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Why "stress bragging" can annoy your co-workers and hurt your career

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Constantly announcing to co-workers how swamped you are at the office isn't likely to impress your colleagues — in fact, it may have the opposite effect, new research shows. 

"Stress bragging" or "busy bragging" about your overflowing plate often leads to resentment from peers, a study from the University of Georgia (UGA) shows. It also tends to make boasters appear less competent at their job, the researchers found.

"This is a behavior we've all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point," Jessica Rodell, a professor of management at UGA's Terry College of Business and the study's lead author, told UGA Today, an online newspaper geared to the university. "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."

Despite the adage, "If you want something done, ask a busy person" (variously attributed to Benjamin Franklin or writer Elbert Hubbard), the findings suggest that harping on about your busy schedule is unlikely to engender much in the way of good will at work. 

To assess such attitudes, the UGA researchers asked hundreds of subjects to rate a fictitious co-worker who made statements about an imaginary conference, including that it was "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." 

Study respondents said they found that type of individual to be less likable and less competent than a colleague who simply said work had been stressful or, alternatively, who had positive things to say about the conference. Participants also said they wouldn't be inclined to lend a complaining coworker a helping hand. Researchers also studied real-life workplace braggarts and found their colleagues often perceived them negatively. 

"People are harming themselves by doing this thing they think is going to make them look better to their colleagues," Rodell said.

No badge of honor

Meanwhile, "stress bragging" perpetuates an unhealthy notion, according to the study's authors — that work should be stressful, and by extension anyone who isn't sweating their job isn't cutting the mustard.

"When somebody is constantly talking about and bragging about their stress, it makes it seem like it is a good thing to be stressed," Rodell told UGA Today. "It just spills over onto the co-worker next to them. 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."

Of course, all workers may experience stress of one kind or another, and the study doesn't suggest that people should mask their emotions. And co-workers who were perceived as being genuinely busy didn't invite ill will, the research found.

"If you genuinely feel stressed, it's OK to find the right confidant to share with and talk about it," she said. "But be mindful that it is not a badge of honor to be bragged about — that will backfire," Rodell said. 

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