Stress Contagion: Does Observing Others’ Anxiety Affect You?


• Watching stress-inducing tasks leads to higher cortisol levels.
• Managing stress is crucial for individual well-being and productivity.
• Providing workers with stress management skills could prevent them from spreading their stress to colleagues.


When you observe a person who is stressed, sometimes you begin to feel stressed yourself, even if you are not doing anything stressful. Consider a scenario in which you’re watching someone give a presentation and they are noticeably anxious. You may start to feel the same increase in heart rate or sweaty palms that they are feeling. How does this stress contagion work? A recent study conducted by the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz in Germany explores this question and finds that observing stress in others leads to higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol. The findings of this study can be particularly helpful in managing stress in the workplace.

What Is Stress Contagion?

Stress contagion is the phenomenon where stress experienced by one person can impact the physiology, behavior, and stress levels of those around them, even without direct interaction. This can happen through both social and biological mechanisms such as pheromones, social cues, and emotional expression. Stress contagion can be common in the workplace, where one person’s stress creates a general sense of anxiety in others. Managers and leaders are often a prime source of stress contagion in the workplace. Their negative emotions or visible stress can trigger similar responses in their direct reports. This can have a serious impact on the productivity and well-being of employees.

How Is Stress Contagion Measured?

There are various ways to measure stress contagion including physiological measures like stress hormones or heart rate, behavioral observations, self-report measures, and neuroimaging. One of the complications of measuring stress contagion is that there is no standardized model for inducing stress contagion based on face-to-face observation compared to an active placebo-stress observing control. The team at the University of Konstanz created a standardized way to measure stress contagion.

To gather data on second-hand stress contagion, the study participants observe a stress-inducing task (TSST) or a placebo-stress task (PlacTSST). The stress-inducing task includes an audio- and video-taped mock job interview followed by a mental arithmetic task in front of an evaluating panel. To measure second-hand stress, the stress observers are members of the evaluating panel and they watch the job interview and arithmetic task. During the observation, they write down their own feelings, thoughts, and physical experiences. The control group has a similar set-up except instead of observing a recorded job interview and challenging mental math problem, they observe someone reading a five-minute story out loud, and adding up five. The heart rate and saliva samples of the observers are collected at various time points to gather physiological data.

Stress Contagion Effects

Study participants who observe stressful scenarios exhibit higher salivary cortisol, greater heart rate, and higher salivary alpha-amylase, which measures activity in the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA). There are no differences in measures of salivary aldosterone, which is a hormone related to stress in the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS). The researchers therefore conclude that the RAAS does not seem to be sensitive to contagion effects.

Additionally, the reactivity of stress observers mirrors the reactivity of participants who are actively engaging in the stressful activity. The cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase vary only slightly in degree between the participants engaging in the stressful activity and the participants who are simply observing. Interestingly, during the study, the heart rate of observers did not increase during the observation of the stressful task, but increased after it was over, suggesting an initial freezing response and a delayed processing of stress.

Stress Management in the Workplace

As previously mentioned here, work-related stress is pervasive in the United States. Over 80% of American workers suffer from work-related stress and over 25% say work is the number-one stressor in their lives. Finding a way to manage that stress and the contagion of stress in the workplace is paramount for establishing healthy work environments.

Another study from the University of Konstanz found that employees can effectively learn to master stress reduction techniques and lower the burden of stress in the workplace through cognitive-behavioral stress management training. A study conducted in Nigeria and published in Medicine (Baltimore) found similar results with cognitive behavior therapy significantly improving the occupational stress of various staff members. Providing workers with stress management skills will not only allow them to thrive in the workplace, but it will prevent them from spreading their stress to colleagues.

In conclusion, research from the University of Konstanz indicates that observing stress in others can lead to increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol, impacting both physiology and behavior. This finding underscores the importance of managing workplace stress, as it not only affects individual well-being but also influences the overall atmosphere and productivity. Implementing stress management techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral stress management training, can empower employees to better cope with stress and prevent its spread in the workplace.


Read the article online on Psychology Today.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.