Stress is known to change the way we feel and behave. When you’re under pressure, it’s easy to get irritable and snap at people without meaning to, even if you’re usually agreeable and calm. Feeling stressed can also lead to anxiety and low mood, but these symptoms usually dissipate when we’re finally able to relax.
However, long-term stress can have more of an impact on our personalities than we realise – particularly if it’s related to our work. In fact, people who experience prolonged episodes of job insecurity are at risk of becoming less agreeable, less conscientious, and more neurotic, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The research, collected from data from 1,046 employees over a nine-year period, is further evidence of “personality fluidity” – the idea that our personalities aren’t fixed, but develop over time.
“New research has suggested exposure to stressors in the workplace can alter personality over time,” says Gemma Leigh Roberts, organisational psychologist and founder of The Resilience Edge. “This could be in ways such as increasing neuroticism for those in a job that affects their psychological health or pushing an individual more towards displaying introverted rather than extroverted behaviours.”
Read more: How to avoid taking criticism personally
The ways in which our personalities change depends on the individual, as well as genetic and environmental factors. Research has shown that in general, our personalities improve as we grow older. We become more altruistic and trusting, and develop a better sense of humour.
However, things can go the other way if we find ourselves in a difficult environment, such as a stressful job. And another paper, published in Journal of Management in March, found that workplace stress can actually alter our personalities in both the short and long term. The impact can be seen through the Big Five model of personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion.
Not all workplace stressors have such a damaging impact, though. Believing you can overcome a stressful situation to gain something you want, such as a pay rise, does not have the same lasting impact. But if you’re constantly stressed with no end in sight and no goal, it can take its toll.
“Tell-tell signs of personality change can be hard to miss, as the change process is slow and prolonged,” says Roberts. “If you feel you’re less like yourself at work or you notice your behaviour has changed in specific situations, and you can identify workplace stressors you frequently deal with, you may be experiencing a change in personality.
“You may also receive feedback from others whereby they’ve noticed a change, such as coming across as more anxious, irritable or emotionally unstable,” she adds. “You may want to take some time to reflect on whether you’ve moved further on the neuroticism scale compared to when you started your role.”
But it is hard to determine whether stressors within the workplace have changed your personality, as it could be the case that the personality traits you’re displaying have in fact always been part of your personality. It might be that these traits were simply less dominant or less evident in workplace situations. However, Roberts adds, more research is needed to determine how our personalities can be affected by work stress – and whether we can change back. For example, whether we can become more agreeable if we quit a job in a toxic environment.
Read more: How to cope with deadline stress?
“It’s important to remember that no one personality type is considered better than another, so changes in personality are not necessarily positive or negative,” says Roberts. “For example, it’s not more beneficial to be an extrovert rather than an introvert at work – both have their benefits and considerations in different circumstances.
“What’s important is understanding your own personality and working in a way that aligns with that. If your personality has changed, it may be useful to reflect on working preferences and boundaries to ensure you’re working in a way that’s productive, effective and healthy.”
If you feel like workplace stress is affecting your personality, or the way you feel and behave, it’s important to take action. Stress is known to have a damaging effect on mental and physical health.
“The first step is to recognise this is happening to you, which takes reflection, and potentially feedback from others,” says Roberts. “You may want to reduce the stressors you’re exposed to, which may require a change in job, working for a different organisation.
She adds: “The key issue in this study is exposure to stressors, so managing that is critical to reduce factors such as burnout and enhance wellbeing and performance, focusing on stress management techniques such as practicing mindfulness or taking part in resilience coaching or training which can help to develop strategies and tools to deal with challenges in a healthy and productive way.”