'Stress-bragging' makes you less likable

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 3, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • A study published in Personnel Psychology found that bragging about your stress levels can make you less likable and seem less competent to your colleagues.

  • Stress braggarts also create an environment in which stress is normalized, leading to burnout and contagious dissatisfaction at work.

  • Experts say people look up to those who are positive and composed under pressure, as these qualities demonstrate leadership and collaboration.

Boasting about your stress levels at work may come across as stress-bragging, according to a new study published in Personnel Psychology.[]

As a healthcare professional, you are likely considerably stressed occasionally. Stress can seem inevitable between chaotic workplaces, endless clerical tasks, electronic health record issues, and long hours.[] The way you express your stress to your colleagues, however, can either make you seem relatable or less competent and unlikable, the study says.[] 

The study’s lead author, Jessica Rodell, a professor of management at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business told UGA Today, “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.”

Rodell says that when people constantly talk about their stress as though it’s a badge of honor, it normalizes high stress levels. “It just spills over onto the co-worker next to them,” Rodell told UGA Today. “They wind up feeling more stressed, which leads to higher burnout or withdrawal from their work. Think of it as this spiraling contagious effect from one person to the next.”

To better understand how people relate to stress braggarts, the study used a lab experiment in addition to a multi-source field study to understand how workplace stress bragging influences one’s colleagues and how it impacts the braggarts themselves. 

First, 360 participants were asked to respond to a made-up scenario in which their colleague just returned from a work conference. The imaginary colleague told their colleagues at work about their experience at the conference, saying, “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.”

The response? The stress-bragging colleague came across as less likable and less competent. The participants also said they’d be less likely to help the braggart colleague if they were overburdened at work. “[S]tress bragging has resoundingly negative implications for braggarts as they are evaluated as less competent and less warm by coworkers, reducing their receipt of citizenship behaviors,” the authors explain.[]

So, does this mean that even just mentioning your stress could ruin your colleagues’ perceptions of you? Not exactly. The team found that there’s a fine line between expressing your stress to a trusted work friend and being perceived as stressed out and a stress braggart. When one casually discusses their stress levels, or if one seems stressed, this doesn’t have the same effect as boasting about how busy and stressed one is. “It’s not the being stressed part that’s a problem,” Rodell told UGA Today.[] “We found that if I perceive you as stressed, I actually see you as more competent.” However, she says, be mindful “that it is not a badge of honor to be bragged about—that will backfire.”

What do mental health experts think

Natalie Rosado, LMHC, the owner and founder of Tampa Counseling Place, an integrative mental health group practice in the Tampa, FL area, says that bragging about stress can come off as “humble-bragging,” which is an attempt to elicit sympathy or admiration. But, just as the study says, this can have the opposite effect. “This behavior may be interpreted as a lack of emotional intelligence, as it suggests the individual is not managing their stress effectively, which can undermine perceptions of their competence,” Rosado explains. 

Additionally, she says, stress-bragging at work may also make colleagues feel as though the braggart is more dedicated to their job than others,  which can then breed a sense of resentment. 

“From a social perspective, people generally prefer to be around those who are positive and composed under pressure, as these traits are often associated with effective leadership and collaboration,” she explains. Bragging creates a sense of self-centeredness and instability, leading to what the study has shown: a lack of likability. 

Rosado also echoes the study’s authors in saying that stress-bragging hints at how deeply stressed society really is—and how people tend to normalize its impacts. This can lead to things like chronic stress, stigma around asking for help, problems in relationships, and, ironically, negative impacts on productivity. 

"Viewing stress as a badge of honor is like celebrating the warning light on a dashboard. It’s a signal to take action, not a symbol of strength,” Rosado says. 

What this means for you

As tempting as it may be to boast about just how much is on your plate, researchers find that stress-bragging can make you seem less likable and even less competent to your colleagues. If you want to talk about your stress, confide in a trusted friend or colleague. There’s a line between seeming stressed and wearing stress as a badge of honor—and people do notice it.

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