Is stress contagious: The impact of work-related stress

Is stress contagious

Just as we might imitate another person’s smile, frown or yawn (e.g., the phenomenon of “contagious yawning”), our brains are hardwired to empathize with others’ pain and stress. In the brain, specialized neurons, known as mirror neurons, are responsible for our ability to recognize others’ facial and emotional expressions, which is important for our ability to perceive and empathize with others. Similar to the firing of mirror neurons when another person smiles and yawns, these neurons have also been shown to fire in response to others’ negative emotions, such as when others are feeling stressed or uncertain. This innate ability of humans to mirror the body language and facial expressions of others helps us to socialize and feel emotionally connected to people around us.

What is empathic (secondhand) stress?

Stress can be contagious, just like smiles, frowns and yawns. Empathic, or “secondhand,” stress occurs when a person experiences a physiological response to stress (e.g., higher levels of cortisol) just from watching someone else undergoing a stressful situation. A study conducted by Tania Singer, Ph.D., a professor in the department of social neuroscience at Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, and her colleagues examined whether stress experienced by strangers and loved ones (e.g., romantic partner) could elicit empathic stress, which the researchers defined as a physiological stress reaction to the observation of another person undergoing a stressful situation.

Dr. Singer and her colleagues found that the simple act of observing others who were stressed led to a 26 percent increase in the observers’ cortisol levels, suggesting that a significant physiological response to stress could in fact be contagious. Although the researchers found that the observers’ empathic stress was more pronounced among those who witnessed a loved one go through a stressful situation (40 percent) and who watched someone in general undergo a real-life stressful situation (30 percent), 10 percent of those who witnessed a stranger and 24 percent of those who witnessed someone who was stressed via virtual observation exhibited significant elevations in cortisol.

Occupations with high work-related stress and consequences of burnout

Nurses, physicians, social workers, therapists, lawyers and teachers often have some of the highest levels of work-related stress, which can contribute to job burnout (i.e., a state of chronic stress that leads to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion) and other physical and mental health problems. People are connected to others more than they are consciously aware of, said Dr. Singer, in a 2013 interview with Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS). Consequently, among “helping” professionals — including doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists — frequently being confronted with the emotional distress and/or suffering of their patients makes them more vulnerable to burnout as well as a number of physical and mental health problems.

Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • Lack of energy, tiredness and chronic fatigue
  • Sleep difficulty, insomnia
  • Attention and concentration problems
  • Forgetfulness
  • Anxiety and depression symptoms
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., racing heart, headaches, stomach problems, dizziness, chest pain)
  • Increased vulnerability to infections, colds, flu and other immune system problems
  • Relationship problems, angry outbursts and irritability

Consequences of teacher burnout on children’s well-being

Studies suggest that teachers have some of the highest levels of burnout; in fact, up to 40 to 50 percent of American teachers leave their jobs within the first five years, according to Richard M. Ingersoll, Ph.D., a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Thomas M. Smith, Ph.D., dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Riverside. Burnout can leave teachers feeling emotionally drained and disconnected from their students, which can impact the quality of teaching and lead to a disruptive classroom environment.

Eva Oberle, Ph.D., an assistant professor, and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and professor from the University of British Columbia, were the first to show that teachers’ occupational stress can have implications on children’s ability to regulate their physiological stress response. The researchers examined the relationship between classroom teacher burnout and elementary school children’s cortisol levels. They found that teacher burnout, as measured by the Maslach Burnout Inventory, was predictive of children’s higher levels of cortisol in the morning.

Teachers play an important role in young students’ lives. When teachers experience burnout, the less effective teaching and lower quality classroom environment can have negative consequences on children’s academic achievement, adjustment and well-being at school. Teachers who experience higher levels of burnout can feel disconnected from their students and less effective in their ability to teach and manage classroom behavior, feel less connected to their students and less able to effectively manage behavior in the classroom. This study highlights the importance of providing support and resources to teachers to promote their well-being and prevent teacher burnout.

White River Academy is a therapeutic treatment facility for adolescent boys from 12 to 17 years old. For more information on the comprehensive, individualized behavioral health treatment services provided to adolescents with behavioral problems, mental illness, substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.

About the author

Amanda Habermann, graduated from California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. 

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