May 11, 2022
min read

Is Unhappiness in Organizations Contagious

We are in the midst of a professional reshuffle as unhappy employees search for companies that prioritize happiness. Now comes the question, can negative experiences follow employees to their new organizations and cause unhappiness there?

Samuel Leeman
Marketing Manager

The professional world is in the midst of a huge reshuffle. Employees are leaving and joining new organizations and companies are hiring left and right. Throughout this transitional period, people are bringing more than fresh perspectives and ideas to their new organizations. Past experiences, residual burnout, and other emotional factors are also being transplanted between organizations. So, what does this mean for employees and employers who are trying to adjust and settle in?

Similarly to how infectious diseases spread, anxiety and stress disorders can "spread epidemically across the boundaries of organizations via social contagion."

According to "The Epidemic of Mental Disorders in Business," a recent study conducted by Julia M. Kensbock, Lars Alkærsig, and Carina Lomberg, it was discovered that, similarly to how infectious diseases spread, anxiety and stress disorders can "spread epidemically across the boundaries of organizations via social contagion." They also discovered that if the new employee is in a managerial position, the effect can be even more pronounced and spread more quickly and vastly.

From the perspective of the employee, if you are unhappy, you may think that moving jobs will fix that or help you find a new sense of purpose. But according to this research, these ‘symptoms’ are likely to persist into your next role if the core issues go unaddressed.

From the view of the employers, you are hiring ‘fresh talent’ thinking that this is what your company needs to turn its culture around. Instead, if you don’t provide the necessary support for that new talent, you won’t see any of the positive changes you're hoping for.

Think of it like this; an employee leaves his/her current job because they don't feel they are given the right support at work; thus they feel overwhelmed by their workload. So, they move to a new organization, thinking perhaps they'll receive extra help and support there. However, as they are onboarding, learning the lay of the land, and taking on a new role, they still feel overwhelmed and stressed out! They are essentially the 'carrier' of this stressed, anxious feeling and can implant it into their new organization. And as the team is working together to onboard this new person, the feelings of anxiety and stress can become normalized in the team's day-to-day interactions. Even if they felt at peace before, new stimuli can affect that balance and they begin to feel overwhelmed too!

This isn’t to say that the pandemic of negative company cultures is inevitable and we should all panic. What this means is that whether or not there is an obvious, persistent problem at your workplace or in your life, there are measures that can be put in place to address and even prevent severe burnout.

A study by The Happiness Institute in 2019 saw that employee happiness was mostly related to factors outside of monetary compensation after a certain financial threshold was crossed.

Being heard, recognized, involved in decision-making, and other aspects of inclusion were more indicative of a happy employee.

So, with new and existing employees, keeping communication open between them and their line managers is essential. Prioritizing honest discussions about role progression, workload concerns, and team dynamic issues is how you find and address those concerns, whether they are new or existing. Current employees will feel heard and understood and for new employees, this can help break the cycle, help them to grow, and reduce the potential spread of anxiety and stress.

Having open dialogue within organizations is the best way to work together to create a company where everyone feels heard and supported. It can help veteran employees feel valued, new employees feel welcomed, and help stop the spread of toxic company cultures in the professional sphere. If you're interested, you can read the whole study here.