Stress is contagious when you bring it home from work

When a working father or mother comes home in an angry or irritable mood, the stress can lead to negative spirals in family interactions.

Paid work gives structure and meaning to our lives. It comes with expectations, goals, and demands that help us to know who we are and to further develop our abilities and skills. When demands become too great, too many, or too pressing, however, they can entail physical and mental symptoms such as irritation or depressed mood. Well-known work stressors are time pressure, organizational problems, and conflicts with colleagues, supervisors, or customers.

Even after these stressors end, the symptoms they produce may linger on. Symptoms are known to take up to six hours to fade out. For that reason, some of the negative effects of stress are brought back into the family home. And there, they can be transmitted to other family members – just like a cold.

So, when a working father or mother comes home in an angry or irritable mood, this can lead to negative spirals in family interactions. Family members may detect that the returning parent is tense and seems to overreact to small events instead of being open and interested in participating in family life. Most of us know situations when checking on such a person will only trigger a hostile reply such as “nothing is the matter!!” although everybody knows that something is the matter. This has been illustrated by numerous comedians but is not funny at all when one is in the middle of it.

Situations like this ask a lot from family members at home, who may have their own problems to worry about and who may not always be able to resist snapping back. Stopping the seemingly predefined course of events is easier said than done.

But this sequence does not have to happen in the same way, over and over again. There are things that can be done. The family can grant the working father some time by himself and wait until he has recovered from his anger or can help to distract him from work events and cheer him up when he feels down. Exactly the same goes for a working mother.

The research carried out by me and my colleagues has looked at factors that modify the effects of stress and in further articles I will present research findings about different measures that can be taken by the father, the people at his work and family members.