If you’ve ever felt your stress levels rise in the presence of someone who is panicking, you’re not alone.
Researchers state that our emotions are actually contagious – aptly named, “emotional contagion” – and can cause you to feel certain things for seemingly no reason. This phenomenon is particularly amplified at work and at home due to working in close proximity to others. It’s also an equal opportunity affliction; you can “catch” both positive and negative emotions from others.
Emotional Contagion. In order to understand the lengths to which we are influenced by the moods of others, we must first understand the basic definition of emotional contagion. According to Wiki definitions, it is “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.”
Highly Sensitive People. As explained by Dr. Judith Orloff on Psychology Today, most of us are susceptible to the emotions of others on some level, but some people are more susceptible than others. Those who are “highly sensitive” overall, tend to be more apt to pick up on group emotions.
How Does It Affect Work? If you’ve ever been in a situation where one person’s complaints suddenly spiraled into a group gripe session, then you’ve experienced emotional contagion. When this happens at work, it can (and usually does) affect productivity.
Positive and Negative. “One employee’s anxiety and panic can spread like a virus through an entire office, lowering morale and productivity. Happiness can also build in a workplace (known as ‘positive emotional contagion’), which results in improved employee cooperation, satisfaction, and performance,” Psychology Today writes.
Non-Stop Sensory Overload. The issue with workplace influences is that it is overpowering. While we are at work, we are in close proximity to a much larger number of individuals which also means a much larger group of sensory experiences. Ever been irritated by a coworkers perfume or habit of loud chewing? What about loud or irritating music choices? These all factor in to how we “catch” a mood.
Sharing a Space. “Everyone basically shares the same area. You can hear people talking, complaining, gossiping, coughing, blowing their noses, laughing, humming, cracking their gum, and opening candy wrappers. Such lack of privacy makes empaths more vulnerable to taking on their coworkers’ stress,” Dr. Orloff explains.
Distance Contagion. Emotional contagion isn’t just associated with close proximity, however. According to Dr. Orloff, we can also “catch” the emotions of those we talk to from a distance – via emails, texts, or phone calls, for example. Sometimes it’s even seen during instances of watching television or reading a news article.
Over the Phone. “Highly sensitive people can also experience emotional contagion with customers and clients, even over the phone. You actually feel what they are feeling in your body,” explains Dr. Orloff. In one workshop she attended, she noted she had heard one participant explain how much he had hated making phone calls to clients at work.
Empathic Workshop. “One empathic workshop participant said, ‘I started a new job selling life insurance. I became anxious making calls, even if customers requested information. My heart went out to families who had no coverage and lost their homes, or when their spouses died unexpectedly. I started taking on their pain,’” Dr. Orloff recalled.
Dealing with Emotional Contagion. So what do you do if you find yourself one of the many people who “catch” the emotions of others? Experts say there are ways you can protect yourself from the onslaught of emotion and keep your own emotions in check.
Design Elements. If you’re able, one of the simplest things you can do is to tweak a few design elements of your surroundings in order to protect yourself from sitting in an open environment. Some employers have designated different areas for introverts and extroverts to allow their employees to choose their most comfortable environments.
Not Always Possible. It’s unfortunately not always possible to ask your boss to rearrange your office décor to accommodate an introverted disposition. However, there are steps you can take to help lessen the blow of emotional contagion, despite an open office situation.
Energetic Boundaries. “If you are in an open space or chaotic office, surround the outer edge of your desk with plants or family or pet photos to create a small psychological barrier. Also, take bathroom breaks for relief, or walk outside in fresh air if possible,” Dr. Orloff suggests.
Other Suggestions. According to her article, Dr. Orloff says religious or sacred objects such as sacred beads or a Buddha statue, can help create a peaceful boundary too. Also, if you’re allowed, noise-cancelling earbuds can be a handy trick for drowning out emotional noise around you as well.
Shifting the Energy. “Though you can’t control everything about your job environment, you do have the power to shift the energy in your immediate vicinity. If you focus on the safe space you’ve created rather than on the surrounding noise and confusion, you can minimize emotional contagion,” Dr. Orloff says.