Are you suffering from second-hand stress?
The partners of men who are depressed are more likely to give birth prematurely, a Swedish study has found.
It has long been known that depressed women have a greater chance of premature birth, but the researchers from the University of Stockholm who tracked 350,000 births have found evidence to strongly suggest that a depressed father causes stress in the mother.
They are not the only ones to suggest that stress can be catching. It is something that happens more generally in families, with friends and at work.
A study at the University of California, Riverside found that people’s emotions people can directly affect those around them – and stress is transmitted via verbal and non-verbal signals.
If someone who is stressed and highly expressive moves into your field of vision, you pick up on it – and become more stressed yourself.
Other researchers found that while watching stressed strangers resulted in elevated cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) levels, if it was someone you were emotionally attached to, the effect was considerably stronger.
Finally, you may even be able to smell stress in those around you. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, and Michelle Gielan, a University of Pennsylvania psychology researcher noted, “Observing someone who is stressed, especially a co-worker or family member, can have an immediate effect upon our own nervous systems.”
Jessica Pryce Jones, CEO of the iOpener Institute and author of Happiness at Work says, “Emotions are contagious to within three degrees on social networks.” It’s very easy to see how these trains of stress work. A colleague’s spouse is stressed at home, so they are stressed at work, so you, their colleague, pick up their anxiety and also become stressed.
The less conscious stress cues we pick up then feed back into the conscious realm and create further worries. Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester University Business School says, “If you’re in a working group and someone is being bullied or has an unrealistic deadline, you might be worried too because you’re concerned it could happen to you.”
He adds that, in a study of bullying at work (itself a great cause of stress), he undertook, he noticed a phenomenon he termed secondary bullying. “If you are in a work group and someone else is being bullied, then you are likely to be affected,” he explains. “You won’t suffer as much as the person who is being bullied, but you will take roughly half as many extra days off.”
He adds, “In family situations, if your son or sister’s marriage is in trouble, it can affect the whole family. You worry about them but you have no control over them, so there’s a feeling of powerlessness. This worry can lead to anxiety and depression.”
So, what can you do? Well, if there is a problem such as bullying, then someone needs to get in touch with HR. But if it’s just stress picked up from anxious colleagues, there’s are quite a few simple coping strategies you can employ to mitigate the effects.
For starters, you should recognize that, in many cases stress, especially second-hand stress, is often caused by a lack of control. So look for things that you can do that allow you to affect the situation in a positive way. If it’s a colleague who is stressed out by overwork, you might offer to help them with their work in the short term, or suggest you talk to your manager together. “If it’s a family member you might get the entire together to develop a strategy to help them,” says Prof Cooper.
If it’s someone who just unloads on you, you may be able to find a way of working around them. You might even simply decide to change they way you respond to them. This last option may seem highly superficial, but it is surprisingly effective because it puts you back in control. In fact, even if you decide that all you are going to do is put up with the other person’s stress and say nothing, you will feel better because you have still made a decision and reasserted control.
In more serious cases, Ms Pryce-Jones suggests that you speak to the person about the impact they are having on you or the team. Here you may discover that their stress has roots outside the workplace. Again this can be a good thing. If you suddenly realise they are going through a messy divorce, it may help you deal with their anxiety because suddenly it will make sense and you will see their mood swings in a far more sympathetic way.
If the person merely loves drama, Ms Pryce Jones suggests stepping back: “You may also be able to disassociate yourself. Recognize where their stuff stops and yours starts and refuse to get caught up in it.” Here, you might need to be quite blunt, to the point of walking away. “Sometimes it’s useful to visualize snipping a chord between you and the other person.” What you must not do, she says, is become their crutch or go-to person for unloading. “They’ll suck the life out of you.”
It’s also worth remembering that a burden shared is a burden halved. So talk to other colleagues about it. If they have the same problems as you, you may be able to come up with a shared strategy for dealing with it. Again, you’re reasserting control and doing something positive.
Finally, says Prof Cooper, “One of the best coping strategies is just to put things in perspective. You say to yourself, ‘Yes, I have a stressful colleague, but my friend has prostate cancer’ and suddenly it really doesn’t seem that bad.”