Part 1 - The contagious nature of stress...are you at risk of being infected?
Updated: Mar 16
Have you ever found yourself feeling stressed out and you’re not sure why? It might well be that you’ve caught a bad case of the stresses from the people around you.
Over the years I’ve come to realise that just like a virus, stress can be catching. This is all about the contagious nature of other people’s stress and how we can catch it’s toxic effects.
In the world of psychology this is known as emotional contagion, adopting the emotional state of another person. We transmit emotions through our facial expressions, our tone of voice and indirectly through our associated behaviour. Emotional contagion occurs when one person’s emotions and related behaviours lead to similar emotions and behaviours in others. A smile is contagious, but unfortunately experts believe that negative emotions, like pain, fear and stress, are even more contagious than the positive ones.
Being a particularly empathetic person, I struggle with contagion and putting emotional distance between myself and others at the best of times, thus I find myself highly at risk of being affected by the stressful mood of others.
One particular moment in time really stands out. It happened in a workplace many, many moons ago. Picture this…a normal workday, popping into a colleague’s office to talk through some work.
Now this colleague was a bit of a character, prone to strong opinions and emotional outbursts. I think we all have one or two of these characters in our periphery! Normally I found these strong opinions maybe not pleasant, but tolerable.
But today she was riled up. She was itching for a fight before we’d even started. You might know the type – excitable, even scary when they are in this mood. I felt my blood pressure start to rise and did not like it one bit.
Without delay she launched full steam into her latest rant. So worked up. Over seemingly nothing! And I was the unlucky one who just happened to be in front of her.
Time slowed down. I could see her mouth moving, her arms gesticulating wildly, her eyes signalling furious intent. She was radiating stress out of every pore of her body. This woman was on the edge, her vibration pushing out waves of stress to everyone around her.
I’d been having a good day, but with this amount of stress wafting my way it was bound to get through my defences. And that’s exactly what is needed when faced with stressful situations – a solid defence. How exhausting this all is I found myself thinking.
Over time I’d observed person after person in this company show signs of chronic stress. They would take time off, had lowered immunity and were often sick, felt overly emotional, lost their sense of humour, fell out with friends and family…the list went on.
The culture in this workplace felt like high stakes all of the time….and for what?! At times it felt like being in a toxic mass of thrumming agitation.
Maybe not surprisingly, we weren’t alone. This pattern is repeated in workplace after workplace around the world. Stress contagion spreads a wide net over unsuspecting employees, insidiously infecting work and home lives. Stress doesn’t stop when we leave the workplace. Just like stepping in a pile of poo on the sidewalk, we tend to bring its ugly smell with us everywhere we go.
Gallup’s latest survey tells us that 60% of respondents reported being emotionally detached at work and 19% as being miserable.
I’m calling it…this colleague was miserable – at work (obviously) but it was starting to affect her health and her clarity of mind.
Now my normal response when someone is yelling at me is to be transported back to all the times I felt picked on, not enough, like a complete failure. What is it about conflict that takes us straight back to being that little kid who just wanted to be loved?
But today I’d had enough. The stress was swirling around my head, but somehow I had the insight to know that this time, and possibly every time, it was not about me.
Have you ever felt like that? Like the person in front of you is just venting for themselves? Have you been able to dodge the stress contagion?
I was blocking her out, putting up my defences, not allowing the contagion in. Her words were a release for the horrible amounts of stress she was internalising inside of her and I was just the unlucky punching bag to take it out on. I could almost feel empathy for her in this time of need…well almost!
This skill of defending yourself against the barrage of stress that we face on a daily basis is one of the best skills you can develop in your lifetime. We face stress everywhere we go – from others around us, online (don’t ever read the comments!), from our loved ones, even the movies and shows we watch to ‘relax’ are often filled with moments of stress.
Stress leaves us full of those negative emotions like anger, disappointment and disillusion. It can manifest as unease, a lack of confidence, maybe even a sense of on-going shame and failure. It’s so exhausting!
Too often we are stressed not of our own volition but being contaminated by the woes of those who we let into our inner circle. For what? Usually no good reason.
That encounter left me with some serious questions. What am I doing here? What’s the point of all this? Is this really what I’m willing to put up with?
Unfortunately what often happens is people vote with their feet, leaving these bad situations. The leader and the organisation doesn’t change and the stress contagion cycle is repeated.
Ultimately, I left that job knowing it wasn’t for me. I found a less stressful environment and a less toxic team which worked for a while. I still had more lessons to learn however and that’s a whole different story!
I leave you with one thought to take through your day…when are you feeling stress but you’re not sure why? Could it be that you’re catching the stress contagion from a source around you? And if so, what are you going to do about it today?
You can read part 2 here - outlining what happened next!
 Gallup State of the Global Workplace: 2022
Sarah Vizer is the creator of Beyond Burnout.
As a Leadership and Performance Coach she supports our top professionals unleash their talents, feeling and operating at their best.
She offers individual and team support for you and your organisation.
Find out more at www.sarahvizer.com