It’s a well-known phenomenon: Emotions are contagious. If you work with people who are happy and optimistic, you’re more likely to feel the same. The flip side is true too: If your colleagues are constantly stressed out, you’re more likely to suffer.
How do you avoid secondhand stress? Can you distance yourself from your coworkers’ emotions without ostracizing them? And should you try to improve their well-being?
What the Experts Say
First, the bad news: Secondhand stress is nearly inescapable. “We live in a hyperconnected world, which means we are more at risk for negative social contagion than at any point in history,” says Shawn Achor, a lecturer and researcher, and the author of The Happiness Advantage. “Secondhand stress comes from verbal, nonverbal, and written communication, which means we can pick it up even via cellphone.” But the good news is that we are not helpless, says Susan David, a founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital and the author of Emotional Agility. “There are many specific skills you can learn, behaviors you can practice, and tiny tweaks you can make in your environment that will be helpful in dealing with secondhand stress,” she says. Here are some strategies.
Identify the source
Before you wage war on secondhand stress, you must acknowledge that some stress can be good, says David. “You don’t get to have a meaningful career, raise a family, lead, or make changes in an organization without some level of stress.” If certain members of your team are strained, David recommends “trying to understand what’s really going on” rather than “stressing about their stress.” Ask them to describe what they’re experiencing. “Find out whether they’re anxious about [their workload] being more than they can cope with or whether it’s more of a nonspecific discomfort.” David adds, “When people accurately label their emotions, they’re more likely to identify the source of their stress and do something about it.”
It’s understandable why talking to your overstretched, stressed-out colleague might make you feel nervous. But Achor says you can keep your emotions in check by being empathetic. “By expressing compassion for this person’s concern and then engaging them in positive conversation — either to generate a solution to their problem or shift their focus away from it — we often positively influence them instead of solely letting them negatively affect us.” David agrees that the power to influence goes both ways: “You and everyone else are doing the best you can with who you are, what you’ve got, and the resources you’ve been given.” So, be helpful, she advises. Ask your colleague, “Is there anything I can do to help you move that project forward? Is there a conversation we should have that might lead to a more constructive outcome?”
Take breaks from certain colleagues
Achor admits that it’s not always easy to be compassionate toward your office’s Negative Nancy. If you feel the person is starting to take a toll on you, you can “take strategic retreats” and limit your contact with anxiety-inducing colleagues. “Quarantine them” from work life as much as possible “until you can strengthen yourself,” Achor says. David concurs: If your conversations with certain colleagues tend to “center on stress or negativity about the organization,” you may need to step back temporarily. “Recognize which interactions are not helpful,” she says.
Another strategy for coping with secondhand stress is to “surround yourself with positive people,” says Achor. Positive emotions can be just as contagious as negative ones. Make an effort to promote optimism in the ranks, too. “Most people make the mistake of trying to fix the most stressed-out, negative person in the office.” Instead, he recommends acting as a role model by exuding positivity for “the people in the middle who could be tipped positive or negative.” Doing so “tilts the social script” toward optimism and increases “the number of positive forces” in the workplace. Your goal, says David, is to “create an environment where people who are on the border” feel confident about the organization. You don’t want a situation where “one individual’s stress is the only voice in the room.”
Remember the big picture
Even if your job is manageable, it can quickly become a source of anxiety “if everyone else around you is stressed” and vocal about it, according to David. “People often go on about their ‘have-to’ goals — as in ‘I have to go to this meeting.’ Or ‘I have to be on this client call,’” she says. Grousing about a large and looming to-do list is seen as a badge of honor, and the complaining often catches on. But, she says, that’s dangerous. Categorizing your workload this way “creates a prison around yourself.” She recommends turning your “have-to” goals into “want-to” goals — for instance, “say, ‘I value collaboration, and I want to attend this meeting because it will facilitate that.’ Or, ‘I value generating a high-quality product for my client, so I want to be present on this call.’ It’s a powerful realignment for individuals who are affected by secondhand stress,” she says. Think about “your career objectives” and “connect your obligations with something positive.”
Take care of yourself (and help others do the same)
One of the best ways to ward off stress — be it second- or firsthand — is to take impeccable care of your health. Eating well and getting plenty of exercise and sleep are critical to keeping stress at bay. So, too, is practicing gratitude, says Achor. “Thinking of things you are grateful for sounds trite, but it gives you a storehouse of positives to help neutralize and counterbalance any negatives you are inevitably going to experience,” says Achor. Importantly, he adds, you must share what you have learned. He says he’s often surprised by the number of leaders who tell him “that they journal positive experiences, or do yoga, or meditate, and yet they never mention it to the very people on their teams they are trying to motivate.” This is a travesty, he says. “If you have a positive habit and it works for you, tell everyone.”
