How to Protect Yourself from Other People’s Stress at Work

One weird meeting can ruin your whole day. It happens all the time: anxious bosses create anxious employees, and a single bad attitude can rapidly infect an entire team.

This is a pretty common phenomenon, both at work and outside of work. It’s called emotional contagion, and it takes place when one person’s emotions or behaviors trigger the same feelings in another.

Emotional contagion occurs with positive emotions — like pride and happiness — and negative emotions — such as stress or anxiety. That being said, it’s the negative emotions that have more of an impact.

Research has shown that experiencing just one negative emotion during the workday can influence the rest of our interactions that day and even stick with us after work. In addition, simply seeing someone who is stressed can cause our own cortisol (aka the stress hormone) levels to spike.

It makes sense that emotions would spread like wildfire in the workplace. It’s where most of us spend the majority of our time, after all.

So, how can you protect yourself from absorbing other people’s stress and stop spreading your own feelings in and around the office? Here’s what the experts recommend.

Keeping your own feels in check

Listen, we all come down with a case of the blues every now and then. Getting ticked off at work is a completely normal, salient part of being human.

However, before you let your emotions run rampant at the office, it’s important to remember your emotions are quite contagious to other people — especially to our more sensitive friends.

Illustration of a coworking space with creative people sitting at the table. Other People's Stress pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
Your emotions can be just as contagious as that cold you’re pretending you don’t have.

Being aware of our emotions and knowing how to regulate them is the key to not passing them on to others. Many psychologists recommend putting a name to your emotions — aka labeling — to help regulate them.

“Sometimes naming your emotion can be an effective strategy to externalize the difficult emotion, therefore depersonalizing it and making it easier to act or problem solve on,” said Jor-El Caraballo, a career coach and co-founder of Viva Wellness.

For example, if you start feeling restless, irritable, or worried, you might be feeling anxiety. By properly labeling the emotion, you can keep it from overwhelming you and respond to it appropriately.

Next, consider going for a walk to get some fresh air. There’s two reasons this will help: first, stepping away from the stressful environment will give yourself a change of scenery and help you reset. Second, studies have found that a brisk walk or stroll activates soothing neurons in the brain, making us feel calmer and more relaxed.

There are also several breathing techniques that can help you calm down. When you’re worked up, you tend to take quick, shallow breaths, so try taking long, deep breaths instead.

Many health experts recommend the 4-7-8 technique: inhale and count to four, hold your breath and count to seven, then exhale while counting to eight. Repeat this about five times, or until you feel more relaxed.

If you’re in a meeting and feel your blood boiling, allow yourself to cool down before you speak up.

“It’s fine to be passionate, animated or opinionated, but also important to be kind and thoughtful about our words and actions,” said Amanda Ponzar, the chief communications and strategy officer with Community Health Charities who specializes in employee engagement. “That often means separating ourselves from a situation – giving yourself time to think — before responding verbally or in writing.”

Protect yourself against others’ emotions

Now, protecting yourself from others’ emotions is a whole different ballgame.

It’s totally okay to draw boundaries, Ponzar said, especially when someone’s consistently oversharing or negatively impacting your emotional wellbeing when you’re trying to work.

If you feel their emotions starting to hit you, Ponzar recommends excusing yourself or changing the subject.

If you can’t step away, say something along the lines of, “Thanks for sharing that; back to the project real quick, what did you think about this idea?” Or “I’m on a tight deadline right now, but thanks for stopping by.”

Open office environments can be especially draining for those who are more sensitive to others’ emotions. If you work in an open office space, there are a couple creative solutions to take to protect yourself from the constant buzz.

“Finding some quiet work space, like ducking into a conference room temporarily and working or using headphones to block out stimuli, can be a lifesaver if you find it hard to separate others’ energies from yourself,” Caraballo said.

[ICYMI: 3 Tips to Succeed in an Open Office as a Highly Sensitive Person]

You can also try surrounding your desk with plants, art or photos to create a visual barrier.

If you have a meeting with a colleague who bums you out every time, come up with a plan. Before the meeting, tell yourself that you won’t be affected by the person or that he or she won’t become the focus of your attention, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania suggests.

Here’s the thing: you can’t change your coworkers, but you can try to change how you respond to them. When in doubt, focus on the positives: what you like about your job and the things in your life you are grateful for.

Protecting yourself against other people’s emotions isn’t an easy feat, but the better you get at it, the more pleasant and relaxing your work days will be.

Julia Ries

Julia Ries is a writer based in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, there’s a good chance she’s doing yoga, walking her dog or doing yoga with her dog. Get to know her at www.juliaries.com.