It’s not a contest: Bragging about your work stress may make you seem less likable and incompetent, says new study


We have all experienced stress in the workplace at one time or another, and sometimes commiserating with your colleagues can take some of that weight off your shoulders. But when you constantly brag about your burdens and wear stress like a badge of honor, your coworkers may consider you not only less likeable but also less competent.

This is according to new research from University of Georgia Terry College of Business. Additionally, so-called “stress bragging” can induce higher levels of burnout among coworkers on the receiving end of the bragging, according to the study published in March in the journal Personnel Psychology.

“This is behavior we have all seen and could all be guilty of at some point,” lead author. Jessica Rodell, PhDsaid in a Press release about his research. “When I was wondering why people do this, I thought maybe we were talking about our stress because we want to prove that we are good enough. We find that that often backfires.”

Stress comes in many forms; This particular study examines it as “the psychological state in which one feels that one’s demands exceed one’s capacity.” And it is a major problem. The American Psychological Association US Labor Survey 2023 showed that 77% of respondents experienced work-related stress in the past month. For 57%, this led to a range of negative impacts, from emotional exhaustion (31%) to lower productivity (20%) and feelings of ineffectiveness (18%).

By 2025, the market global management of work stress is expected to reach $11.3 billion, according to a Research and Markets analysis. But because Rodell and his team felt that previous research focused on the individual ramifications of workplace stress, they sought to evaluate how it affects others and how it is interpreted by them.

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Employees are less likely to help coworkers who brag about stress

In the first part of the study, 360 participants were asked to evaluate an imaginary coworker who had just returned from a conference where they were recognized as one of the best of the previous year. In this scenario, the hypothetical coworker was asked how the conference went. Study participants were randomly assigned one of four responses:

  • Stress brag. “Hey! It was good. Just one more thing on my full plate. And I was already stressed to the max… you have no idea how much stress I’m under.”
  • Control. “Hey! It was good. It was just another conference. But I’m also glad to be back. I heard next year it could be in Philly… that would be cool.”
  • Alternative control: Talking about stress. “Hey! It was good. It was just one more thing on my plate. And I think I’m just stressed. Things have been pretty stressful lately.”
  • Alternative control: Self-promotion. “Hey! It was good. This award really reflects my achievements. I prepare the materials thoroughly and often manage to finish the assigned tasks well.”

When comparing the stress bragging group to the control group, the researchers found that perceived stress bragging negatively impacts people’s perceptions of their coworkers’ warmth and competence. Additionally, participants were less likely to say they would help the colleague who bragged about stress at work.

“People are harming themselves by doing something they think will make them look better to their colleagues,” Rodell said.

As for alternative controls, employees who bragged about stress were viewed as less likable than those who simply discussed it. The difference between their perceived competence was not statistically significant. Employees who bragged about stress were also seen as less competent than those who self-promoted. However, stress braggers were seen as more likable than self-promoters.

“When someone constantly talks and brags about their stress, it seems like it’s a good thing to be stressed,” said Jessica Rodell, PhD, a professor in the Department of Management at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business. .
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Stress bragging has a ‘spiral contagion effect’ on co-workers

Elsewhere in the study, 218 people were asked to rate their real-life experience with bragging about workplace stress and the impact it had on their own mental health. The researchers found a correlation between stress bragging and increased stress and burnout in the recipient coworker. These results are far from benign, Rodell said, and may have larger implications for the workplace.

“When someone constantly talks and brags about their stress, it seems like it’s good to be stressed,” he said. “It just extends to the coworker next to you. They end up feeling more stressed, which leads to greater burnout or abandonment of their work. “Think of it as this spiraling contagious effect from one person to another.”

For some, bragging about stress can be a well-intentioned way to let off steam. “If you’re really feeling stressed, it’s okay to find the right confidant to share it with and talk about it,” Rodell said.

chronic stressHowever, it can lead to physical and psychological problems, from heart disease to insomnia. Creating a sense of community in your workplace can help identify when a colleague is struggling. Jaclyn Wainwrightco-founder and CEO of Air healthsaid last week during a roundtable in Fortune‘s Health Brainstorming conference in Dana Point, California.

“People suffering from mental health issues, diagnoses or disorders are often unable to raise their hand and ask for help,” Wainwright said. “They almost require a group of people around them to understand that they are not okay, to recognize that they are struggling. And they certainly can’t allow that to happen in a vacuum.”

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If you need immediate mental health support, please contact the 988 Suicide and lifesaving crisis.

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