Don’t worry… we aren’t going to be discussing germs, infections or rashes!

Instead, this article is exploring the role of behavioural and emotional contagion, and how these conditions stand to significantly impact the ROI from wellbeing investment in organisations.

It can impact both ways:

  1. Well understood and leveraged in the right way and it’s a positive impact – your wellbeing dollar will go further than expected.
  2. Not understood or ignored and it’s a negative impact – your wellbeing investment is unlikely to achieve your desired outcomes.


What do we mean by contagion?

There are two types of contagion we’ll be talking about here.

Behavioural or social contagion:

The spread of ideas, attitudes, or behaviour patterns in a group through imitation and conformity.

And emotional contagion:

The phenomenon when one person’s emotions and related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people.

Pause and think about this for a moment – if you work in a team, how you ‘show up’ in terms of your emotional state is going to be reflected back to you in the mood/reactions/emotions you get from your colleagues. Similarly, how you behave may be replicated by others in your team.

Let’s put a wellbeing lens on this and review a sample of relevant research findings.


Behavioural or social contagion

Secondary stress: Seeing another person get stressed can increase the cortisol levels of those witnessing the behaviour. This even occurs in complete strangers! But even more importantly, the research has found that the closeness of the relationship and physical proximity will increase the effect.

Consider for a moment how this plays out in teams in the workplace. You might personally have fended off the ‘busy virus’ through sensible self-care strategies, but what about the secondary effect on you of other people’s stress? And, what are you ‘spreading’ when you are stressed?

Obesity is catching: A long-term study of 12,000 individuals found that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased by 57% if they had a friend who became obese in a given time interval. Frequency of contact was a significant factor.

What is happening here? Do we observe a person gaining weight and change our norms about the acceptability of being overweight – and so accept weight gain in ourselves that we might previously have acted against?

Given how much time we spend at work in the presence of our co-workers, these findings surely extrapolate to the office too.

The good news is that weight loss is also prone to these ‘social network’ effects. Teammates can significantly impact each other’s weight loss -being surrounded by others with similar goals does help shed those kilos.

Quit smoking with a friend: Similar findings have been shown for the likelihood of people quitting smoking – this time in the positive direction.

A smoker stands a much better chance of quitting if their spouse, a close friend or a co-worker does so at the same time. It follows that without this collegial approach, quitting successfully will be harder.

Exercise is socially contagious: When people you know exercise more, you exercise more.

Men are influenced by both men and women, but it seems women are only influenced by other women – so it might be worth setting up all-female running or walking groups at work.


Emotional contagion

The ‘catching’ of emotions from others has been examined and well established through numerous research studies.

One of the key mechanisms is the function of the Mirror Neuron System in the human brain. This observes and and records people’s facial expressions, body language, pupil movements and vocal tones and prompts mimicry of these in our responses. Our own emotional response is then affected by the expression of this behavior.

Think of the people you work with and the emotions they express – do you get more joy, happiness, hope, optimism… or do you get more anger, fear, frustration and irritability?

In our GLWS research, we have found that 46% of leaders do not consistently think about how they want to ‘show up’ when they arrive at work. That sounds like the potential for some unplanned emotional contagion. Question is, is it positive or negative?

We know that the ‘emotional culture’ of a workplace influences engagement, collaboration, creativity and performance – and that positive emotions are consistently linked to better outcomes on all these indices. And the flip side, we know that negative emotions will drive down performance and lead to high staff turnover (and higher rates of mental ill-health).

So what can organisations do with these contagion insights?


Practical suggestions for keeping contagion positive

  • Include education on the contagion effects in all wellbeing interventions to help people think through about what social network / contagion effects (at work or home) might be helping or hindering them and how to best achieve positive change. (This should be done sensitively to avoid stigmatising overweight individuals.)
  • This education should include a focus on emotional contagion and the value of positive emotions (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope and so on) as a force for good in the workplace. It’s not about ‘happy clapping’, but emotional regulation and an understanding of one’s capacity to choose one’s mood.
  • Ensure your wellbeing interventions have group or team support built in – working with others on shared goals will be more effective than independent action. Think this through for digital applications as well as face-to-face. For example, establish groups for people who want to work on similar wellbeing goals and support these with resources.
  • Leverage teams in the workplace to bring home the full positive benefits of contagion. Engage teams in understanding their specific wellbeing drivers, themes and patterns within the team, the identification of positive actions to enhance team wellbeing and the task of holding the team accountable. (The GLWS Team Wellbeing Report is a great place to start!)
  • Lastly, and most importantly, educate your leaders on their role in promoting positive wellbeing contagion within their teams and help develop their skills:
  1. Attending to their own wellbeing first and then role modelling like never before to ensure they are not the source of negative emotions or stress contagion,
  2. Noticing and acting when negative emotional contagion appears (this might mean coaching or performance managing individuals who are spreading negativity),
  3. Sensitively intervening when stress becomes apparent for anyone in the team – to bring cortisol levels down for everyone,
  4. Making room for collegiate wellbeing activity in the team (exercise, healthy eating habits, social connectivity),
  5. And building a team approach to wellbeing with frequent check-ins and reference to wellbeing goals and activity.

Every time you notice or discover a wellbeing challenge in your organisation or for a team, an individual or yourself, ask…. how is this being influenced by positive or negative contagion?

By thinking this through, you might find novel ways to promote the positive and achieve superior outcomes.

Good luck!



Barsade, S. and O’Neill, O. (2016) Manage Your Emotional Culture. Harvard Business Review.

Engert V, Plessow F, Miller R, Kirschbaum C, Singer T (2014)Cortisol increase in empathic stress is modulated by emotional closeness and observation modality. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Vol 45, p 192

Christakis N, and Fowler J. (2007) The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 years.N Engl J Med, vol 357 p370

Aral, S and Nicolaides, C (2017) Exercise contagion in a global social network

Nature Communications, vol 8

LaRose J, Leahey T, Weinberg B, Kumar R, Wing R. (2012) Young adults’ performance in a low intensity weight loss campaign. Obesityvol 10