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What is 'stress bragging' and why could it hold you back at work?

Serious man and woman coworkers stressed out, working together on laptop at office table
Some workers see stress as something to brag about. (Aaron Amat)

If you’ve ever vented about being stressed at work, you’re not alone. Considering eight in 10 UK employees would quit their jobs because of stress, it’s likely we’ve all confided in coworkers about our frazzled mental state at some point.

For some people, however, stress is something to boast about. A new study published in Personnel Psychology found that an increasing number of workers “see their stress as a badge of honour” and engage in a behaviour called 'stress bragging.'

But with stress linked to anxiety, depression and exhaustion - among a raft of other problems - why do some people consider it something to show off about? And what are the consequences?

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For the study, researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) asked 360 participants to rate an imaginary co-worker who indulged in stress bragging. They rated this person on likability, competence and how likely they were to help the colleague at work.

The results showed that participants rated the imaginary person as significantly less likeable and competent. They also said they were less likely to help the person if they had too much work on.

Then, the research team surveyed another 218 employees about their real-life experiences with 'stress braggarts.' They found that people with co-workers who bragged about being stressed felt more stressed themselves.

According to the study, this is because bragging about stress perpetuated the perception that chronic stress is a normal and expected part of a workplace’s culture. It is also further proof that stress is contagious and feelings of stress can be transmitted between colleagues.

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Jessica Rodell, lead author of the study and a professor of management at UGA's Terry College of Business, said: “This is a behaviour we've all seen and we all might be guilty of at some point. 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 it often backfires. People are harming themselves by doing this thing they think is going to make them look better to their colleagues.”

Although stress bragging is detrimental, we do it to make ourselves seem more competent and productive and to prove our worth. We glorify being busy and working overtime because being overstretched is a status symbol, rather than a genuine complaint. We often perceive the busiest people as being the most successful.

However, placing too much value on being busy is harmful to employees and businesses. Fostering a culture of long hours, too many meetings and multitasking is misguided.

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It’s far more productive to reward output instead of activity. Employees who work efficiently - and who are happy - produce the highest-quality work. Those who work long hours are at risk of chronic stress and physical and mental health problems.

It’s important to note that stress bragging is not the same as confiding in a colleague or friend about feeling stressed. In the UoG study, people who talked about their stress levels in passing - or employees perceived as being stressed - didn't generate the same hostility from coworkers and they didn't stress their co-workers out.

With mental health problems in the workplace on the rise, employers must recognise stress among the workforce. Creating an open, honest environment for people to discuss stress and other issues is important.

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Liz Walker, chief operating officer at employee benefits firm, Unum UK, which has carried out research into workplace stress, said: “Without proper prevention and intervention in place, nearly 80% of the UK’s 30.4 million employees say workplace stress would influence them to seek another job...

“There’s still work to do for some employers, including introducing high-quality proactive measures to address and support workplace stress and overall mental health. By creating positive, supportive and inclusive working environments, employers can not only improve employee retention, but also help foster a healthier, more engaged and productive workforce.”

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