By Rebecca Knight
This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review
We all know people who seem to be constantly stressed out — who claim to be buried in work, overloaded with projects, and without a minute to spare. Colleagues like that can be difficult to work with, but you probably don’t have a choice. How do you deal with coworkers who can’t handle stress? Should you address the issue directly? Or try other tactics to help them calm down and focus? And how can you protect yourself from their toxic emotions?
What the Experts Say
Stress is part of everyday life. “We all go through periods when we are dealing with a lot of stress,” says Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day. “Those periods might last 10 minutes, 10 days, or 10 months.” But for certain people, “stress is a habitual pattern.” These folks always “feel overwhelmed, constantly stretched, and always out of their depth.” Working closely with a person like this can be a real challenge. “But you mustn’t make them the villain,” says Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. “Don’t think, What can I do to change this person? Think about how to neutralize the situation and what you do for yourself.” Whether you regard your colleague with annoyance or sympathy, here are some tips on how to collaborate more effectively.
First things first: Check that you’re not being too judgmental. “There’s an enormous range in people’s tolerance level for stress, and stress that may feel toxic to you is stimulating to someone else,” Weeks explains. “So unless you’re a psychologist, judging someone’s way of handling stress as inappropriate is fraught.” Try to think of your colleague’s disposition “as not a character flaw but a characteristic.” Webb notes that your coworker may just be responding to the “always-on nature of work” nowadays. “There was a time when we could go home and forget about work until the next day,” but the modern era’s “pressure to stay connected” weighs on some more than others.
Acknowledge the stress
It’s important to make the stressed-out person feel “seen and heard,” Webb says. “Say something like, ‘I notice you were working late last night, and it wasn’t the first time. How are things going?’” Then, after your colleague recites the usual catalog of pressures, “say, ‘That must be hard.’ It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not. That’s how this person is feeling. Acknowledging it gives you both a chance to move beyond.” At the same time, Weeks says, you mustn’t “enable” or agitate your colleague by making comments like, “I don’t know how you can you stand it! This company is working you to death!” That’s not helpful. Instead, she says, say something more neutral: “You have a lot of balls in the air.”
One of the best ways to “get a stressed person out of fight-or-flight mode” is to “pay a compliment,” Webb says. “This person is feeling out of control, incompetent, and disrespected. A compliment is your easy way to help them get back to their better self,” she says. Praising someone’s performance in the workplace gives the person an alternative “self-image of being a competent, positive professional,” Weeks adds. Cite something specific. For instance, you could say, “The way you handled that presentation last week was admirable. You were so calm and collected and the clients were impressed.” Appreciation can be a powerful intervention. “When you tell people how you see them, they step into that role.”
Offer your assistance
Another strategy is to offer your support. “Say, ‘Is there anything that I, or anyone on my team, can do to help to you?’” Webb suggests. “Chances are that you can’t do anything,” but your offer will “give the other person a chance to think about solutions” and “feel that he’s not out on his own.” Be clear, however, that this isn’t “a blanket invitation” to be used anytime, anywhere,” Weeks says. “Give caveats about what you’re able to do,” she adds. The message should be, “I’m a limited resource, but I want to help you if you are in a pickle.”
Break down your requests
When dealing with stressed-out colleagues, you should think about ways to “reduce their cognitive load,” Webb says. “Don’t add to their sense of being overwhelmed.” You might, for instance, shorten your emails to the person, split your larger requests into several smaller steps, or encourage the idea of dividing work into manageable chunks. “Be smart about how you break down your ask,” she adds. But don’t go too far. You’ll have to “reconcile” your colleague’s deficiencies with your own desire and need to complete tasks. After all, “your job is to get done what you need to get done.”
Ask for a read
If your coworkers’ anxieties seem to be having an impact on their ability to focus — and you’re genuinely worried about their health — Weeks recommends asking them to provide more detail. “Say, ‘On a scale of one to 10, how worried should I be about your level of stress?’ Signal that you can’t read how bad it is for them.” The answers may surprise you. “They may tell you, ‘Oh, this is a five,’ in which case you don’t need to call an ambulance. Or they may reveal that their wife has cancer and they’re going through something very hard.” To a large degree, the roots of the tension “are none of your business.”
