The 6 ways to protect yourself from 'secondhand stress'

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 3, 2020.

Positivity is infectious, but so is stress—especially in the workplace, Rebecca Knight writes for Harvard Business Review. Here are six expert-backed ways to spread positivity in the office and protect yourself from "secondhand stress."

Stress is contagious

The moods of those around us affect our moods, so if you're surrounded by a group of pessimistic, overworked colleagues at the office, the negativity might start to take a toll, Knight explains.

Unfortunately, between cell phones and social media, we live in a "hyper connected world, which means we are more at risk for negative social contagion than at any point in history," according to Shawn Achor, a lecturer, researcher, and author of The Happiness Advantage.

But that doesn't mean stress is inevitable. Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and author of Emotional Agility, said there are "specific skills you can learn, behaviors you can practice, and tiny tweaks you can make in your environment that will be helpful in dealing with secondhand stress."

6 ways to cope with secondhand stress

1) Find the source of your stress. The first step in reducing secondhand stress is to identify the source, David explains. Until you "understand what's really going on," your team will struggle to make progress, David explains. "When people accurately label their emotions, they're more likely to identify the source of their stress and do something about it."

Once you identify the source, your team might realize stress isn't always bad, David said. In fact, stress can be a sign of progress. "You don't get to have a meaningful career, raise a family, lead, or make changes in an organization without some level of stress," David explains.

2) Lend a helping hand. When a colleague overwhelms you with negativity, empathy is often the best weapon, according to Achor. By offering a listening ear to a colleague and "expressing compassion for this person's concern and then engaging them in positive conversation—either to generate a solution to their problem or shift their focus away from it—we often positively influence them instead of solely letting them negatively affect us," Achor says.

David advises offering assistance by asking your stressed colleague if there is "anything [you] can do to help [them] move that project forward."

3) Take a break. On the other hand, if you lend too much of your time to a pessimistic colleague, it can—and will—take a toll on you, Achor explains. To counteract this, you can "take strategic retreats," or short breaks between instances of contact with the colleague, when the negative conversations begin to affect your mood. "Recognize which interactions are not helpful," David advises.

4) Promote optimism broadly. And while some colleagues might welcome help, don't "make the mistake of trying to fix the most stressed-out, negative person in the office," David warns. Instead, you can reduce the amount of secondhand stress in the office by acting as a source of optimism in order to influence "the people in the middle who could be tipped positive or negative." 

If you are positive and surround yourself with equally positive people, you can "til[t] ... the social script" of the office toward optimism and "create an environment" of confidence and positivity toward the organization.

5) Remember the big picture. People can get hung up on their growing to-do lists, which can cause them to lose sight of the bigger picture, David explains. "People often go on about their 'have-to' goals— as in 'I have to go to this meeting.' Or 'I have to be on this client call,'" which "creates a prison," of stress, she says.

Instead, David advises turning your "have-to" list into a "want-to" list that attaches some positivity to your obligations: For example, thinking "'I value collaboration, and I want to attend this meeting because it will facilitate that.' Or, 'I value generating a high-quality product for my client, so I want to be present on this call,'" can be "powerful realignment for individuals who are affected by secondhand stress."

6) Learn to take care of yourself. Self-care is one of the best ways to reduce stress, Achor says. A healthy diet, exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule can help most people defend themselves against the worst stress factors.

Cultivating a healthy mindset can provide similar benefits, Achor explains. "Thinking of things you are grateful for ... gives you a storehouse of positives to help neutralize and counterbalance any negatives you are inevitably going to experience."

Once you find a healthy habit, or two, that "works for you, tell everyone" so that your coworkers can reap the benefits and contribute to a healthier workplace culture (Knight, Harvard Business Review, 10/4).

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