There is stress – emanating from the workload, bosses, co-workers, spouse, children, financial constraints and various other issues. This can affect the stressed person’s physical and emotional health by causing high blood pressure, fatigue, memory loss, insomnia and even depression.

And then there is secondary stress – this transmits to others surrounding the stressed person and makes them stressed out as well! Yes, stress is quite contagious. When someone is irritable or impatient all the time, others around him subconsciously absorb the emanating tension and become unsettled, anxious and frustrated over a period of time. This kind of passive stress spreads very quickly and the ripple effects can soon engulf even an entire organisation. Therefore, the stress spill-over can affect people, their performance, morale, team spirit and ultimately the company bottom line too.

Passive stress has been corroborated by research as well. Researchers from the University of Hawaii, USA discovered that second-hand stress and anxiety levels can be passed onto each other in the office - and it spreads just as quickly as cold and flu bugs! The study suggests that the human brain acts like a sponge and involuntarily soaks up emotions, behavioural traits and even facial expressions emitted from co-workers with stunning rapidity. In another study, researcher Elaine D. Eaker reveals that men whose wives are upset with work are more likely to develop heart disease as those whose wives don’t bring work-related stress home.

Dealing with others’ stress

Staying immune to second-hand stress is not easy. You see your colleagues every day and it is tough not to get affected by what they are going through. Yet, you should be aware that offering a ready shoulder to cry on and empathising with stressed co-workers can take its toll on you as well. What’s more, women are more susceptible to secondary stress as they are usually more empathetic and sensitive to others’ feelings. Following are some tips on how to avoid getting affected by the indirect consequences of stress:

You cannot and should not stop being sympathetic, understanding and supportive for your fellow employees. But know where to draw the line as overdoing it will stress you out as well

Lend a patient ear but do not try to identify with the stressed colleague’s emotions. You will only end up feeling helpless as there is nothing much you can do to alleviate the situation

Don’t become preoccupied with others’ worries to the extent that you constantly try to lighten their workload, comfort them and make them happy. It will only make things worse for you

Worry for them; not because of them. Remember at the end of the day, you are not responsible for his well-being. And it’s his problem, not yours

Try to talk to the stressed person in a calm manner. Explain that you are concerned about him, but his stress is indirectly affecting you too

Offer to help him resolve the issue or overcome the worry instead of just whining and moaning about it

If things are going overboard, try to limit contact with the stressed person. Avoid extended water cooler chats and coffee breaks for your own good

If he persists, acknowledge him and step away quickly. Do not let him exploit your emotional nature

Look out for yourself. Indulge in some relaxing activities like yoga, meditation, workout, meeting friends, listening to music or just indulging a hobby – it will help reduce the negative feelings

Try to hang around positive people

Finally, ensure that you too avoid spreading your tensions to others. Transmitting your stress will only pollute the work environment. Instead, try to stay pleasant, civil and cheerful with others. Address issues early on before they become a problem. When you do need to let off steam, try to do it outside work hours with family or friends.

Payal Chanania