Stress Contagion

You can become anxious simply by being with anxious or stressed people. One factor making anxiety contagious is a psychological phenomenon called pacing – stressed people breathe shallow, rapid breaths, and speak fast/frenetically; if you talk with them, you increasingly match these breathing and speech patterns. This works like yawning infectiousness – it’s not usually conscious.

Unintentional hypnotism occurs between people all the time. In addition to physical suggestibility such as pacing, belief systems are involved. Stress carries certain distorted beliefs of what is important ("business has to come first", "the deadline must be met", etc) – workplaces clearly encourage these notions of 'importance'. You can picture two employees, one stressed and one calm, as two opposing hypnotists, each trying to resist the other’s hypnotism. The work setting gives the stressed person a territorial advantage – he may not have a bigger stick but he has a more 'important' concern, making him the more potent hypnotist in that setting.

In most workplaces, to be carefree is seen as a negation of commitment, ie stress/anxiety is tacitly encouraged. Working full-time tends to desensitise you to low-level chronic stress (many don’t notice until their health suffers). It takes a long holiday (not just a weekend) to bleach out the 'invisible' stress – 20 days annual leave doesn’t leave much room for experimentation.

The best way to avoid stress infection is to literally avoid it, ie not go to work. As this isn’t an option for most people, you could instead try the following measures:

i) Spend the least amount of time possible at work.

ii) Get away from colleagues (especially stressed ones) at every opportunity.

iii) Go to extremes to avoid meetings.

iv) Never try to reason with stressed/emotional people – leave the room instead.

v) Don’t speak unless absolutely necessary (95% of workplace conversation is stress-inducing bovine excreta).

None of these measures are antisocial; work and stress are antisocial. Stressed people may attempt to make you feel antisocial for not joining in (they’re not to blame – it’s normal behaviour when you’re stressed). Beware those who hide their anxiety under forced joviality and excessive verbalisation.

"Think back to how people in an office behave when one of their group returns from four weeks’ vacation and tries to catch up on business. Often, that person’s slowed speech and breathing rhythms will actually aggravate the stressed people in the group"
 — Paul Wilson, Instant Calm