Why stress is contagious (and 4 steps to mastering stress for high performance)

change management and stress

While stress cannot be completely absent from a business workforce, resilience can help channel stress into creating a better work environment and fostering a sustainable high-performance business, writes Stuart Taylor

It’s a scenario we’re all too familiar with – you’re feeling really good about your work day, until a colleague comes into the office in a huff, worrying about a client issue, or stressing about their ever-growing list of responsibilities. And suddenly you find yourself agitated, anxious and stressed out too.

While we’re all aware of the effect that stress can have on our mind, body and performance, what you might be surprised to learn is that stress is much like the common cold – it’s highly contagious and easy to ‘catch’ from other people.

And while healthy levels of stress can be beneficial – helping you to stay on your toes, alert and agile in the face of pressure – there are times when it can trigger negative distress responses and impact on mental and physical wellbeing.

As it stands, negative stress in the workplace is said to cost the Australian economy $14.1 billion per year. Our Global Resilience Report of over 26,000 professionals found that 55 per cent of us worry excessively, 50 per cent are hyper-vigilant, 45 per cent experience distress symptoms, and 35 per cent are unable to relax. A separate workplace study found that employee stress levels have risen nearly 20 per cent in three decades.

And the dynamic nature of the modern workforce indicates that there’s no sign of this slowing down –– employees, and the organisations they work for, are more vulnerable than ever to the challenges of workplace stress.

The good news is that while everyone mimics the emotions of others to some extent, how intensely you pick up on some else’s stress depends on a lot of factors, and you can actually strengthen your emotional immune system to master negative stress, by building your resilience.

“Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your energy into something more constructive”

To build your personal resilience at work, and mitigate against the negative effects of second-hand stress, try practicing the following:

  • Funnel negative stress into something productive. Too often, we let stress overwhelm us and prohibit us from doing our best work. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your energy into something more constructive.
  • Tackle the cause of stress. Many people think that stress is caused by the level of pressure we are facing, when it’s actually caused by how we view that pressure. As a result, we are quick to make a forecast in our mind of how we will handle this pressure, however it is simply a forecast, not a reality. To reframe our thinking; catch, check, then change (reframe) negative thoughts. One of the most effective things we can learn is how to reframe our thinking to avoid falling into thinking traps that lead to unhelpful responses to stress.
  • Protect yourself. Before going into work, try calming your mind and body. Make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep, aim to do 30 mins of exercise per day and get some fresh air during your break. Aim to stand up from your desk at least every 30 minutes, even if it’s just for 10 seconds.
  • Redirect the other person’s stress. If a colleague is exuding stress, rather than engaging in the negativity, listen with empathy and then direct the conversation away from the emotional high stress into something practical. For example, if someone is complaining about a long list of responsibilities, perhaps offer some practical ways in which they can prioritise their day or delegate their tasks accordingly to take the pressure off.
  • Take time at the end of each day to celebrate the positive things that happened in the day. This will allow you to leave negative work stress at the door and focus on nurturing personal wellbeing and relationships. This kind of self-care is important for coming into work relaxed and ready to take on the day.

Looking beyond the individual, organisations also have a duty of care to create work environments that foster resilience, trust, productivity, and positive mental wellbeing for employees. And it all starts from the top, at executive level.

“Excessive stress is prolific in CEOs who feel that they carry the successes and failures of the business on their shoulders”

When the executive team aren’t modelling resilience, that’s when employees are most likely to catch second-hand negative stress symptoms.

1. The executive team should lead by example
Unsurprisingly, excessive stress is prolific in CEOs who feel that they carry the successes and failures of the business on their shoulders. But one of the real problems with management stress is that it’s often transferred, meaning that managers who feel stress tend to pass it on to their employees by their own high-tension behaviour. To prevent this, executives need to dispel this toxic workplace culture and invest in building personal resilience and wellbeing to reduce their own levels of stress in the workplace.

2. Model and encourage wellbeing practices
While stress can be contagious, the converse is also true – when one member of the team experiences the positive effects of well-being, the effect can spread across the entire team. It’s for this reason that organisations should encourage staff to take time for exercise and other renewal activities like mindfulness activities and healthy eating. Such initiatives that promote overall health and wellness, act as a preventative measure against stress in the workplace, are cost-effective for businesses and can even be tax efficient.

3. Build a culture of trust
If you’ve been following the gist of recent news stories, you’ll have noticed that the theme across Australia’s business landscape is trust, and for good reason. When it comes to minimising stress in the workplace, leaders should aim to build a trust-based culture rather than a fear-based culture through steadiness, integrity, compassion, connection and engagement. In trust-based organisations, employees are less stressed, happier, and more productive therefore translating into better business outcomes.

4. Foster the contagion of positive stress
To encourage positive stress, leaders need to focus on skills and training in the workplace that not only enhance the social climate (creating a calm, supportive work environment), but also develops our response to stress, for example resilience building activities. The most obvious way to train our responses to stress in the workplace is to address the main drivers and gradually train employees to master these points of contention through one-on-one coaching and empathetic leadership.

While stress cannot be completely absent from a business workforce, resilience in business provides an essential framework for people and at an organisational level to protect against negative stress in the workplace, and channel it to create a better work environment that fosters sustainable high performance at all levels of the business.