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Secondhand Stress in the Office: Are You at Risk?

secondhand stress

Can you catch stress like the flu? That might be a little far fetched, but there is scientific evidence that being around other people who don’t manage their stress well can cause your stress levels to rise. A 2011 University of Hawaii study found that stress is as contagious as the common cold. How often do you walk into work and just the presence of a particular person (or persons) in the office causes your anxiety to spike?


If this hasn’t happened to you, you are probably that person and you should definitely get it together. According to Heidi Hanna, author of Stressaholic and fellow at the American Institute of Stress:


The brain is very sensitive to anything that may be perceived as a threat in our environment. When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we too should be worried.


How to protect yourself from secondhand stress? The number one thing: Identify the most stressed person in the office.


  1. People avoid them.
  2. They are never disconnected (anxious 3 a.m. emails, anyone?)
  3. They never say no and…
  4. They complain frequently about being stretched too thin.
  5. Their goals are unrealistic.
  6. They’re chronically negative and rarely enthusiastic.

And the second: Become self-protective. Yes, you have to be your own advocate when you work with a stress monster. (If you ARE that monster, stay tuned for another post on how to keep it in check at work…)


Some “dos” and “don’ts” for inoculating yourself against secondhand stress:



If the situation becomes intense or your internal alarms go off, remove yourself from the situation. Take your laptop to a conference room. Take a break and go for a walk. Practice deep breathing.


Create boundaries. Productive work talk? Keep it positive. Negative complaining? Change the subject or simply say “I’m an optimistic person by nature; let’s talk about the bright side!” The stress monster will learn quickly that you’re not the person to unload on.


Manage your own stress levels by disconnecting from distractions, limit access to work emails or phone calls after hours, and be fierce about your work-life balance.


Seek the company of optimistic coworkers. This doesn’t mean joining a club to share gossip about the stress monster. It means brainstorming, sharing information on your work projects, etc. in an upbeat and positive way. The more time you spend with positive people, the sharper the contrast to the negative ones, which makes it easier to ID who those people are so you can avoid them.


If the stress monster is in close proximity to your work area (meaning, you can’t avoid overhearing constant complaining), consider investing in a pair of noise-canceling headphones. In a bright color or the visible over-the-ear kind so they can act as a “do not disturb” sign.



Become the stress monster’s substitute therapist in the office. It can happen before you know it; you think you’re empathizing with a coworker and—BAM—you’re the complaints department and suddenly wrapped up in negative rants on a daily basis.


Attempt to solve the stress monster’s problems on your own. It’s a fact that one negative person can directly impact the mood and productivity of seven others in the same office. You’re not the only one involved in the melodrama, so take it (gently) to human resources or your mutual supervisor.


Let them affect your goals or aspirations. If you let another person eat into your productivity, you won’t meet your goals. If you don’t meet your goals, you won’t get that raise or promotion. Is this person really worth the impact on YOUR paycheck? (Hint: The answer is “no!”)


Finally, if this doesn’t convince you to protect yourself from secondhand stress, consider this: Just watching a person under stress can cause your cortisol levels to rise. This is not a good thing, as high cortisol levels have been linked to everything from weight gain (specifically, belly fat) to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke and dementia. Is your stressed out coworker worth your health?

About the author

Kelly Love Johnson

Kelly Love Johnson is Content Strategist for Jobs2Careers. She's also a shower singer, TV watcher, pop culture junkie, and habitual smirker. She's passionate about helping people find their dream jobs and closing the wage gap. Her book, Skirt! Rules for the Workplace: An Irreverent Guide to Advancing Your Career, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008.

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