Principles to Remember
- Show compassion to your stressed-out colleagues. Rather than getting agitated, ask how you can help.
- Surround yourself with positive people to benefit from their confidence, optimism, and happiness.
- Take strategic retreats from negative colleagues when necessary.
- Try to fix the most stressed-out person your team; instead, model optimism and positivity.
- Get bogged down listening to others moan about their stressful “have-to” lists; connect your work to your values and remember the big picture.
- Be secretive about your positive habits. Take care of yourself and share your strategies.
Case Study #1: Support your team and foster positivity within the ranks
Gloria Larson, the former president of Bentley College, says that she has always been a “ridiculously optimistic” person. “For me the glass is 90% full,” she says. “But, of course, I feel stressed when things are challenging. And I’m not immune to the effects of other people’s stress, too.”
Years ago, when she was an attorney at Foley Hoag in Boston, Gloria volunteered to chair a committee in charge of building the Massachusetts Convention Center, an $800 million construction project along the waterfront. Early in the project, she held a press conference claiming that the project would be “on time and on budget.”
Then the project ran into problems, including large cost overruns. “It was ugly, and it played out on the front pages of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald,” says Gloria. “I looked around [at the board and the other senior leaders], and I could see that the team was stressed.”
Gloria was determined to deflect any secondhand stress and to help her anxious colleagues. “I knew I had to empower those people who needed to show up day in, day out,” she says. “I needed them to know that we were a team and that I supported them.”
Her first move was to talk to her team — both as a group and as individuals — about what they were experiencing. “We talked about the specific causes of the stress and pressure on the project, and then we discussed potential solutions,” she says.
Gloria also made sure to support and encourage others who worked on the project, including design experts, construction workers, and architects. “I spent a lot of time going to the site, putting on a hard hat, and telling people they were doing a great job.”
Throughout the project, Gloria reminded herself of the bigger picture. “I was so passionate about it that it felt more like a calling,” she says. “That inspiring purpose made me feel good, even when the stress was overwhelming.”
She extolled the virtues of her optimism to her stressed-out team. “A positive attitude can be just as infectious as secondhand stress,” she says. “When things got bad, I tried to [take the approach of], ‘We can do it.’”
Gloria also took good care of herself during those stressful days. “I am a yoga and meditation dropout,” she confesses. “But I do exercise a lot.” As the owner of three Labrador retrievers, she adds that she’s a big believer in the “power of animals to de-stress.”
Case Study #2: Find the source of your stress and share your tension-relieving techniques
Mei Xu, the cofounder and CEO of Chesapeake Bay Candle, says that stress and secondhand stress are a persistent concern. “Economic trends continuously pressure retail and consumer industries to do more, faster, and better,” she says. “And it is not unusual for team members — including me — to struggle to cope with these challenges.”
Mei remembers feeling particularly stressed after she hired a new product manager, who we’ll call Courtney. Courtney was very talented but had only a few years of experience. Soon after she joined the company, she started to seem stressed in her one-on-one interactions with Mei and in team meetings.
First, Mei asked Courtney about what she was experiencing. Courtney confessed that much of her stress was due to her lack of experience. “She really wanted to do well in our organization, but this was her first big job, and she felt nervous because she was unsure of herself,” Mei explains.
Next, Mei tried to assuage her concerns. “I wanted to help her relax and gain confidence,” she says. Mei identified a few opportunities through which Courtney could build her confidence. For example, Mei asked Courtney to give an internal presentation that she had helped put together.
Finally, Mei shared her own techniques for reducing tension and “counterbalancing the effects of an individual team member’s stress” with Courtney and the rest of the team. These include wellness and mindfulness apps, long walks outdoors, and, perhaps not surprisingly, burning candles with calming essential oils. “My goal is to empower team members to take a pause when they feel too overwhelmed or stressed out — even if it is only for a few moments — to gain perspective and reenergize.”
Mei says that as Courtney gained more experience, she started to feel more secure and less stressed. “Over the course of the next few months, she started to look more at ease around the office, and that had a big impact on the team’s morale.”
Author: Rebecca Knight
Article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review