Are You A Stress Bragger?

Are you a ‘stress bragger?’

Yeah, you’re swamped. We get it. But a new study has found broadcasting how busy you are can not only breed resentment but lead to burnout – for your colleagues!

AS ANYONE WHO works in a corporate job knows, the default response to any query from a co-worker on how you’re doing is to reply that you’re “busy”.

You might even be tempted to add that you’re stressed, particularly if you want to elicit a more meaningful reply than, “Yeah, tell me about it” or to show how hard you’re working.

Being busy and stressed are states that not only help grease the wheels of open-plan office conversation, they’re also worn as badges of honour in many Australian workplaces.

But while some workers can give the impression that they’re on the verge of collapsing under the weight of their workload or impending deadlines in an effort to receive recognition or elicit sympathy, the tactic could be self-defeating, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

In the study, people who brag about their stress levels were seen as less competent and less likeable by their co-workers.

“This is a behaviour we’ve all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point,” says study author Jessica Rodell. “When I was wondering about why people do this, I thought maybe we are talking about our stress because we want to prove we’re good enough. We found out that often backfires.”

In an initial survey, 360 participants compared statements from imaginary co-workers who just returned from a conference. Participants rated their imaginary co-worker on likability, competence and the likelihood they would help the co-worker at work.

In the survey, the stress-bragging colleague – let’s call him Miserable Mike – described the conference as “Just one more thing on my full plate. And I was already stressed to the max … you have no idea the stress that I am under.”

Participants rated that person as significantly less likeable and less competent than someone – Positive Patrick, perhaps – who said work had been stressful or who just talked about how great the conference was. Participants also said they would be less likely to help the complaining co-worker if they were overburdened at work.

“People are harming themselves by doing this thing they think is going to make them look better to their colleagues,” Rodell says.

Similar results were found when the researchers surveyed an additional 218 real-life employees about their experiences with stress blowhards.

But here’s the thing, not only are stress-heads annoying, they’re also potentially hazardous – to your health. The researchers found employees with co-workers who stress-brag often reported higher levels of personal stress and burnout.

It seems bragging about stress creates the perception that chronic high-stress levels are an expected and normal part of the work culture, Rodell says.

“When somebody is constantly talking about and bragging about their stress, it makes it seem like it is a good thing to be stressed,” Rodell says. “It just spills over onto the co-worker next to them. They wind up feeling more stressed, which leads to higher burnout or withdrawal from their work. Think of it as this spiralling contagious effect from one person to the next.”

People who discussed their stress levels in passing or employees who were perceived as being stressed didn’t arouse the same resentment from their coworkers. And they didn’t stress their co-workers out.

“It’s not the being stressed part that’s a problem,” says Rodell. “We found that if I perceive you as stressed, I actually see you as more competent.”

The takeaway for employees is to think twice before boasting about their heavy workload or overloaded schedule, Rodell advises. “If you genuinely feel stressed, it’s okay to find the right confidant to share with and talk about it,” she says. “But be mindful that it is not a badge of honour to be bragged about – that will backfire. It’s not benign. It not only harms the bragging co-worker. If employees see somebody bragging about their stress, it will have a spillover effect that can have bigger implications for the workplace.”

Something to keep in mind next time a colleague asks if you’re busy.


5 Ways to Calm Down During Stressful Moments

5 signs you might be experiencing burnout


By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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