Stress in the workplace is a common problem. Just think of the many things in a modern workplace that can cause stress: Bad bosses, unpleasant coworkers, threats of downsizing, overflowing inboxes, working long hours, someone taking the last cup of coffee from the coffee maker… I’m getting stressed out just thinking about it. And while there has been a lot of organizational research on the causes and effects of stress, little is known about how stress in the workplace changes the way that we interact with others. New research (Kalish, Luria, Toker, Westman, 2015) provides insight into how stress affects whom we choose to communicate with.
STRESS AND COMMUNICATION NETWORKS
The authors conducted a study of soldiers involved in an assessment boot camp for an elite military unit. They recorded the levels of stress experienced by the soldiers at three different points in the study, and kept track of communication ties, or which soldiers communicated with which specific other soldiers. This gave the authors a large amount of information on how changing levels of stress alters whom people choose to communicate with. It also provided data on how communication with certain people (for example, really stressed out people) can affect our own levels of stress.
THE STUDY RESULTS
The researchers found that people who have higher levels of stress do not initiate as many new contacts with others. Instead, these stressed-out people prefer to work on keeping their existing contacts. The authors say that this could be because making new contacts requires some risk (such as risk of rejection). Stressed out people may not have the capacity to deal with risks like this. Maintaining old contacts does not require as many mental resources, so it may be easier for people who are stressed out.
The authors also explored how other people’s stress levels affect whether we choose to communicate with them. Results indicate that people prefer to communicate with others who have similar levels of stress. In other words, you might expect low-stress people to be friends with other low-stress people, and high-stress people to be friends with other high-stress people. The authors also found that in general, people are less likely to maintain a connection with highly stressed people, although the authors called this finding “marginal” because it was right on the very edge of statistical significance. Finally, the authors found that when people become stressed out, they will then communicate with fewer people. Having fewer ties to others can then become a continuing source of stress, leading to a vicious cycle of stress.
This study is important because it shows us that stress is not something that exists in a vacuum or contained within a single person. If that were the case, stress interventions might be more straightforward, and targeted at the specific individuals who experience it. Instead, this research demonstrates that stress is something which casts ripples on social networks, changing the way in which people interact with each other, and potentially leading to vicious cycles that are difficult to stop.
The authors recommend that stressed out employees try to expand their social network, although this goes against the natural tendency of stressed out people. Stressed out employees also should seek out people who are less stressed, despite this also going against their inclination. Low-stress people may be a valuable source for modeling stress management techniques. Organizations, say the authors, can assist this process by developing intervention programs that encourage productive networking, such as pairing high-stress people with low-stress mentors.
Kalish, Y., Luria, G., Toker, S., & Westman, M. (2015). Till stress do us part: On the interplay between perceived stress and communication network dynamics. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1737-1751.