Emotional Contagion at Work: How to Stop Absorbing a Coworker’s Stress


Research has documented that we can catch each other’s emotions, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion even at work. One employee’s anxiety and panic can spread like a virus in milliseconds throughout an entire office, lowering morale and productivity. Happiness can also build in a workplace (known as “positive emotional contagion”), which results in improved employee cooperation, satisfaction, and performance.


To cope with emotional contagion get my PDF “Life Strategies for Sensitive People” here.

Purchase Download >


Though everyone is susceptible to emotional contagion, it is amplified in empaths and highly sensitive people. The good news is that sensitive people can benefit from all the positive energy that circulates at work. The difficult news is that we can pick up our co-worker’s emotions or illnesses until we learn to avoid taking on their stress.

Why are we so prone to taking on other people’s moods at work? Everybody has hard days. Unfortunately for many of us, especially those who are highly sensitive, a hard day at your coworker’s desk can turn into a hard day at yours because of your sensitivities. Many offices today are designed to be “open space,” where desks are not separated from each other by walls or they consist of cubicles with simple glass partitions. Everyone basically shares the same area. You can hear people talking, complaining, gossiping, coughing, blowing their noses, laughing, humming, cracking their gum, and opening candy wrappers. Also you can smell your neighbors’ perfume or what they’re eating, and see people walking back and forth. All this means nonstop sensory stimulation. Such lack of privacy makes empaths more vulnerable to taking on their co-workers’ stress.

There are creative solutions. Shopify, an e-commerce business, surveyed their employees and found they had a balance of introverts and extroverts. So their office designers modified their workplace for both groups. Some sections were noisier and more interactive. Whereas other offices had high-backed couches that could be rolled into a corner for privacy, and there were specific rooms that resembled cozy libraries for “quiet working.” These design elements offered introverts more space and peacefulness at work. As a result, they weren’t as intensely exposed to their office-mate’s stress.

Highly sensitive people can also experience emotional contagion with customers and clients, even over the phone. You actually feel what they are feeling in your body. One empathic workshop participant said, “I started a new job selling life insurance. I became anxious making calls, even if customers requested information. My heart went out to families who had no coverage and lost their homes, or when their spouses died unexpectedly. I started taking on their pain!”

Here are some tips for protecting your energy level in an over-stimulating, emotionally demanding, or crowded environment from my book “The Empath’s Survival Guide.”

Set Energetic Boundaries at Work

If you are in an open space or chaotic office, surround the outer edge of your desk with plants or family or pet photos to create a small psychological barrier. Also sacred objects such as a Quan Yin statue, the Buddha, sacred beads, or protective stones can also set an energetic boundary. Also take bathroom breaks for relief, or walk outside in fresh air if possible. Noise cancelling ear buds or headphones are useful to muffle conversations and sound. In addition, visualize a luminous golden egg of light surrounding your entire work station that repels negativity and only lets in positive energy. You are safe and protected within the golden egg. There is nothing to worry about. Using all of these strategies creates a cocoon of protection to rely on.

For more protection tips read my article “3 Ways to Create Sacred Space at Work.”

Though you can’t control everything about your job environment, you do have the power to shift the energy in your immediate vicinity. If you focus on the safe space you’ve created rather than on the surrounding noise and confusion, you can minimize emotional contagion. Then your work experience will feel more pleasant and protected.

(Adapted from The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People by Judith Orloff MD.)


Judith Orloff, MD is a New York Times bestselling author with the upcoming book The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Yourself, Your Relationships and the World (Foreword by the Dalai Lama). She has also written The Empath’s Survival Guide and Thriving as an Empath, which offers daily self-care tools for sensitive people. She integrates the pearls of conventional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, empathy, energy medicine, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice and online internationally. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, Oprah Magazine, the New York Times and USA Today. Dr. Orloff has spoken at Google-LA, TEDx U.S. and TEDx Asia. More information about Dr. Orloff’s Empathy Training Programs for businesses, The Empath Survival Guide Online Course and speaking schedule at www.drjudithorloff.com.

Connect with Judith on  FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

3 thoughts on “Emotional Contagion at Work: How to Stop Absorbing a Coworker’s Stress

  1. I quit being a channel and healing touch because I absorb TOO MUCH. I am losing my hearing on this side.

  2. Hello Judith! Thanks for all the great tips, & sharing your experiences. I’ve compensated by being OVERLY yang, a masculine doer, i’m discovering.
    I’ve also just learned about decalcification of the pineal gland—-due to chlorine and fluorides in our water mostly. Haritaki an ayurvedic herb…..and borax in small doses.

  3. How can I create a space or boundaries at work that r easy to do for I work in construction and go in and out of multiple rooms of a building and it’s always changing How can I protect myself from others energies?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *