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Why stress at work is highly contagious

If you are a big fan of the concept ‘free will’, please read no further. This article states that we humans are simply an evolved herd. Animals who learned how to speak and dress properly. We are social beings, therefore our need for belonging and social approval is high. So much, that our physical expression can evoke actual movements in others.

Mimicking behavior

You’re probably familiar with the concept of mimicry. Maybe not with the name itself, but we’ve all seen it happen. While chatting with your neighbor, all of a sudden, he starts to yawn. You aren’t feeling tired, but you notice you’re yawning too. Don’t blame it on lack of sleep. It’s simply neuroscience. Your brain is mimicking the behavior. This mimicking doesn’t only occur with yawning. For instance, laughing is highly contagious. When someone starts laughing, it is hard to resist a grin or chuckle. As described earlier, we are social beings and therefore we have a basic desire to fit in with the group. Mimicking happens automatically and is a process we need for a quick understanding of a social situation.

Unfortunately, this is also the case for sometimes unwanted feelings or behavior. Like, when you are surrounded by stressed-out co-workers. Their alarmed faces, stressed shoulders or speedy pace can be enough to get your copy-cat system running. The result? You’re feeling stressed too. So far the concept of ‘free will’. This second-hand stress can be very harmful to productivity as well as creativity in the workplace. So how to get rid of it?

I feel stressed cause I like you?

Stress and burnout have become an increasing and often-discussed phenomenon over the last decade. And numbers don’t lie: in total, just over 16% of the 8.5 million people at work, experience burnout related complaints (Source: TNO, 2017). To be fair, it’s no problem to be stressed once in a while. But when stress becomes chronic, it can be overwhelming and even harmful to both physical and emotional health.

A recent study (Meredith, Shaufeli, Struyve, a.o., 2019) about the contagion of burnout among teachers, showed the importance of investigating burnout within social contexts rather than focusing on the individual. Their findings indicated that individuals who are strongly connected to others develop more similar feelings and attitudes. This was based on the notion that the feelings or attitudes of interaction partners become more similar through interaction and then contaminate each other (Leenders, 1997).

Stress contagion explained

To explain all this mimicking in a more ‘granny-proof’ way, I refer to the image below. Look at two people as a sender and a receiver. The sender has facial expressions and body postures that the receiver sees. The receiver tries to identify these signs to interpret the behavior. This happens subconsciously. We do this by mimicking the behavior in our brains (mirror neuron system coupling). While our brains mimic this behavior, the ‘idea’ of behavior causes actual physical behavior in your body. Cardiovascular reactions and muscle tension are activated and your physical expression follows. Understanding arises between two interacting brains and bodies allowing contagion to happen. To sum it up: merely thinking about behavior can make you behave.

Now that you know the basic principles of behavioral contagion, you might understand a thing or two about the contagion of stress. Especially in a work environment, we are likely to mimic our co-workers’ behavior. We interact with them on a daily base, so the desire to belong is great.

4 ways to cope with stress contagion

No worries, there are ways to cope with this second-hand stress. The key to resisting the emotional contagion of stress is overriding the stress reflex response caused by automatic mimicking. Easier said than done. Because we’re talking about subconscious behavior. Nevertheless, if you follow these four little steps you will be able to better control your stress response.

  • Stop, breath and analyze. Take a step back from the situation and check-in with yourself. Ask yourself, is it me who is feeling stressed or is it someone else’s stress which you are experiencing.

  • Talk about it. Show people this article and talk about the fact that stress is contagious. Merely talking about subconscious human systems like mimicry might help others understand the impact their behavior has on the people around them.

  • Reduce interactions with the stress conductors in your life. Not the easiest nor a socially approved option, but effective. You can start by working in another place or choose a desk across from someone who is less stressed.

  • Create positive stress reducers. You can reverse the stress effect by surrounding yourself with stimuli that calm you down. Put a picture on your desk or smartphone of a time you felt most relaxed. Frame a motivational quote (yes, for some people this does work!) or decorate your place with some small plants or flowers. Do what works for you. No one is the same.

Take in mind that any job can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do. There is no harm in a little stress. Don’t get me wrong, without stress we wouldn’t be able to function. Stress is another form of highly needed subconscious human behavior. It enables us to peak in certain situations. Situations where we need to be alert, fast and perform our best. In other words: It’s okay to feel stressed. So rather than trying to eliminate stress at work, talk about it. It can stop the unconscious mimicking from happening and make people work better together.

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