Are anxiety, depression, and stress contagious at work?

Many factors contribute to a toxic work environment, including, of course, the workers themselves.

In new research published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, experts found that employees who regularly experience anxiety, depression, and stress can actually spread these feelings to their co-workers.

“We suggest that — similar to infectious diseases — clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders can spread epidemically across the boundaries of organizations via social contagion,” the researchers wrote.

How do people spread negative emotions?

The authors found it useful to think about emotional instability as a transmissible disease. In the same way that a company might ask new workers to provide proof of vaccination to avoid a COVID outbreak in their offices, it might be advisable for recruiters to conduct thorough screenings in order to assess the mental well-being of workplace candidates, both for their own sake and for the sake of their would-be team members.

The study looked at 250,000 employees over 12 years. Consistently, the researchers found, when an organization started out with a high prevalence of mental disorders in the workforce, new hires demonstrated an increased risk for these disorders over time.

Transmitting negative emotions can occur in one of four ways, according to the authors. The first is social contagion. This refers to the way we tend to mimic the way new people present themselves to us. For example, it can be uncomfortable to act in high spirits when speaking with someone who is depressed.

The second is emotional contagion. This is sort of like social contagion except it occurs less deliberately. When we’re routinely exposed to certain emotions displayed by people we regularly interact with, we’re more likely to experience similar emotions.

Cognitive contagion is the process of adopting the same judgment patterns as those we regularly come into contact with. Behavioral contagion is the same, but with respect to people’s actions.

“For example, behaviors that are not necessarily supportive of mental well-being like withdrawal or avoidance, are easily mimicked and transferred to others,” occupation health psychologist Erin Eatough wrote.

Another under-reported epidemic

Many serious diseases have taken a back seat to COVID-19, even though these diseases have become more widespread.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19% of American adults experienced an anxiety disorder at some point last year, and 7% of adults in the U.S. have had a major depressive episode in the same time frame. As of June 2020, one in four adults between 18 and 24 said they considered suicide that year.

The previous year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that depression causes 200 million lost workdays each year, which in turn costs U.S. firms between $17 billion and $44 billion annually.

Some of these negative emotions are caused by a toxic work environment. But in some cases, employees bring these negative emotions to perfectly healthy work environments.

“Our findings reveal that when organizations hire employees from other, unhealthy organizations (those with a high prevalence of mental disorders), they ‘implant’ depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders into their workforces,” the researchers wrote. “Employees leaving unhealthy organizations act as ‘carriers’ of these disorders regardless of whether they themselves have received a formal diagnosis of a mental disorder. The effect is especially pronounced if the newcomer holds a managerial position.”

What employers and team members can do

Communication is the most important element in stopping the spread of mental disorders, both for the worker and the employer.

“What struck me about this study was how salient it is that mental health needs to be a part of the conversation across the employee life cycle,” Eatough said. “From hiring to off-boarding, it is in the best interest of the organization to invest in mental health. … If we can bring support into the habit patterns of employees, make support seeking ‘normal’ and encouraged, and scale that support across the mental well-being continuum to include not just those with a clinical status but also those who are languishing, that is how we can start to shift the entire composition. “