How to Understand Other People’s Stress at Work

So much workplace drama comes down to miscommunication, and so much miscommunication is just talking past each other without even knowing it. Researchers have discovered that this can even apply to how you understand stress, both in your own life and your coworkers'. If there's a mismatch between colleagues, it can interfere with work to the point of holding one of them back professionally.

Psychologists at Tel Aviv University just released a study demonstrating the disconnect you may have with a coworker based on whether you see stress as a positive or a negative. First, nearly 400 American employees took a survey responding to a fictional character, Ben, "who works long hours, has a managerial position, and needs to multitask." Participants evaluated the character's level of burnout and filled out a questionnaire about their own stress mindsets.

"The more participants saw stress as positive and enhancing, the more they perceived Ben as experiencing less burnout and consequently rated him as more worthy of being promoted," said principal investigator Sharon Toker in a press release.

Later, the researchers used "priming" techniques to assign 600 American and Israeli participants to two different mindset groups: one that thinks of stress as debilitating and negative, and another that considers stress enhancing and positive. After giving participants a description of Ben's workload, the psychologists asked the groups to judge that employee's burnout, productivity, and physical signs of stress. They also asked whether the fake employee should be promoted, and whether respondents would help him, seeing how stressed he was.

Ultimately, those who thought stress was an enhancing quality didn't see Ben as stretched thin or burned out. And even though they were more likely to offer him a promotion, they were less likely to offer him help. The other group, which rated stress negatively, felt that Ben shouldn't get a promotion if he was this stressed already.

In short, how you experience stress is not universal, and it's not necessarily a reflection of how someone else in your office is doing at their job. Consider whether your colleague is thriving on their own terms, or simply ask. If they're not, go against the grain — figure out how you can offer to help.