Bragging about how busy you are makes people think you’re an idiot

ATHENS, Ga. — “I’m just so swamped!” We’ve all worked with that person who seems to wear their stress like a badge of honor, constantly boasting about how overworked and overwhelmed they are. However, new research shows this “stress bragging” behavior does more harm than good. Researchers from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business have found that people who frequently complain about their stressful work lives are seen as less competent and less likable by their colleagues.

The findings, in a nutshell

The researchers surveyed hundreds of workers and found that stress braggers generated ill will and were less likely to receive help from co-workers when they were legitimately overloaded. Beyond just making themselves look bad, the study published in Personnel Psychology revealed that stress bragging can have a contagious effect, causing those around the bragger to feel more stressed themselves and experience higher levels of burnout. By constantly portraying extreme busyness as the norm, it creates an expectation that everyone should be operating at intense, unsustainable levels.

Simply put, when someone keeps telling all their co-workers about how busy and overwhelmed they are, the entire office can start to feel busy and overwhelmed.

While it’s understandable to vent about work stress on occasion, the researchers caution against wearing it as a self-proclaimed badge of honor. A better approach is to be mindful of complaining too much and find healthy outlets to manage stress. For managers, recognizing chronic stress braggers on their teams is important, as the negative impacts can ripple through the workplace culture.

Woman screaming during stressful office meeting
Researchers have found that people who frequently complain about their stressful work lives are seen as less competent. (Photo by Kateryna Onyshchuk on Shutterstock)

How did scientists reach this conclusion?

First, the University of Georgia team had 360 people read fictional scenarios depicting a co-worker either bragging about stress levels, simply stating they were stressed, or not mentioning stress at all. Participants then rated the fictional co-workers on likability, perceived competence, and their willingness to help that person when overloaded.

However, to ensure the results weren’t just based on imaginary scenarios, the researchers also surveyed 218 actual employees about their experiences with real-life stress braggers in their offices. This allowed them to analyze whether exposure to frequent stress-bragging behaviors affected the stress levels and burnout of those employees over time.

By combining hypothetical scenarios with data from the field, the scientists could tease apart the subtle distinctions between simply being stressed, which can enhance perceived competence, versus overt boastful bragging about stress, which has the opposite effect. Their findings reveal the powerful negative impacts that one person’s chronic stress broadcasting can have on an entire workplace environment.

What do the researchers say?

“This is a behavior we’ve all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point,” says Jessica Rodell, lead author of the study and a professor of management in UGA’s Terry College of Business, in a media release. “When I was wondering about why people do this, I thought maybe we are talking about our stress because we want to prove we’re good enough. We found out that often backfires.”

“People are harming themselves by doing this thing they think is going to make them look better to their colleagues,” Rodell continues.

“If you genuinely feel stressed, it’s OK to find the right confidant to share with and talk about it,” Rodell explains. “But be mindful that it is not a badge of honor to be bragged about—that will backfire. It’s not benign. It not only harms the bragging co-worker. If employees see somebody bragging about their stress, it will have a spillover effect that can have bigger implications for the workplace.”

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. I agree it’s no longer a sign of toughness, but a red flag of poor prioritizing of necessary duties. We don’t have to ‘have it all’ or do it all. Anyone over 50 is looking for ways to lessen our duties, not increase them (right when we need to take care of our parents). Less is more.

    1. I concur. It is a sign of bad time management and that the person might be under-qualified for the job they are filling. People also brag about how much sleep they did NOT get and that falls under the same thing except now you cannot manage your personal life as well.

      1. how cute… an article for work from homers and retirees by work from homers and retirees

    2. Or it’s a sign that a company refuses to invest in itself, so it doesn’t have the needed resources to accomplish the required tasks.

  2. It’s just not worth talking to people like this. It’s narcissistic behavior. You see a lot of it outside the workplace too, any hobby community, fishing, video games, whatever else, you always have certain people that want to tell everyone they’re just too busy. And all that does is make other people not engage in the community at all. These people destroy entire communities with their nonsense.

    Everything we do takes a commitment. And it takes energy and planning to get people together for anything. And if people are engaging in a shared interest, it’s assumed everyone is making that time. Ridiculous to waste everyone’s time and energy with stupid irrelevant self centered talk.

    Sometimes I see articles about some sort of loneliness epidemic. If such a thing exists it’s because we let the lowest IQ idiots babble everywhere with no pushback, and they ruined everything.

  3. My “ex-company” paid homage to the “work/life balance” line, but it was a lie. That was only for their advertisements on the lobotomy box (TV). We were slammed to the wall everyday. Very good pay and if you didn’t like it, you could leave it. That’s really the only two options “working people” have. We were severely understaffed yet “HR” declared we were overstaffed. Those bastards sat at a computer all day with a bathroom, air conditioner or heat in the Winter.
    You, however, would work on your days off, get called out anytime of night even on vacation. The only true ways you could get out of work were, be very ill or be Out Of Town or State on Vacation. I retired early. To Hell with them. I find management today rarely knows much about what the people they oversee are doing and have never done the work they oversee.
    Several Managers of my Department over the years actually confessed that to me. Many of them were even railroaded into managing departments. They said they were told they didn’t need to know about the work, but to manage the work. Didn’t make any effin sense to me!
    I worked for a Fortune 500 Utility Co. doing electronic work.

  4. Bragging about anything is unbecoming. However, as an employer, I wonder how much of the negative reaction is simply against the people who are working long extra hours, bragging or not. The “life balancers”, who are becoming the majority, have no greater skills in organizing or prioritizing their work time. They are just more concerned about not taking on tasks or responsibilities that might impinge on even the smallest amount of extra time, even if they are hourly. Then they complain about not having the resources to buy a house, pay student debt, etc. It is an ultra competitive global economy and too many are expecting to have their cake and eat it too. Those who take on “other duties as assigned” are more likely to lap up the spoils. Either strategy is about tradeoffs and it leaves more and more people looking for the least effort that will earn them the most money.

  5. I agree. I bust my butt researching (with no help from my peers!) fun lunch Thursday restaurant ideas, while multi-tasking playing around in PowerBI. And my peers have the audacity to say I should be able to help out because I’m not as busy as I say I am.

  6. It depends on what line of work you are in and the article did not state what line of work the testing was done in, so the results are vague to me. I worked in a very time sensitive business and at times the work load peaked creating stress and work overload. Everyone around me was extremely busy at those peak times and some complained about it more than others.

  7. Of course, some workers just want to be martyrs. Nothing you can do about that mental dysfunction. But others work too hard out of fear of losing their job. That’s why unions exist, folks.

  8. I think that most people who complain about being too busy would love to find the solution to the problem. By confiding in others about the stress of their situation, I think they are hoping that someone — anyone! — will have some workable advice to alleviate the hectic schedule they are in.

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