What to do if your boss is stressing you out

Is your boss in a constant state of stress – rushing from one meeting to another, juggling emails and phone calls at once, while barking orders in a high-pitched, urgent voice?

Your boss may not know it, but he or she is most likely causing you second-hand stress, a condition in which you "catch" their negative energy.

More contagious than a cold, second-hand stress is becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, says Ellen Jackson, a workplace psychologist specialising in mental health and wellbeing at work.

"If the people around you are experiencing anxiety, agitation, anger or any other heightened negative emotion, you can quickly be influenced to feel the same way," she says. "This happens without our conscious understanding."

The mirror effect

Scientists have found that neurons in our brains "mirror" what is happening around us.

Two recent studies have also confirmed exactly this – being around someone who is stressed is "contagious" and can have a huge impact on your mental and physical health.

At Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, researchers discovered that elevated levels of cortisol, the major stress hormone, was found in the blood stream of those who were around highly stressed people.

"The fact that we could actually measure this empathic stress in the form of a significant hormone release was astonishing," Veronika Engert, one of the study's authors, says. "Stress has an enormous contagion potential."

Under pressure

High levels of cortisol can lead to a range of health issues, including weight gain, infertility, cardiovascular disease, reduced immunity and overeating.

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Another study found that mothers who were stressed were passing their negative emotions to their babies, who were becoming distressed and had increased heart rates.

Jennifer (not her real name), an executive assistant at a law firm, knows well how one person's stressful behaviour can hijack another person's brain.

"I'm normally a very calm, in-control worker who is organised and gets things done even when I feel under pressure," she says.

Negative energy

But at her new job at a Sydney law firm, she has found that her boss's frenzied work behaviour and anxiety is indeed contagious.

"I actually feel my heart start to race when I get to the office and I know I'm starting to take on his negative energy," Jennifer says.

As a result, she feels constantly on edge, has trouble sleeping, and has put on 10kg in weight, due to increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can cause overeating and weight gain around the abdomen.

"None of my clothes fit me and that's depressing me even more," says Jennifer, who has started looking for a new job.

Counting the cost

Leading Australian clinical psychologist Dr Peter Cotton says workplace stress costs the Australian economy $14.1 billion per year.

He says second-hand stress is a "significant issue" that needs to be recognised by employers.

"It's significant, largely due to the wide variability in leadership capability," the world expert and academic says.

"Team meetings should not just be an endless list of operational issues to tick off. I quarantine some time every few meetings to discuss how the team is travelling. I indicate that wellbeing is important and if anyone is struggling, come and talk to me."

How to cope

Second-hand stress can cause a range of psychological problems including burnout, depression and anxiety, Ellen Jackson says.

"If you're working alongside another person who is highly anxious, angry, irritable or even teary and distressed day-in day-out, this can start to wear us down," she says.

"Having people in the workplace who are chronically and visibly distressed – cranky, irritable, angry, upset – will obviously also contribute to lower morale and a less positive work environment, and that wears everyone down emotionally over time, too. It affects everyone."

So what can you do to avoid falling victim to second-hand stress?

Jackson, who writes a blog on workplace stress, says there are many strategies, including:

Change your response

Rather than feeling frustrated and angry when your boss or a colleague is spreading their negative energy, have compassion. "We can never know what is really going on for someone else at any given time," Jackson says. "By adopting an understanding approach instead of getting angry and irritable yourself, you can avoid an even more stressful situation for everyone."

Stay away

If possible, distance yourself from those people who are negative and stressed out.

Protect yourself

Protect yourself before going into work or stressful environments by "calming your body and mind," Jackson says. Write about a positive experience or keep a gratitude journal, aim to do exercise for 30 minutes, and get some fresh air at lunch.