Study Reveals The One Conversation Topic At Work That Makes People Look ‘Incompetent’ & Less Likable

We all do it, even though the conversation doesn't serve us.

woman using laptop looking stressed Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Feeling stressed out at work is an unfortunate common denominator in any job, whether you’re a CEO or a server at a restaurant.

While one way to deal with work stress is by commiserating with co-workers, scientists discovered that venting too hard is a bad habit to get into.

A study revealed that stress is the one conversation topic at work that makes people look ‘incompetent’ and less likable.

According to research from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business, stress bragging is a common workplace phenomenon that can actively harm interpersonal relationships.


The study found that stress bragging can have “resoundingly negative implications” on employees’ professional and personal reputations.

@danschawbel Do you brag about your stress at work? #greenscreen ♬ original sound - Dan Schawbel

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Every profession has its fair share of tasks and tribulations that can spike anyone’s blood pressure, from toxically positive bosses and endless morning meetings to managers who steal credit for your work and customers who don’t tip after eating at a restaurant.

However, workers who brag about how stressed out they are by these work scenarios are seen as less competent and less warm by the people around them.

Jessica Rodell, who co-authored the study, noted that stress bragging is common but doesn’t bode well in the long run.

“This is a behavior we’ve all seen, and we all might be guilty of at some point,” she said.

She considered the root cause behind stress bragging, specifically asking why we tend to talk about how much work we have when that conversation doesn’t help us get ahead.


woman talking on phone holding coffee Alena Shekhovtcova / Pexels

“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,” Rodell explained.

Part of the survey posed hypothetical scenarios for participants, pretending that they were co-workers who’d just returned from a conference.


The imaginary, stress-bragging colleague described the conference as “Just one more thing on my full plate. And I was already stressed to the max … You have no idea the stress that I am under.”

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Study participants thought colleagues who stress bragged were less likable and less competent.

They also reported that they were unlikely to actually help co-workers who constantly complained about their stress levels.

Talking about how tense we are can sometimes seem like a badge of honor, as co-workers compare how much coffee they drink to how little sleep they get while work piles up around them.


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

A subsequent section of the study looked into the connection between stress bragging and work burnout.

The scientists found that people who work with stress-braggers report higher amounts of burnout, as though the second-hand stress is leeching onto them.


“When somebody is constantly talking about and bragging about their stress, it makes it seem like it is a good thing to be stressed,” Rodell said, offering a grounded explanation of why this behavior is so widespread.

woman working on laptop Polina Zimmerman / Pexels

“It just spills over onto the co-worker next to them,” she continued. “Think of it as this spiraling contagious effect from one person to the next.”


The study did note a difference in co-workers having open, honest conversations about stress versus stress bragging, specifically.

Blowing off steam and talking to someone who’s available and open to hear you and hold that space can be beneficial.

Talking about what’s wrong is better than burying it, but there appears to be a thin line between stress bragging and taking part in a mutual, consensual venting session with a co-worker.


It’s always beneficial to find healthy coping mechanisms to navigate chronic stress before it transforms into full-blown burnout.

Setting clear boundaries at your job and cultivating outside interests are solid ways to lessen your stress without dumping it all on your unsuspecting co-worker. 

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Alexandra Blogier is a writer on YourTango's news and entertainment team. She covers social issues, pop culture, and all things to do with the entertainment industry.