Study: Mental health issues can be contagious in the workplace

They studied 250,000 workers over 12 years
Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 5:01 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - With COVID-19, remote working, issues at home, stress can build up in the workplace.

A group of researchers has found that mental health issues can actually be contagious in the workplace.

They studied 250,000 workers over 12 years.

They found that when a team had a high rate of mental disorders, and someone new came on board, that person was at high risk for those disorders, too.

But how is that possible? Can it really be as simple as catching a cold?

On Your Side Tonight’s Jamie Boll asked Novant Health’s Dr. Sashalee Stewart.

Jamie Boll: This was a curious topic to me when I first read about it. So anxiety, depression, stress can sort of be spread inside a place of work, that sort of thing. How is that even possible?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: So there are just different theories with that. As humans, we learn in different ways.

So there is the subconscious arm or the conscious arm. Rather, where we’re actually actively learning things, writing things down, trying to learn, and then even as babies, we have that subconscious level. Where you know Mom or Dad kind of makes a face and it’s not like the baby saying I’m going to write this down to. Remember this later. We just kind of mimic that and you know, we learn in that way as well throughout the course of our lives.

Jamie Boll: So even if it’s something as seemingly negative in our life, we will sometimes go along with the flow almost to participate in that. Is that what we’re saying?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: So if you have a group of individuals that are there and you have someone that’s coming in that, let’s say a new supervisor comes, there’s a lot of pressure behind them, and then so that really spreads to that employee where they then start becoming a little bit tenser and they might not even recognize that or pick up on that. But that’s just something that happens over time.

Jamie Boll: Is COVID a factor in all this too?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: I think that it is. I think we’re a little bit more susceptible to things right now just because we ourselves are dealing with our own level of stress. So, we’re able to be kind of influenced by those changes, good or bad, in different ways than we had been before.

Jamie Boll: How do remote work situations play into this?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: You’re fairly isolated, and so you don’t really have those social contacts, and so whenever you are in communication with someone, that level of interaction will play a big role in how you then internalize those things, and the way that you then function.

So, if you’re interacting with someone that’s you know very positive and encouraging, then that can rub off on you. If you’re interacting with someone and they seem depressed, anxious, especially again if it’s in the supervisory type role, then you might be interpreting that as maybe that means something. Maybe I’m not doing something right or they’re not communicating with me as much as they had been before this.

Does that mean that I’m doing something wrong? I must be doing something wrong. And so it kind of snowballs, so not having those other modalities to communicate, and, you know, express yourself, can really play a big role in this and really cause it to kind of feel contagious.

So that got us wondering.

What do we do? How do we handle that in the workplace? What should managers be doing?

Dr. Stewart says there are some practices that could make a big difference.

Jamie Boll: If you’re dealing with a coworker who may be dealing with some negative things going on, and you feel like maybe it’s starting to affect you, are there some strategies that we can use to sort of separate ourselves from that while being sympathetic to what someone might be going through and how they’re feeling? But you’re protecting your own mental health too?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: I think just in the work structure there should definitely be other connections that we have and just other times that we’re communicating.

So, it’s not just specifically about work all the time, so you know even talking about what’s going on outside of work and then making sure that we’re engaging with our own kind of personal social contacts and making sure that we have our outlets and we’re doing our own self-care if we feel like we’re taking on too much.

Jamie Boll: So talk to employers, to bosses. What should they be on the lookout for? What strategies can they use to sort of ease this?

Dr. Sashalee Stewart: So if they notice that you know a particular employee seems to be more stressed, you know really talking to them and figuring out ‘OK, what is it that’s going on?’

Because we oftentimes use a lot of our own interpretation for what we think is going on, but that might not be the reason.

So actually speaking to that individual and finding out from them what it is that is bothering them. It might be something to do with the job. It might be something in their home life.

If it is something that’s going on with the job, it is very possible that it’s not only them that’s experiencing this, and there might be other employees as well that are experiencing the same thing, and there could be some structural things that just need adjusting to help that individual and help the entire team.

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