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Burnouts are like the common cold–they’re contagious. In fact, emotions like happiness, anxiety, depression spread through out the office through what is called Social Contagion. How do we stop these crippling emotions from spreading around and what can we do to fight a work environment that’s toxic. Let’s find out.
What we learned from this episode
Social contagions really influence things that we have no idea that they’re influencing, the way we think, feel, and behave. This, in an office setting, can result in spreading burnouts across people.
What you can do right now
Say you notice a colleague having a bad day, talk to them about it. Ask them how their day has been and see if you can make it better. This sense of emotional attunement and companionate love raises the level of happiness in the organization and even trickles down to other employees.
Start using a metric to see how much happiness team members bring to each other and reward them for it.
You have to really make a real effort sometimes, especially in light of something really scary to turn things around.
Every thought, every feeling, and every behavior is something that we can mirror from other people without us even realizing it.
Today, our guest is Lee Kravetz. He’s the author of “Strange Contagion,” and this episode is Work Minus Burnouts. Hi, Lee. How are you today?
Excellent. Excited to talk with you. You have written a very interesting book which I want to get into. So, why don’t you tell us just a little bit about yourself and how you got started with your research?
Well, let’s see. Along with being a writer, I’m also a therapist, a psychotherapist out here in San Francisco Bay Area, and long story short, I was living in Palo Alto, the epicenter of Silicon Valley, and I got there around 2010 and right around that time, we were about to have our first child and at the same time, there was this string of what turned out to be a string of suicides from a local high school which really sort of crippled the city. I mean, Palo Alto is really known as this very high functioning, well to do community, and from its top high school, you have ten students who get up out of class over time and walk in front of the train and die. And it was a very shocking moment, and being a researcher and a therapist, I really wanted to look into what had caused this, but also, I really wanted to see how the community around this event tried to stop some of these things from happening. And the common denominator turned out was something called a social contagion and that’s the idea that thoughts, behaviors, and feelings are actually things that are highly contagious. And from there, that idea spread as the social contagion spread, too, to this breadth of research that took me around the world to learn how social contagions don’t just affect us in education settings but affect us in healthcare settings, in business settings, in community settings around the globe. And so, that’s pretty much what I wrote the book about, the idea that social contagions really influence things that we have no idea that they’re influencing, whether they’re the way that we think or the way that we behave or the way that we feel.
So, you used the example in the book mostly of these suicides that happened. What’s another example you can give of a thought behavior that is extremely contagious?
Pretty much what you really find out when you dig into the research is that every thought, and every feeling, and every behavior is something that we can mirror from other people without us even realizing it. So, for instance, there was a researcher out of Wharton School of Business who was studying hospitals and this was absolutely fascinating. She was studying hospitals and hospital cultures and she studied about seven of them over a period of eight or ten years and what she found was that there was one hospital in particular where the staff was really, really happy that productivity levels were way up high as well and she wanted to see if there was a correlation and it turned out that if you really looked at this one particular hospital, the nurses, the triage staff, the doctors, the support staff, they were all very, very highly attuned to each other’s emotions and they were kind to each other.
So, when someone was having a bad day, somebody who noticed this would say, “Hey, you look like you’re having a bad day. Let’s talk about it.” Or if somebody was having a great day, they would say, “Hey, it looks like you’re having a great day. Let’s celebrate. Let’s talk about it.” There was a sense of emotional attunement that was really off the charts and they came to call this companionate love. It’s not like romantic love. It’s companionate love, love for each other. And it sounds fru-fru but when you look at it and what that accomplishes, it’s remarkable. And not only was the hospital more productive and the staff happier but the level of happiness actually trickle down a second level to the patients and patients who never even saw this interaction take place between the staff got caught the happiness that transpired between them and what that translated to was that the patients got out of the hospital quicker and there were fewer emergency room transfers in this hospital than patients in other hospitals. And what they found even more remarkable is that that level of happiness trickled down to a third level to people who visited the people in the hospital and who left the hospital feeling having caught this sense of companionate love and carried it around almost like pollinating the world around them. And it was remarkable. So, the idea there that we can use and translate in business as well as education and healthcare is that being kind to one another is actually advantageous. It not only makes us more productive but it actually makes us healthier people as well.
We have a lot of directions we can go with this conversation. We want to take it into the workplace, obviously, and figure out how the idea of social contagion can impact offices which we can see some parallels obviously of what you talked about with hospitals. But what research have you done into the business world?
There’s a lot to be said about the business world. We have everything from burnout, which turns out to be one of the most highly contagious social contagions on the planet, down to happiness levels, down to depression and anxiety that leadership really matters when it comes to how we catch and how we spread social contagions and how to stop them. So, we can obviously talk about any of these things. For instance, burnout was one that you and I had spoken about offline, the idea that one person who is experiencing burnout can infect an entire team within days and the results of burnout, they can lead down obviously to lower productivity but also emotional crippling, financial crippling, and even just the general attitude of a team can be influenced singularly by one person.
So, go ahead and just define what you mean by burnout. I think we all have an idea in our heads. But how would you define it?
