Study Finds Bragging About Stress, Busyness at Work Backfires, Decreasing Likability and Competence

In the bustling world of modern workplaces, where deadlines loom and responsibilities pile up, stress has become an all-too-familiar companion. However, a recent study from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business suggests that wearing stress as a badge of honor and bragging about it to co-workers may do more harm than good.

Led by Jessica Rodell, a professor of management at UGA’s Terry College of Business, the research team conducted surveys to investigate how stress-bragging affects perceptions of competence and likability among colleagues. The findings, published in the journal Personnel Psychology, shed light on the unintended consequences of this common behavior.

Stress-Bragging Backfires: Less Likable, Less Competent

In an initial survey involving 360 participants, the researchers presented scenarios comparing statements from imaginary co-workers who had just returned from a conference. One co-worker described the conference as “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.” Participants rated this stress-bragging colleague as significantly less likable and less competent compared to those who simply acknowledged work-related stress or focused on the positive aspects of the conference.

“This is a behavior we’ve all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point,” Rodell said. “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. We found out that often backfires.”

The Contagious Effect of Stress-Bragging

The researchers also surveyed 218 employees about their real-life experiences with stress-bragging co-workers. They discovered that employees who frequently encountered stress braggarts reported higher levels of personal stress and burnout. Rodell suggests that bragging about stress creates a perception that chronic high-stress levels are an expected and normal part of the work culture, leading to a “spiraling contagious effect from one person to the next.”

Importantly, the study found that simply discussing stress levels in passing or being perceived as stressed did not generate the same negative reactions from co-workers. “It’s not the being stressed part that’s a problem,” Rodell explained. “We found that if I perceive you as stressed, I actually see you as more competent.”

The researchers advise employees to think twice before boasting about their heavy workload or overloaded schedule. While it’s acceptable to confide in a trusted colleague when genuinely feeling stressed, it’s crucial to recognize that stress should not be treated as a badge of honor to be bragged about.

For managers, Rodell emphasizes the importance of recognizing stress-bragging behavior and its potential impact on the workplace. “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.”

The study, co-authored by UGA doctoral graduates Brayden Shanklin and Emma Frank, highlights the need for a shift in how stress is perceived and discussed in professional settings. By fostering a culture that prioritizes well-being and open communication, organizations can create environments where employees feel supported and empowered to manage their stress in healthy ways.

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