How Can Your Perception of Stress Affect Your Coworkers?

By: Lauren Mineau

How do you view stress? Your response could determine a lot about how you view your colleagues, a new study shows.

New research from Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management found that how you perceive your coworker’s stress levels could be the projection of your own stressors onto others.

Experiments conducted by Prof. Toker and researchers Prof. Daniel Heller and Nili Ben-Avi, also of TAU's Coller School of Management, found that a person's individual stress mindset colors the way he or she will perceive a colleague or employee's health, work productivity and degree of burnout.

The research, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, first examined online questionnaires from 377 American employees. The questionnaire referenced an employee named Ben, who held a demanding managerial job with long hours. Participants were asked to rate his burnout levels.

The results showed that participants who saw stress as “positive and enhancing” were more likely to perceive Ben as being worthy of promotion. Those who had more negative perceptions of stress were more likely to rate him as burned out.

A second set of experiments involved 600 American and Israeli subjects and evaluated whether perceptions of stress could be changed. Researchers “primed” subjects by asking them to write about their experiences with stress positively or negatively. Participants were then given the description of Ben’s job and asked to evaluate his level of burnout, productivity and suitability for promotion. They were also asked whether they’d help him with his work.

“Study participants who were primed to have a positive/enhancing stress mindset rated Ben as suffering less from stress-related symptoms and were consequently more likely to recommend Ben for promotion. They were also less likely to offer him help,” said Daniel Heller. “But those primed to feel as though stress was debilitating/negative felt that Ben was more burned out and consequently less fit to be promoted.”

This study serves as a reminder that everyone has their biases and they can affect our perception, as much as we try not to have it happen. Remember that everyone has different circumstances.

The Full Study