of your environment. If you've done everything you can to reduce stress in your own life and improve the stress levels of the group, but you still feel chronically and unhealthily stressed, it might be time to change environments.

For example, if you've tried to improve the collective stress of your workplace but nobody wants to adopt new strategies or reduce their own stress burdens, it might be time to seek out a job where your stress can be more easily managed. Stress, whenexcessive and chronic, can have devastating long-term effects on your body and mind. Staying in a position where your stress never decreases can actively shorten your lifespan.

The bottom line here is this: stress isn't an isolated effect. It spreads to others and undergoes a self-perpetuating feedback loop in any chronically-stressed environment, such as a home or office. Reducing your own stress can help you feel better and work better, but it's even better if you can reduce the stress levels of your workplace as a whole.


How to be happier at work

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