All you did was stop to chat for a few minutes with a grumpy colleague in the hallway. Now you have a blinding headache, and all you want to do is grope your way back to your cubicle and drown your sorrows in a large latte and oversized muffin (which you can’t afford, and which will blow your diet).
What the heck happened? You’ve been infected with another person’s emotional distress — yes, it’s catching.
University of Hawaii psychologist Elaine Hatfield (via The Daily Mail) believes that stress is as contagious as the common cold, especially in the workplace. According to Hatfield, when we listen to another person unload on the boss or go off about a colleague or unfair work practice, we begin to empathize, taking on their emotional distress for ourselves.
Hatfield explained the curious dynamic as a kind of unconscious mimicking. Said Hatfield: “People seem to be capable of mimicking others’ facial, vocal, and postural expressions with stunning rapidity. As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into those other emotional lives to a surprising extent.”
This stress-sharing scenario among colleagues and friends can manifest itself physically. We may start to make distressed faces, and our shoulders may begin to creep up closer to our hairline with each negative comment.
Hatfield also found that women are more susceptible to catching the stress bug than men. He said: “Women are more at risk because they tend to be more in tune to other people’s feelings.”
So, ladies, if given the choice between sitting next to a coughing colleague or the office moaner during the next department meeting, it might be smarter to take your chances with the bacteria manufacturer. While no one likes to get sick, at the very least, a cold will translate into a few days off work to rest in bed. Unfortunately, there’s no Cold-FX for stress. Moreover, you can’t call in stressed, no matter how tempting it sounds.