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Here's Why You Shouldn't Hide Your Stress at Work

A new study suggests that looking stressed could lead to stronger social bonds -- and get aggressors to back off.


If you’re stressed out, even if you feel like nothing's going right, your instinct may be to grin and bear it to make colleagues think you’ve got everything under control. But despite your efforts to seem calm and collected, the findings of a recent study indicate that showing others you’re stressed can actually help build social bonds. At least, it seems to work for our primate friends.


Researchers from England’s University of Portsmouth observed the behaviors of a group of rhesus macaques in Puerto Rico over the course of eight months, and they watched for when the monkeys would scratch themselves, a common indicator of stress.

Related: Stress Kills! 5 Ways to Keep Your Stress Levels Low.

They found that the behavior would crop up when the monkeys were around other monkeys that either weren’t their friends or held positions of power within the hierarchy. The researchers noticed that a “stress scratching” action decreased the likelihood that the monkey would be attacked.

If a high-ranking monkey approached a monkey of a lower status and that lower-ranking monkey didn’t scratch, there was a 75 percent chance that the encounter would end in aggression. But if it did scratch, it had a 50 percent shot of getting out of the encounter without some sort of altercation.  

Related: 10 Effective Ways to Beat Stress

Now, clearly a primate community and a human workplace don’t share the same kind of stakes, but it seems that there is a lesson here to apply in our interactions with our co-workers. "By revealing stress to others, we are helping them predict what we might do, so the situation becomes more transparent,” explained lead researcher Jamie Whitehouse in a summary of the findings. “Transparency ultimately reduces the need for conflict, which benefits everyone and promotes a more socially cohesive group.”

A colleague might see that you’re looking flustered and offer to help you, think twice before asking you to take on more work or give you some space to focus. So, the next time you think you should keep your stress to yourself, think about how transparency could help your cause rather than harm it.

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