There’s an office where I work where the stress is palpable. I feel it as I walk through the door. My movements immediately become tentative and my chest tightens – it’s as though I’m in a zombie movie, desperately trying not to breathe in the contagion and be transformed myself. But, inevitably, the atmosphere seeps into me, often ruining my day.
Stress is contagious; this has been proven. We ‘catch’ other people’s tension through our instinctive human ability to ‘mirror’ emotions. This instinct, coupled with our primitive desire to be part of the tribe, sets off a raft of physiological reactions in us when we enter a stressed-out office, especially one that’s open plan. But, it is possible to become more resilient to other people’s pressure.
Take back control
‘You will always be aware of the energy in your workplace,’ says Alexandra Lees, co-founder of complementary health centre, Wu Wei Wisdom. ‘But whether you mirror this is always within your control. This choice may not always be obvious, because you forget that you, not other people, are the creator of your emotions. You can regain control of your inner world, even when chaos reigns.’
Not only that but, by resisting the spread of the stress contagion, you can become the antidote for others. Author, researcher and trainer Andy Cope quotes research which shows that if there’s a group of five people, it only takes one person to feel good to influence the entire dynamic in a positive way. The simplest of actions, such as holding your head up high, making eye contact with colleagues, smiling and saying hi, can make a big difference.
‘In the modern world, it’s become a badge of honour to be overly busy, so it’s about trying to be the brave one who dares to feel good,’ says Cope. He uses ‘intentional strategies’ to resist stress, such as mindfulness, and making a mental list at the start of the day of all the things he often takes for granted, but appreciates, from family members, to his car, to running water.
Sarah Rudder, a learning and development consultant at the multinational company Thales, suggests another intentional strategy: focusing on what you can influence and letting go of what you can’t. Personally, I find more creative strategies, which channel my imagination and humour, such as using metaphors and images, to be the most helpful in moments where emotions are running high.
The ‘space suit’ strategy
For instance, a lawyer friend once shared her sanity-saving ‘space suit’ strategy, which she uses to great effect at work: she imagines she’s an astronaut, wearing a high-tech suit, which no one can touch; other people’s negativity bounces off her, leaving her unaffected. She finds the humour of pretending to be an astronaut, while in an important meeting, also lightens her inner world.
Tam Johnston, a former NHS nurse, who now runs Fresh Insight Coaching, suggests strategies used by an emergency worker to stay calm in a crisis situation: ‘Imagine you are seeing all your co-workers from within a safe glass box that is floating above them, as though you were watching them on TV. Stay within your box as you go about your work. You can see, hear and respond to them but none of their “stuff” can get to you.’
Or you could try Rudder’s ‘Be More Dog’ approach. When stressed, she uses her dog as inspiration for being in the moment, rather than obsessing about the past or future. ‘When I’m walking my dog, I’m thinking about what I haven’t done; what I need to do; what I could have done. My dog is thinking purely about the walk we’re on. She reminds me that reliving an event that didn’t go well continues the stress, so I need to let it go.’
Although you have some control of how much you let stress affect you, it is important to put boundaries in place. Don’t check work messages when you are at home. ‘Just because other people send emails in the evening doesn’tmean you have to answer them,’ says Rudder.
Seek out ‘breaks’ from the stress during the working day, too. Go for a walk, or talk to a colleague from a different department about something else to give your brain a break.
Uncover your ‘zen’ zone
Lizzie Benton, who is responsible for managing culture at digital marketing company Datify, uses physical boundaries to quarantine stress. She noticed how ‘contagious’ stress had become in her high-pressure, open-plan office and how ‘if one person had a bad day, it could easily begin to affect others’. In particular, she saw how negative conversations would instantly change the mood of the team. ‘We all take negativity differently, so some people would become quiet, while others would get a little short with colleagues, spreading the stress,’ she explains.
Benton made it a rule that negative conversations be moved into the meeting room, and suggested that, if someone was feeling stressed, they take a walk or work elsewhere. Now the whole team works from laptops, so they can move around easily. She’s introduced more remote working opportunities and a ‘zen room’ – a designated chill-out working area. She also holds her one-to-one catch-ups with her team in the local pub, rather than the office because, she says, people are much more open about their problems.
These simple measures have been incredibly effective in stopping stress from going viral. ‘It’s been hard to get used to having such freedom, as we’ve all come from office environments that didn’t have this level of flexibility – but it’s allowed us all to feel so much happier and relaxed in our working environment,’ says Benton.
Read our article, 'Why is stress so infectious?' here.