Burnout is basically the idea that you are just tired of what you do. You’re cynical about, it could show up as cynicism toward what your team is doing or even the mission of the company. You not only don’t care anymore, you just physically and emotionally can’t do your job. And you see this in teachers, for instance. A lot of the studies were done about teachers and schools and how quickly burnout will spread across a team or an entire school. And we see that in people with low energy who show up with a flat affect who don’t give it 100% or even 50% anymore and they just seem to be barely holding on.
So then, how exactly does that spread in a contagion like way because, okay, one person is busy. You notice them. You say, yeah, yeah, and maybe am I busy, too? Is that the way it happens?
So, the way that social contagion is spread, and this is across the board, is that there are things called what we have mirroring neurons so there are literally neurons in our brains that emulate the behavior of other people around us. So, if somebody around us yawns, for instance, our mirroring neurons fire and it makes us want to yawn also. If I were to smile in a room, our mirroring neurons would cue other people to smile also and to feel happiness. So, that’s really on a basic level how that works. But there’s also things called cues or primes, if you will, that even if we don’t see somebody frowning or smiling or yawning, there are things in our environment around us that can trigger our mirroring neurons as well, things like colors of a room or temperature or even the volume of somebody’s voice can cause our mirroring neurons to fire and to emulate even something that they’re just barely entoning. And that is a remarkable find. There have been studies out of Yale, out of Harvard, out of Stanford University, they go back decades that show us how these primes or cues actually affect the way we behave. There was a study at Stanford back in the ‘60s, that showed that little kids who saw adults playing with toys in a more aggressive way would emulate aggression not only in that room but outside of that room. Or studies out of New York that showed that if you paint the colors of the walls gray in an academic setting, it cues or primes people to think more analytically. Or if you put the color yellow or red on the wall, it cues people to act more aggressively.
Imagine you were going back and there was a string of burnouts in an office. How would you expect that to spread from one person to another?
What winds up happening is we tend to think, well, if there’s a team of people and one person on that team is feeling depressed or sort of a naysayer, it’s human nature and it’s just easier for us rather than for the whole team to try to build this one person back up, it’s easier, almost like gravity, for the whole team just to go down to that other person’s level of output and demeanor. And so, socially and emotionally, that’s exactly what winds up happening. So, rather than the whole team trying to lift somebody up, the rest of the team comes down to that one person’s level. And this isn’t to say that people who have experienced burnout or come into a situation with a caustic attitude are bad people. There’s probably a very good reason for why they feel burned out. But one of the things we need to do very quickly is to assess where the burnout, the sources of the burnout is, and then remove that source or relocate that person to another team, really spend some time with that person to understand what is going on with them and see how we can address it. Not only is it imperative for that one person but it also is imperative for the rest of the team.
So, you said that it’s easier for the whole group to come down than it is for everyone to bring that one person up. Are negative emotions more viral than positive ones?
Great question. There’s different studies that say different things. But from what I can tell I think they’re pretty equal. The thing is that sometimes, like I said, it’s almost human nature and it is easier to emulate the heavier emotions, which are like depression, anxiety, and things like that, than it is to emulate the happy ones because happy ones you have to do a little bit of work sometimes to change your mind or your thinking. But for instance, let’s go back to Palo Alto, the idea that ten students from this one school died by suicide. And so, we start to think, well, maybe depression or anxiety is more powerful than anything else because it spreads so quickly. Well, what that really shows is that in order for the town and for the school itself to maintain the sense of hope, they had to make some real changes to push the happiness and the hope.
So, what they did was, I mean, this is going to sound small, but the school itself put a bunch of money into redecorating the school. They added a bunch of paint colors. Before, it was sort of this topey brown and gray color that fit in with the landscape around the school which is like hills and fields and very Northern California in color scheme. But instead what they did was they added yellows and reds and blues and splashes of light and they added physical lights and windows and tried to change the atmosphere of the school. And what that did was it invited a sense of hope and happiness to spread just as easily as the depression and the anxiety. They also made concerted efforts to change, for instance, every year they would do a Shakespeare play, the drama department, but this year, they decided that they were going to do something more light and fun in a musical. And the idea was just to really infuse the community with a sense of lightness. And that spread just as fast and as well as depression and anxiety. But you have to really make a real effort sometimes, especially in light of something really scary to turn things around.
So, if I’m talking to my team, a lot of times we say that if you’re actually sick, even if you’re just a little bit sick, if you might have a virus, better is to stay home because you don’t want to infect the rest of the team that’s there. Would you even go to the extent of saying, “Look, if you’re having one of those down days and you’re just feeling miserable about everything, just stay home, go take a walk, go take a hike somewhere. Don’t come to the office because you might end up infecting the rest of the team.” Is that legitimate?