Get some distance
Stress can be contagious, so “have the self-awareness to know the effect it’s having on you,” Webb says. “When someone is toxic and draining your energy, you sometimes have to figure out how you can get distance from that person or limit your interactions with them.” Of course, this isn’t always easy — particularly if you work in the same department and are assigned to the same projects. In that case, Weeks recommends, look at the bright side of the situation. “When it comes to office characters, the laconic, laid-back, doesn’t-carry-their-weight type is the person who’s going to leave you in a jam,” she explains. “While you may not prefer the stress case’s temperament, it’s less of a problem.”
Principles to Remember
- Offer support by asking if there’s anything you can do to help. This will help your stressed-out colleague feel less alone.
- Improve your colleague’s self-image by offering praise.
- Think about ways to reduce the person’s cognitive load by, for instance, breaking work up into more-manageable chunks.
- Judge. Your colleague may express stress differently than you, but that’s not necessarily a character flaw.
- Enable the person. Simply acknowledge the stress, then try to help your colleague move beyond it.
- Get sucked in. Figure out ways to get distance from your colleague.
Case Study #1: Offer your help and perspective
Karoli Hindriks, founder and CEO of Jobbatical, the international job placement firm, previously worked at a company where she supervised a highly anxious marketing executive. The colleague — we’ll call her Jenny — “was so overwhelmed and stressed out by her work that her overall performance was really beginning to suffer,” recalls Karoli.“Everyone could see how hard she was working. But I also saw the dark circles under her eyes, her jumpy mood, and her irritability.”
Karoli knew that it wasn’t her place to judge; Jenny just seemed to be wired that way. Instead, she offered support and talked about the work that Jenny had to do in terms of small steps, rather than a single large, daunting task. “I asked her to imagine a messy room that she needed to clean up. I told her to think of stepping into that room and seeing the clothes scattered all over the floor, the mountain of candy wrappers under the bed, and the layer of dust covering every surface.”
“I told her she had two options: You can give up, fall apart, and surrender to the mess, or you can pick up the first pair of socks you see and feel good about being one step closer to cleaning up that mess. Step by step, inch by inch, item by item, you will create order.”
Karoli says that message got through to Jenny. “I started to see her sharing more of her small victories and how happy that was making her,” she says. “Her performance improved drastically, and her team members felt comfortable communicating with her again.”
Case Study #2: Be empathetic and praise your stressed-out colleague’s strengths
Earlier in her career, Jan Bruce worked as a publisher and editor at a consumer health and wellness magazine. “It was a high-stress environment in a pressure-cooker industry,” she recalls. “There were a lot of big personalities strutting around the office. The culture was toxic, and people were inclined to be disparaging.”
One of her closest colleagues — we’ll call her Abby — became consumed by the strain of her job. “She had been very successful in the organization and had gotten many promotions, so she was under extreme pressure,” Jan explains. At a certain point, she started “working so hard that she was unable to focus. The stress was making her sick.”
Jan remembers approaching Abby with a “spirit of empathy” and concern. “I said, ‘I know that you’re under a lot of pressure. How are you coping?’ which made Abby want to talk to me and confide in me.”
Through subsequent conversations, Jan saw that Abby was determined “to achieve and be successful,” but she also “needed to give herself a break” and let some of the stress go. “She had an attitude of, ‘I will overcome this. If I just work longer and harder, everything will be okay.’”
Jan responded by complimenting her skills and abilities. “I said, ‘You are doing all of this great work, and you’ve been put in charge of a whole new division, plus you have four small children at home. No matter what you’re feeling today, you are enormously smart and competent. You have to remember that. If you ever forget, I’m here to remind you.’”
Abby appreciated the support, and the two ultimately developed a strong working relationship.
Today Jan is the cofounder and CEO of meQuilibrium, a software platform that helps companies and workers better manage their productivity, health, and well-being.