Stress in the office is contagious — here’s how to stop it from spreading


Daniel Keating is the author of “BORN ANXIOUS: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity and How to Break the Cycle,” out now from St. Martin’s Press.
Everywhere we look, ominous signs reveal a mushrooming stress epidemic.
Predictably, this stress epidemic is driving up costs to business from lost productivity and innovation. But recent research provides insights on how to counter these trends.
Here are four leadership keys to easing and even reversing the rising costs of stress in the workplace.
Making stress contagion work in your favor
Stress contagion in the workplace – the physiological linkage among individuals working together on teams – is a real phenomenon, because teams become aligned with each other in their physiological response. This “second hand stress” can be harmful to team productivity and restrict creativity in problem solving if the contagion leads to everyone being stressed out.
But research also shows that a moderate level of stress arising from a desire to succeed can also spread to the full team and actually enhance productivity. Bringing the role of stress – and excess stress – to the attention of team leaders can help regulate stress levels to achieve the “sweet spot” of focused productivity.
Maintaining this balance – between excessive stress that leads to burnout and a reasonable stress level that enhances performance – is too important to leave to chance. Leadership styles and structures that create and maintain that balance is the key.
Leaders need to look at themselves
The primary driver of workplace stress is how leaders deal with their own reactions to stress. They may convey excess, toxic levels of stress to those they lead for three reasons: the demands exceed their control over the situation; they perceive this is the case, even when it is not; or they may be “stress-dysregulated”, with an amped-up stress reaction, on high alert virtually all the time.
Leaders reacting badly under stress permeate an organization, leading to toxic stress and burnout for the teams they lead.
If leaders are truly facing impossible demands, then this needs to be communicated effectively to key decision-makers. But seeing the situation clearly is a key, because overestimating risk has the same effect on stress responses as actual threats. And a frequently overlooked factor is that more of us are burdened with an overactive stress response that becomes contagious to the group as a whole.
Though this may seem at odds with notions of the successful Type-A leader who mercilessly drives the organization to achieve, the evidence shows that leaders who keep everyone on edge with threats and unreasonable demands are much less effective. There are ways to bring stress reactions into a healthier balance, and leaders should pay attention to evaluating and managing their own stress.
Collaborative leadership is better for stress management
Beyond helping leaders attain better stress management for themselves, are there leadership styles that work best for achieving the “sweet spot” leading to higher productivity? This too is a question of balance. Leaders need to be assertive, goal-setting, and, ideally, inspirational to set the direction and maintain that focus.
But good leadership also needs to find ways to inspire strong, competent “followership.” Collaborative leadership styles strike this balance best by focusing on the people and teams, and not only on tasks.
Heidi Kasevich provides compelling evidence that this combination of focusing on people, teams, and tasks often comes more easily to women leaders, with enhancements to productivity, although they are often at a disadvantage because of lingering cultural assumptions that view the same behaviors as “assertive” in men but “bossy” in women.
Upper level leaders need to be especially attentive to these patterns among the managers who report to them, and create norms allowing multiple open lines of communication so that anyone can respectfully and directly bring problems to their attention before excessive stress undermines the goals of the organization.
Workplace civility paves the way to productivity
Contagion of toxic stress from leaders and within teams makes it critical to create a positive, well-regulated workplace. Workplace incivility deals a fatal blow to balance. When the level of stress gets too high, workplace incivility increases, leading to major costs to the organization.
Christine Porath and Christine Pearson recently reported some costs of workplace incivility and stress: 48% intentionally decreased their work effort; 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work; 66% said that their performance declined, and 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined.
Even one stress-dysregulated coworker can disrupt good working environments, causing toxic stress and hostility in groups that need to work together. Creating clear criteria about workplace civility as well as norms for addressing conflict can help, as can attention to specific needs of individuals who are routinely disruptive.
Often, they may be unaware that they are the source, because their anxiety, agitation, and anger arise automatically. Workplace civility can be learned, and norms for successfully managing conflict can be celebrated, leading to a stress-regulated “culture” of the organization.

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