Why stress at work is contagious, according to science

Young business woman using digital tablet and looking away in an office
When your colleagues appear to be worried, it's only natural to wonder why, and how your work will be affected. (FG Trade via Getty Images)

You’re sitting at your desk, working calmly, when you spot some of your colleagues coming out of a meeting room looking stressed out. They seem to be in the middle of a tense conversation – brows furrowed, clutching laptops – and you wonder what the problem is.

You begin to feel a bit stressed yourself. Your breathing quickens, you feel uncomfortable and your mind starts racing. The thing is, those coworkers have very little to do with your job – so any problem they’re facing is unlikely to affect you or your work.

So why is simply being in the presence of their stress making you feel stressed?

When we consider the word contagious, we tend to think of viruses like the common cold. However, research suggests that psychological states, including stress, can be spread from person to person in a similar way to infectious diseases.

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A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that perceiving stress among the people you spend time with can lead to experiencing stress yourself. Even babies pick up on their mother’s stress and show corresponding physiological changes like increased heart rate, a separate UC San Francisco-led study found.

Photo of nine month baby crying
Babies can sense when their mother is stressed and their heart rate will increase to match their mother's. (kirza via Getty Images)

There are many reasons why we assimilate or mirror the emotions of others. Firstly, it’s an evolutionary mechanism to help keep us safe. Stress triggers the release of the hormone cortisol that increases alertness, which can help us react in a new or dangerous situation. When we’re around someone who seems stressed, it signals that we should feel the same way – as danger might be present.

Also, we may ‘catch’ stress because we are inherently social animals, as emotional contagion helps to promote social closeness. Unfortunately, though, studies show that negative emotions are more contagious and last longer – which may link back to the fact that picking up on these cues can protect us.

Although we might not need to fight off predators at work, this psychological insecurity remains. Therapist and counselling directory member Ellie Rowland-Callanan suggests that stress can also spread because of our behaviour when we feel under pressure.

“Stress can be contagious because stress begets stress,” she says. “Consider a workplace example in which a manager has been given a deadline which is impossible to meet by a company board who believe this will motivate them.

“They are feeling the pressure when they are approached by a member of their team, who needs their guidance on a project and also has an urgent deadline,” says Rowland-Callanan.

“They want to be a good manager, but they are the one who needs to report results to the company board, so instead they snap at their subordinate that they are too busy to ‘deal’ with it.”

It’s difficult to stop stress from being contagious, but reducing overall stress levels among workers can help address the problem.

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For individuals, putting boundaries in place is essential. For example, if you have a coworker who loves to complain and listening to them every day affects your own mood, it may be best to limit the time you spend with them. There are other, proven ways to reduce stress too, like taking regular breaks, spending time outside in nature – a local park will do – and switching off from work outside of your working hours.

However, it’s arguably even more important for employers to focus on reducing stress. Because if an employer places high demands on a worker, it’s unlikely that person is going to feel able to take a break when they need to.

How employers can help stop the spread of stress

Rethink urgency

“Employers can consider individual workload and whether this is reasonable, taking action to address this if it is not,” says Rowland-Callanan.

The term ‘sense of urgency’ has been popular in corporate workplaces in recent years.

“It is intended to increase focus and complete projects at speed. This term originated from the colonial practice of viewing people as resources,” she adds. “While urgency is essential in life-or-death environments such as emergency rooms, it can cause unreasonable stress when applied to non-emergency environments.”

Rethinking commonplace organisational terms such as this can help employers see employees as human beings who are more than their productivity.

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Psychological safety

First described in a 1999 academic paper by Amy Edmonson, an organisational behavioural scientist from Harvard University, psychological safety describes a climate in which speaking up is enabled and expected.

Fostering psychological safety in the workplace is important for keeping stress at bay, as it allows people to speak up if they have a problem – without being afraid of getting into trouble.

“It can help to foster staff autonomy and increase authentic working relationships. When staff are treated with respect, and integrity is shown from the top, employees are statistically less likely to experience unhealthy levels of stress,” says Rowland-Callanan. “Employees also tend to be more engaged and happier, and less likely to take their stress out on their colleagues.”

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