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

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According to a study from the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in coordination with the Technische Universitat 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.

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

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?

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.

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.

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