If you walked into a business, could you tell how the person who greets you is feeling by the way they smell? I greet hundreds of people at work every day, and the answer to this question shocked me.


I work at a yoga studio, which you wouldn’t think would be stressful, but in reality it’s really busy and I am often struggling to keep up. The tea needs refilled, the computer freezes up in the middle of a transaction, and the phone starts ringing… all as dozens of people come in for class, with a whole bunch of other questions.

“Can I buy a new class card?”

“Can you go over the membership pricing?”

“Isn’t there supposed to be tea?”

Oh my.

I am running around and crossing things off my to-do list as quickly as I can. I answer the question about membership as I run someone else’s credit card. I walk briskly back to refill the tea before class, and by the time I get back to the front desk, I have even worked up a little bit of a sweat. I am doing a dozen things at once, and it probably shows, but this is what good employees do, right?

This is a situation that many executives and employees would find all too familiar at work. In today’s economy, executives and employees consistently report being asked to do more with less, and overwork and stress are the natural result.

The question is: should it be that way? 

Groundbreaking Research on Stress

Research on emotional contagion has already established our tendency to pass on our emotional states to others. If we are feeling stressed or negative, we are likely to pass on those emotional states to those around us, especially if we are in a leadership role. Recent research from the Medical University of Vienna has taken this research on emotional contagion a step further. The researchers wanted to know if our emotional states can be transmitted through a smell, and if so, would the smell be enough to change other people’s perceptions of us?

They found that smell could in fact be an effective transmitter of emotional data. In a laboratory setting, respondents could tell a discernible difference between the smell of stress sweat and exercise sweat. Furthermore, they found that smelling the stress sweat changed people’s perceptions of others’ warmth and competence. In the study, participants who smelled stress sweat rated people as less trustworthy and less competent than controls who rated the same people but not while smelling stress sweat. In other words, people can literally smell stress, and it changes the way they think about and respond to you.

This brings up some tough questions about the costs of overwork and stress in the workplace. Maybe trying to do everything at once is not the best way to go. A calm, deliberate approach will keep you from accidentally sending off the wrong signals about yourself and your business. If I had put off some of the questions or tasks until after that yoga class, I would not have run the risk of coming off as cold or unapproachable. In a place where people come to feel comfortable, what could really be worse than that?

Here’s my challenge to myself and to you. Next time you feel overwhelmed and crunched for time, take a deep breath, focus on one thing and one thing only, and do it with a smile.

That’s what good employees do.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This