A new study finds that we tend to project our own experiences with stress onto other people, which can sometimes result in miscommunication and missed opportunities. For example, a person who thrives on high levels of stress may not understand why another person is so burned out.
“Your stress mindset will affect your judgement of other people’s stress responses,” said researcher Nili Ben-Avi from Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Coller School of Management. “But 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. We should be very careful about assessing other people’s stress levels.”
Lead researcher Professor Sharon Toker at TAU Coller School of Management says that it comes down to whether we see stress as a positive or a negative.
The study specifically looked at whether a person’s individual mindset regarding stress can color the way he or she will perceive a colleague or employee’s health, work productivity, and degree of burnout.
“This research informs the way managers assess their employees’ ability to take on different workloads,” said Toker.
“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. 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.”
The findings can have implications at home as well. “It 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. She may simply not see how burned out her child may be,” Toker said.
For the study, the researchers recruited 377 American employees for an online “stress-at-work” questionnaire. Participants were asked to read a description of “Ben,” a fictitious employee who works long hours, has a managerial position, and needs to multitask. The employees then rated his burnout levels and completed a stress mindset questionnaire about Ben.
“The more participants saw stress as positive and enhancing, the more they perceived Ben as experiencing less burnout and consequently rated him as more worthy of being promoted,” said Toker.
The researchers also investigated whether or not they could manipulate the participants’ perceptions of stress and consequently change how they perceive other people’s stress. They conducted a series of further experiments among 600 employed Israelis and Americans to determine whether their stress mindset could be cultivated or changed.
The participants were randomly assigned to either an “enhancing” or “debilitating” stress mindset group of 120-350 people. Using a technique called “priming” — prompting participants to think of the word “stress” in either positive or negative terms — the researchers asked the participants to write about past stress experiences in either a “positive/enhancing” or “negative/debilitating” way.
Next, participants read a description of Ben’s workload and had to assess Ben’s burnout, rate of productivity, and psychosomatic symptoms. Participants were also asked whether Ben should be promoted and whether they would be willing to help him with his workload.
Study participants primed to have a positive/enhancing stress mindset rated Ben as suffering less from stress-related symptoms and were consequently more likely to recommend Ben for promotion. They were also less likely to offer him help. But those primed to feel as though stress was debilitating/negative felt that Ben was more burned out and consequently less fit to be promoted.
The study findings are published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.