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Second-hand stress at work

On How to Counteract Second-Hand Stress

When you were a kid, did you ever play a game of daring each other not to yawn or laugh when the other person was doing so? The whole premise of that fun little game is about how our brains are hardwired to pick up on other people’s emotions. This is not just true of smiling and yawning though: it’s also true of stress, negativity, and anxiety. In the workplace, we are exposed to a lot of emotions and impacted by them. We call this second-hand stress, and it impacts our well-being more than we may realize. Here are some ways that you can counteract second-hand stress for yourself and for others.

Why This Matters At Work: While we talk a lot about how we experience stress due to workload and remote work constraints, I haven’t seen a lot of conversation on second-hand stress. Tensions are running high right now due to work-related stress and world events during lockdown. Between the news, social media, and work pressure, we are being inundated by negative emotional signals from every direction. In the midst of this, it’s easy for us to take on this stress and negativity second-hand and spread this to those around us.

What The Research Says on Second-Hand Stress: According to research from the University of California Riverside, people are influenced by the emotions of the most expressive people in the room (and usually not vice-versa). Oftentimes, our mirror neurons can activate to mirror what we are seeing in others, including stress and anxiety. In this case, expressive includes verbal and non-verbal cues as to how someone is feeling.

The Effects of Stress (source):

  • Fight or flight mode: rapid breathing, elevated blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels
  • Insomnia or sleep problems
  • Greater risk of heart attacks
  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Fertility problems
  • And the focus of today: Second-hand stress to those around us-

Examples of Second-Hand Stress: An angry Uber driver whose road rage makes us a bit more anxious the rest of the day. An influential colleague who is hyper-critical and often makes other people around them feel more negative. A boss who is under pressure from his or her boss and transfers this pressure to their teams. All it takes is one bad encounter with a stressed-out person to influence our own stress levels.

As leaders, there’s a great learning opportunity as to how to develop better boundaries against second-hand stress for ourselves and also how to create a work environment for our teams where this is minimized. Unlike our personal lives, we aren’t always able to avoid people in the workplace. So instead, here are some ways to manage second-hand stress without drastic changes at work.

Protecting Oneself From Second-Hand Stress:

  • Prioritize self-care to manage your own baseline stress levels: Move your body frequently through exercise, walks, and stretches. Meditate to notice your own negative thought patterns and to tune into your body. Decrease your sleep time an hour before bedtime to get the full effects of rest. Start your day with daily gratitude journaling to anchor yourself on the positives. Take time off to unwind and truly take it off. If you don’t do this already, consider creating a self-care checklist for yourself that you commit to and track. I monitor a weekly score for my self-care and it has been a leading indicator for how I show up at work.
  • Change your relationship with stress: Recent research shows that people who change the meaning behind stress and redirect the stress response towards productivity can actually lower their stress levels and use it to their advantage. Rather than stay in Fight or Flight Mode, find ways to make your stress enhancing by channeling it into action, even if it’s tiny steps, that allow you to feel like you were actively solutioning it with what you can control.
  • Make compassion your default response: When a coworker is bringing stress, anxiety and negativity into your workspace, try to show compassion towards that coworker rather than respond back with similar intensity. It will help you build a higher tolerance for these people without letting them affect your mental health. Having compassion also leads to better feedback conversations, which will make a meaningful difference in your working relationships.

Protecting Your Teams From Second-Hand Stress:

  • Be mindful of what kind of second-hand impact you have on your teams: Leaders of teams have an extra level of responsibility on how we choose to show up at work, knowing that our words and non-verbal signals can influence our teams and peers emotionally. The answer is somewhere between toxic positivity and toxic negativity. In that middle ground, we are able to be authentic, honest, but also mindful of others. As mentioned above, taking care of ourselves is step one. But the next steps are to keep the team’s best interest top-of-mind and being mindful about not spreading stressful energy.
  • Create space and dialogue for having your team’s back: Whether it’s difficult stakeholder teams or one-off incidents, spend some extra time with your team to listen to them and to help them set up professional boundaries, have difficult conversations, and get more management support (from you or your peers) to help manage stress and motivation.
  • Lead with empathy: Similar to bullet 3 above, role-model and coach your teams to lead with empathy during this time while also taking appropriate actions to solve challenging working relationships. We really never know what people are going through and how that impacts how they show up at work. Realistically, we will all have bad days and that should be normalized at every level. A practical tip is to use your company’s learning and development training tools to refresh yourselves on how to work with different working styles, different communication styles, and different cultures.

Thanks for reading!

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