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Are You a 'Stress Bragger'? It's Probably Backfiring
  • Posted May 27, 2024

Are You a 'Stress Bragger'? It's Probably Backfiring

"Ugh, I'm so busy these days I can barely think straight. It's so crazy."

No doubt some friend or coworker (maybe even yourself) has moaned about how stressed and overworked they are.

Sometimes its fully justified, but in many cases folks see it as "stress bragging," or "busy bragging," signaling how important and needed the person is.

In those cases, stress bragging could do you more harm than good, new research shows.

“This is a behavior we've all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point,” said study author Jessica Rodell, a professor of management at the University of Georgia Athens' Terry College of Business. 

“When I was wondering about why people do this, I thought maybe we are talking about our stress because we want to prove we're good enough," she said in a university news release. "We found out that often backfires.”

Instead of instilling respect and sympathy in co-workers, stress braggers often are looked upon as unlikable and less competent, the study found.

The data was based on a survey of 360 adults who were told to imagine that a colleague had just returned from a business conference.

These imaginary colleagues uttered a variety of statements. The stress-bragging worker said "Just one more thing on my full plate. And I was already stressed to the max … you have no idea the stress that I am under.”

In another scenario, the worker just talked about how enjoyable the conference was.

The study participants tended to see the worker who harped on their stress as less likable and less competent, compared to the worker with the sunnier outlook.

And if the stress-bragger is looking for help to relieve their workload, they probably wont get it: Participants said they'd be less inclined to help the worker out, compared to the more positive colleague.

“People are harming themselves by doing this thing they think is going to make them look better to their colleagues,” Rodell said.

In a second study, Rodell and her team asked 218 real-life workers about the stress braggers in their workplace lives.

People who had to put up with this behavior from co-workers tended to burn out quicker and face higher levels of stress themselves, the Georgia group found.

That could be due to a kind of infectious stress going on in the office, Rodell said.

“When somebody is constantly talking about and bragging about their stress, it makes it seem like it is a good thing to be stressed,” she explained. “It just spills over onto the co-worker next to them. They wind up feeling more stressed, which leads to higher burnout or withdrawal from their work. Think of it as this spiraling contagious effect from one person to the next.” 

The findings were published recently in the journal Personnel Psychology.

There's a big difference between stress bragging and occasionally mentioning in passing that your work is stressing you out, or being perceived by others as stressed, Rodell noted.

The notion that a person is somehow boasting about their stress levels is what others find annoying.

“It's not the being stressed part that's a problem,” she said. “We found that if I perceive you as stressed, I actually see you as more competent.”

“If you genuinely feel stressed, it's OK to find the right confidant to share with and talk about it,” Rodell said. “But be mindful that it is not a badge of honor to be bragged about -- that will backfire."

She said that bosses should be on the alert for stress bragging, because it can have a broader effect on company morale.

“It's not benign,” she added. “It not only harms the bragging co-worker. If employees see somebody bragging about their stress, it will have a spillover effect that can have bigger implications for the workplace.”

More information

Find tips on managing workplace stress at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

SOURCE: University of Georgia Athens, news release, May 23, 2024

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