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Dealing with passive stress in the workplace

If the people in your life are fretting and fuming, it could rub off on you. But here's how to deal with it

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Tabloid on Saturday

Until six months ago, Julie Hall loved her job. She had been with the firm for three years, got on with her colleagues and thrived on the challenges of working in a busy HR department. Then a new manager arrived — and everything changed.

"At first, she seemed nice, if a bit highly strung, but I put it down to new job nerves," says Julie, 38, from Wimbledon.

"But as the weeks went on it became clear that she was the kind of person who got stressed by anything and everything. When she's upset, which is frequently, she mutters and curses under her breath. It's really distracting, but if you offer to help she gets defensive.

"I leave work feeling as uptight as she does and dread going in the next day. Her stress has spread throughout the office. She walks into the room and infects the place in five minutes flat."

Nothing new

So could Julie's boss's stress be "infectious"? A study seems to support this theory — stress can be as contagious as the common cold and you can actually "catch" other people's anxieties. So if you are sitting next to a moaning colleague who goes into meltdown about the slightest thing, or spends the day whining, it could give you "second-hand stress".

Psychologist Professor Elaine Hatfield says "passive" or second-hand stress can quickly spread around the workplace. "We can catch other people's anxiety, depression or stress. Whatever they're feeling, we feel the same way," says Professor Hatfield.

Her study found that, like sponges, we soak up other people's emotions — be it good or bad — something called "emotional contagion". We take on our colleague's stress in an attempt to identify with them. But the misery poured into our ears causes us to dwell on our own troubles more than we usually would.

Julie's case is far from unique. Stress has become so widespread, says Dr Andrew Parker, a consultant psychiatrist at Capio Nightingale Hospital in Marylebone, London, that his hospital is opening a specific stress and post-traumatic stress disorder clinic.

"The atmosphere in some offices is really down as a result of redundancies and greater workload, and it's affecting people," Dr Parker says. "I see a lot of professionals with stress-related conditions, many at senior levels."

While stress often has tangible causes — the threat of redundancies, heightened workloads, poor sales — it can be exacerbated just by being around other stressed people, he says.

According to Professor Hatfield, "Women are more at risk because they are more in tune with other people's feelings."

It's contagious

And it's not just in the office — we can just as easily pick up the worries of friends. We might even feel stressed hearing about the latest financial crash or natural disaster on the news. There are lots of little things you can do to make yourself less likely to "catch" stress, Dr Parker says.

First of all, separate other people's stress from your own. "If you are with somebody who is stressed, acknowledge the situation, but don't react impulsively. Take a mental step back, breathe and try to create a mindset that stops you absorbing their stress," he says.

"Step away from the situation — get a cup of tea, look out of the window or walk around the block. I encourage people to take these "microbreaks" throughout the day."

On a positive note

But surely we should be trying to help our friends and colleagues when they are stressed and overwhelmed?

Only up to a point, says Professor Cary Cooper, an expert on workplace stress, from Lancaster University.

"We should try to help colleagues or friends who are struggling," says Professor Cooper.

"But very often people just like to vent their feelings without solving their problems. And you should walk away from them because they will infect you with their negativity."

And what should we be doing if it seems like the whole office are losing their heads?

"All too often offices have a culture in which you feel you need to appear to be stressed in order to look like you're busy. Don't be dragged into this way of working. If colleagues are having a moan, either walk away or say something positive about the situation.

"Positivity can be infectious, too. Point out the good things going on at work. Talk about personal things — like what you're doing at the weekend."