Stress contagion impacts working couples

Sarah Wiedersehn
(Australian Associated Press)

 

The common cold virus can spread within families and workplaces like wildfire, knocking people down like a house of cards.

Emerging evidence suggests stress can be just as contagious.

A new Australian study of career couples has found stress caused in the workplace was being transferred from one partner to another at home, with around half of the participants reporting it had significantly impacted their relationship.

The transferred stress was then spread back into subsequent workplaces.

Basically, the stress you may feel at work may be compounded by a stressed-out partner.

“If you are under stress at work and so is your partner then its much worse for you,” said Professor of Organisational Psychology, Paula Brough at Griffith University.

Psychologists call the phenomenon ‘stress contagion’.

“There is quite a bit of work on stress contagion, where you pass stress from one person to another,” Prof Brough told AAP.

“That can be in the work environment, from your boss to you or vice versa, if you have a difficult co-worker then their issues can cause you stress and impact your performance,” she said.

To investigate the impact of ‘stress contagion’ on couples, researchers conducted extensive interviews with 16 couples, who all had full-time careers.

There was a mixture of couples who did and did not have children.

Prof Brough says the study, published this week in the Australian Journal of Psychology, was part of a bigger study looking at how workers manage stress, with the aim of tackling workplace bullying.

“We are aware that some stress comes from the family or outside the work environment but we were looking specifically at what proportion of work stress comes from the partner, so transferred across,” said Prof Brough.

“So how much do workers bring their stress home, how much is passed on to their spouse and then how does it impact their spouses own work performance,” she said.

The research found “very clear” evidence that stress contagion does occur.

“In enough cases we found when the (work) stressor was large enough they discussed it with their spouse,” said Prof Brough.

This would then affect their partner’s level of health and well-being when they went to work, Prof Brough explained.

The biggest complaint among the couples was the impact work stress had on the amount and quality of time the couples spent together.

“We had couples where both partners were shift workers, so one would juggle the shift so they could at least spend a bit of time together at home each day,” said Prof Brough.

She says the findings highlight the importance of work-life-balance policies to ensure the workplace is psychologically healthy for workers.

“Good workplaces understand the need to support their workers at different life transitions – whether that be with a new baby or sick relative,” said Prof Brough.

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