We Judge Other People for Being Stressed Out
A new study from researchers at Tel Aviv University offers proof that stress is subjective, and that our mindset toward our own stress colors how we respond to others’ stress — and not always in a good way.
“We have shown that even if stress affects you positively, it can distort the way you see your colleagues, your employees, your spouses, even your own children,” said researcher Nili Ben-Avi. “We should be very careful about assessing other people’s stress levels.”
A team led by Sharon Toker and Daniel Hiller, professors with Tel Aviv University’s school of management, recruited 377 American employees for an online “stress-at-work” questionnaire. Participants were asked to read a description of a fictitious employee who works long hours, has a managerial position and needs to multitask. The employees then rated the character’s burnout levels and completed a stress mindset questionnaire about the character. They found that when participants held stress as a positive or enhancing force, they perceived the character as experiencing less burnout and rated him more worthy of promotion.
The implications of this stress bias are profound for professional as well as personal relationships.
“If a manager perceives that a certain employee doesn’t suffer from stress, that manager will be more likely to consider the employee worthy of promotion,” Toker said. “But because the manager believes that stress is a positive quality that leads to self-sufficiency, the manager will also be less likely to offer assistance if the employee needs it.”
Similarly, the findings “may also inform our relationships with our spouses — or with our children. For example, a typical ‘tiger mom’ is sure that stress is a good thing,” Toker added. “She may simply not see how burned out her child may be.”
The good news is, the team found, in subsequent research, that our perceptions of stress can be manipulated to be more sympathetic to others’ stress. Researchers randomly assigned 600 Israeli and American employees to “enhancing” or “debilitating” stress mindset groups of 120 to 350 people. Using a research technique called “priming” — prompting participants to think of the word “stress” in either positive or negative terms — the participants were asked to write about past stress experiences in either a “positive/enhancing” or “negative/debilitating” way. They were then asked to read a description of the fictitious character’s workload and assess burnout, rate of productivity and psychosomatic symptoms. Participants were also asked whether the character should be promoted and whether they would be willing to help him with his workload.
“Study participants who were primed to have a positive/enhancing stress mindset rated Ben as suffering less from stress-related symptoms and were consequently more likely to recommend [the character] for promotion. They were also less likely to offer him help,” Hiller said. “But those primed to feel as though stress was debilitating/negative felt that [the character] was more burned out and consequently less fit to be promoted.”
In other words, the next time a coworker, spouse or child seems stressed out over nothing, rather than pass a judgment on their reaction to a situation, time may be better spent questioning our own reaction to it.