How To Protect Yourself From Absorbing Other People’s Stress

Melody Wilding, LMSW
6 min readSep 27, 2022
Photo by Liza Summer

“I’m so apprehensive about going back to the office. It feels like I’ve just recently adapted to working remotely.” Michael sighed and shook his head. He’s the chief operations officer at a growing startup, and also a client of mine. “What worries me the most is the emotional state of my team. They’re all worried and anxious, which is starting to affect me personally. How do I get a handle on re-entry stress?”

Michael’s concerns are common among the leaders I coach who tend to be sensitive, empathetic individuals. Employees are understandably fearful about returning to the office, as more and more companies share their plans for going back to working in person. Safety and health are now top of mind for many people (Will the mask policy be followed? How do we share space without getting each other sick?) And the thought of being surrounded by other people all day is anxiety-provoking after spending so much time working at home. (“None of my work pants even fit anymore,” a client told me. Someone else asked how to relearn small talk.)

Various types of anxiety, like re-entry stress, often ripple beyond the person experiencing it.

Emotional contagion is a real psychological phenomenon, and you can “catch” the emotions of others just like catching a cold. Humans naturally emulate the body language, facial expressions, and behavior of the people they spend the most time with, and it’s not a conscious process.

This is just as true in the workplace as outside it. You’ve probably seen and experienced emotional contagion in the past. One person’s bad day can tug everyone’s energy down during a meeting, and hearing about a friend’s frantic panic buying in the early days of the pandemic may have triggered some purchases of your own.

All team leaders need to be mindful of the emotional contagion when returning to the office because a leader who absorbs the feelings of their direct reports is in danger of feeding their own re-entry stress and creating a vicious cycle of negative feelings. And emotional contagion puts your own well-being at risk. Your…

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Melody Wilding, LMSW

Author of TRUST YOURSELF. Executive coach to Sensitive Strivers. Human behavior professor. Featured in NYT, NBC, CNN. https://melodywilding.com/book