Avoiding Secondhand Stress in the Workplace

Have you ever arrived at work and felt that vibe in the air? You know the one… it’s like a… tingle. A lowkey rumble, almost. You feel that familiar sense of dread. Oh, no. Here we go again. There’s drama in the workplace. Your body begins to have a physical reaction– your blood pressure begins to rise, you begin to perspire a little, and your throat tightens. The stress is settling in before you even realize it. The funny thing is, the drama doesn’t even involve you. What the heck?

Secondhand stress is a real thing, and succumbing to it can have real consequences. Let’s discuss how you can recognize the onset of secondhand stress, and do everything in your power to avoid it.

What is secondhand stress?

So, what is secondhand stress, anyway? According to psychologists, secondhand stress is your body’s reaction to someone else’s stress. In other words, how does your body react– physically, mentally, emotionally– when you learn of someone else’s stress? Does your mind race? Do you sweat? Does your heart beat faster? Do you feel like you are losing control?

If you think about it, secondhand stress is a lot like secondhand smoke. The problem might not be your responsibility, and yet it is adversely affecting your body as though it is your problem.

How can I recognize the onset of secondhand stress?

As previously mentioned, secondhand stress has certain telltale signs. Those signs will often mirror what you see with ordinary stress. They include–but aren’t limited to– the following:

  • nervousness
  • headaches
  • stomach aches
  • muscle aches
  • loss of apetite
  • fatigue
  • restlessness
  • insomnia
  • weight loss/ weight gain

Besides these signs, you could simply not feel like your normal self. You may not feel the same sense of joy that you previously felt about certain things in life. This is obviously bad for focus and productivity at work, but more importantly, it could impact your life outside work, and lead to depression.

Image of a person carrying a backpack, pulling her own hair, as though she is experiencing secondhand stress.
Photo by CollegeDegrees360 | Source | CC by

What can I do to avoid it?

The most important thing to know about secondhand stress is that this type of stress is avoidable. Secondhand stress is different from regular stressors in that the cause of the stress is largely someone else’s problem or responsibility. Similar to secondhand smoke, the best way to avoid secondhand stress is to physically distance yourself from the issue. For example, if there are people who seem to always have drama swirling around them, physically avoid those people. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever have to interact with them again, because you will. However, if you can find a way to engage for necessary tasks, and avoid interaction for non-essential activities, you’ll probably find yourself in a better place mentally.

How can I get out of a secondhand stress situation?

The biggest thing to remember about being in a secondhand stress situation is that if it doesn’t involve you, and you can’t do anything to fix it, you don’t need to be in it. Now, when you find yourself involved in a secondhand stress situation, the best thing to do is exit ASAP. But how?!

It may sound simple, but speak up! For starters, try practicing some dialogue for different scenarios. For example, don’t be afraid to say, “I would love to help, but after thinking over this situation, I don’t see how I can help. And you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen! Plus, I’d better get back to work.” That’s just one way you can bow out, even as you infuse a little humor into your exit.

How can I tell if I’m causing others to suffer from secondhand stress?

Now, let’s turn the tables. What if you are the secondhand stressor? Yes, it’s absolutely possible. We all have probably been the culprits at one time or another. Furthermore, we probably had no idea! Now that I think about it, I can name at least a handful of times this week when I was in a hurry and I got snippy with my family. That is a perfect example of secondhand stress– making others nervous and uneasy because I am in a rush.

If you are good at reading non-verbal cues, you might notice other peoples’ reactions to your stress. Do they see you hurriedly walking through the office, then bolt in the other direction? Can you hear them stutter when they are around you when you are clearly in a bad mood? Do they fidget or shift feet? If otherwise “normal” people act this way when you are stressed, you might be the cause of their stress. However, psychologists say many of us are not great at reading nonverbal cues, so the prospect is gloomy that most of us truly realize how stressful we are to others. Yikes.

What does secondhand stress look like in the workplace?

Image of blocks with the words STRESSED OUT.
Photo by Thomas Haynie | Source | CC by

Practicing self-awareness is something we can all do to keep from becoming the secondhand stressors. While we all inevitably get stressed, secondhand stress occurs when our own stress interferes with another person’s ability to function. Let’s think of it in the context of a workplace scenario.

Imagine you are running late to work because you got in a minor fender-bender on the way in. You are unharmed, but a little frazzled. You and your boss are expected to be in an important meeting with a big client, and your boss is already in the conference room beginning the presentation. At this point, you get to choose your own fate–and potentially affect others’ stress levels– by your reaction.

Reaction A

You quickly grab your materials for the meeting, then bang into the conference room, papers flying. You interrupt your boss’s presentation, saying loudly to everyone, “You will not believe the morning I just had!” Then, you proceed to detail the accident, insisting it wasn’t your fault. Your boss–whose face is reddening– waits quietly for you to finish your rant, and you mistake his expression for sympathy and patience. Meanwhile, your clients have shocked looks on their faces, and you think they must be shocked over the incredibleness of the situation.

Reaction B

You take a deep breath, then run down your checklist of items you need for the meeting. You’ve already resolved to be present while you are at work, dealing with the intricacies of the accident when you get home. You gather your materials in a neat pile, then quietly enter the meeting room. Once your boss finishes speaking, you calmly apologize for being late, and briefly explain the situation. “I had a minor accident on the way in, but everything is fine. Now, let’s get back to the discussion.”

So, which choice do you think would have the better outcome? Is the secondhand stress you could cause others apparent in example A?

Don’t Be Complacent with Secondhand Stress

The next time you arrive at work and feel that familiar buzz, don’t ignore what your body is telling you. Would you hang out in a smoky room just to save face? I doubt it. Think about how you cough when you are around secondhand smoke. Your body doesn’t want that nasty stuff in your lungs! Similar to smoke, your body doesn’t want–or need–excess stress. So, don’t make others’ drama your own problem. Avoid secondhand stress if you can. If you find yourself surrounded by secondhand stress, look for a way out. Be careful to exit politely, though, for the sake of your business relationships. However, make haste in doing so. Also, be cognizant of how you could be the cause of secondhand stress for others. Remember, prolonged stress of any kind is not good for your body, mind, or spirit.

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