It is. It’s very legitimate. And I mean, you don’t want to ouster people, but I’ll tell you, mental health days are vital, are absolutely vital, and what we find is in certain environments, business environments, work environments, it’s a culture of working as hard as you can to the point that you almost forget or just neglect to take care of yourself. And it makes sense. We have so much on our plate and increasingly our culture is one in which we have to continue to innovate and improve ourselves over and over again and we work really hard. It’s a culture of work equals success in all matters of life. But our emotional health is just as vital and we’ve shown time and time again now that if our emotional health isn’t taken care of it affects our work life as well. And so, if there’s somebody who just seems like they’re just having a hard time, that they’re just feeling low, if they’re feeling anxious or there are signs and symptoms of burnout or depression or things that are just not healthy, really, as managers, encourage our team to take mental health days, to sleep in one day, to do things that make them feel good because bringing that goodness back into the team is only going to spread just as quickly as burnout.
And then that leads to the other side of it. How should you best encourage those people that are naturally spreading happiness, are naturally spreading good thoughts and actions and behaviors around the office, well, what’s a way that you can even encourage that more?
Well, it’s funny. We always talk about wanting to spread the love, but in this case, what we really need to do is I really encourage everyone I work with to focus on themselves. I know this sounds a little bit self serving, but seriously, focusing on yourself is super important because we can’t really make somebody who’s having a bad day get better. It’s not like we can say, “Be happy.” But you can really focus on yourself. If you are aware that you are feeling low or feeling burnt out and you need to feel better about yourself, take care of yourself. So, you are only in charge of bringing your own happiness into a team, and once you do that, ideally just being in the room will infect other people and that’s a natural process of mirror neurons firing and emulating other people. It always starts with yourself though. So, start with yourself, be your best, show up to the room, smile, do your best work and other people will just naturally connect with that and spread it.
As you’re talking, I’m thinking about even from a performance review standpoint, you’re evaluating how someone performs, how they work on a team, but also you could have a metric for, I don’t know if you can quantify it so much, but just to say how are you usually bringing in good spirits and good vibes that are there and actually have that be that’s the way they’re contributing to the team and helping everyone else out, right?
Believe it or not, I think it’s one of the most important ways that people contribute to teams. You can go online right now and pull up a study, just Google happiness index or happiness survey, and it’s like thirty questions that we as psychologists use in our studies all the time to get a baseline measure of people’s happiness and you can use it as a baseline during reviews. So, during this six-month review, you do a baseline happiness survey and then you do a follow-up at the next one and see how they measure up. And if they’re the same, then you’re doing great. And if they have higher scores, that’s terrific because it means that they’re spreading that within their team. And if it’s lower, then that cues us into the idea that maybe something is going on. What can we do to help boost that for you as an employee? And if you look at teams and look at the happiness index and the happiness survey and if you start to see that number go down across the team, it means that there is a burnout contagion within the group or there’s something going on. And a lot of times that points to management and so what we can do is highlight to management, like, “Look, something’s going on. Team members aren’t happy. Let’s figure out what we can do to make this turn around.” Because it’s not just a matter of, “Hey, we want to make our team members feel good because we’re good people.” It boils down to bottom line. When you have teams that are cynical, that are angry, that are upset, that feel that they’re just not happy, that absolutely has a direct correlation with output which also reflects on the company and which ultimately reflects on the bottom line.
So, last question is if you’re in an office environment that just seems really toxic, it’s on that borderline, the outbreaks can happen very soon, is there anything you can do to provide some emergency triage in that situation?
It’s a tough one. If you have, if it’s company-wide just a toxic work environment, it’s almost like you’ve got to clean house. Think of it like you’re exterminating bugs behind the walls. You almost have to drop a bomb in there to clean out some of the toxicness or the toxins. But if you’re going to start someplace without being literally unilaterally wiping out everybody and starting over, bringing in counselors and coaches specifically to talk about ways to build unity to show that each member of the team matters. There’s bringing counselors just to have one on ones with folks, offering up more things that create an environment of happiness and good well being. And I’ll be honest with you, that usually starts at the top. When you have managers or team leads that are naturally charismatic or naturally have the power to wield these changes, getting a fixer in there and working with that person to help make a team just feel better always, always helps. I do counseling and coaching for executives and time and again what winds up happening is you have an executive or a CEO who comes in to work with me and they really just have no real awareness of the toxicity around them, or if they do, they just don’t really know what to do to fix it. And truly what does start to make it better is starting to work on themselves to look at how they manage anxiety, look at how they manage listening or conflict or depression or workflow. And with a couple of quick fixes, which take a couple of sessions, it’s almost like going to a chiropractor. You realign everything and it does trickle down sometimes by three or four degrees.
Lee, it’s been great to chat with you. Where can people go to stay in touch with you and see your latest stuff?
Great. I’ve learned a lot out of this session. I’m inspired and buy into what you’re saying. So, that’s great. Thanks a lot for being on the show and sharing your insights with us.
It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Lee Daniel Kravetz is the bestselling author of Strange Contagion (Harpercollins/Harper Wave) and Supersurvivors (Harpercollins/Harper Wave). His work has been translated into ten languages. He has written for print and television, including The New York Times, Psychology Today, The San Francisco Chronicle,and PBS. He has been featured in Time Magazine, theHarvard Business Review, and Fast Company, and is a founding board member of the Lit Camp Writers Conference. He holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri – Columbia, a M.A. in psychology from Santa Clara University, and received a post-graduate fellowship from Stanford University. He lives in Northern California with his wife and two children.