Earlier this month HBR.org posted an article entitled Helping a Coworker Who’s Stressed Out. I printed it out (cause I’m old school like that) and ended up highlighting and making notes in almost every paragraph. THANK YOU Liane Davey for writing practical advice for something we all deal with each day! In today’s post I’m going to add my thoughts to some of her key points, but I encourage you to read her full article – it is worth your time.
According to Davey’s post, stress in the workplace is a “significant issue” for almost 50% of people in office jobs. And the truth of the matter is, no matter how many yoga classes you take or how carefully you plan your relaxing morning commute, stress can be contagious. If the person sitting next to you is seconds away from having a breakdown, there is a good chance that some of that will affect you. Why? Davey explains that our brains are essentially wired to pick up on the emotional states of those around us. Being cognizant of which stress is “yours” and which stress might be coming from others can be very useful.
Davey recommends a three-step approach for helping a stressed out coworker, and then three steps for addressing that person’s specific stressor. Let’s start with her approach:
- Reduce isolation by listening and being empathetic. Ask your coworker how things are going and then listen to their answer! This sounds so obvious, but Davey makes a great point that if you don’t start here, all of your other efforts will come across as judgmental or condescending. The conversation will start to help your coworker right away. First, it will help them to voice their concerns out loud to someone who cares about them – that active listening will help them to feel more cared for and supported. Second, they will become more aware of their own emotional state. They might not have realized the stressed vibes they were giving off and just having a conversation might spur them to take action, calm down, and develop a plan.
- Help your coworker to identify the root cause of the stress. Just saying, “I’m stressed about this project” is not enough. What is it about the project that is stressful? Do you have to complete too much work too quickly? Are you unsure of how to successfully complete the project? Or is there an interpersonal conflict between teammates? There could be other stressors, but as you can see, each root cause requires a very different solution.
- Suggest tactics for minimizing the impact of the stressor (I’d call this “make a plan”). Davey recommends a three step process for making a plan: help your coworker frame the situation more constructively; break it into manageable chunks; and then visualize next steps. I love everything about this approach. I don’t know about you, but if one more person suggests meditation as a one-size-fits-all solution to all forms of workplace stress, I might have to punch them right off of their floor cushion. Mindful practices are great, but if a project is stressing you out then you need to figure out what is causing that stress and then make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the stress will keep coming back again and again.
Davey then takes us through some possible tactics for addressing common root stressors.
Too much to do. I have found that when I lead teams of people who have multiple projects on their plate, this is a common issue that we have to manage. First, I start by asking for a quick run down of everything on their plate. This accomplishes two things – it forces the other person to be organized enough to know everything on their place, and it gives me a chance to identify specific areas where I might be able to help. Then comes the magic word – Prioritize. Make a list, people! You can only work on one thing at a time. That means you have to know what that one thing should be. You can also only delegate tasks that you identify in advance. Where can someone help you out? So often, just the process of cleaning up your to-do list, prioritizing top tasks, and figuring out where you can get help, will lift a lot of weight from your coworker’s shoulders.
Uncertainty about how to succeed. This is usually my #1 stressor, and I’ve noticed it in a few of my colleagues as well. I know how to organize and prioritize, but if I can’t figure out how to make a boss, client, or other person of authority happy I will pretty much make myself sick. When helping a coworker with this issue, Davey recommends encouraging them to think back to past projects that were similar, if not exactly the same, then outlining the steps required to complete the project. She also recommends making a list of people who might have experience or expertise that would help. I like both approaches because they are concrete, they use the resources that you already have, and they encourage you to get help in advance, rather than charging ahead and making yourself more of a stress ball.
Interpersonal conflict. For many people this is the toughest stressor because it is the one you may have the least control over. Davey reminds us to keep some distance from the issue. Your goal is to help your coworker to reframe the situation so that it isn’t as stressful and to identify the next steps, if necessary. I like that she points out that too often we take things personally when they are not, and an independent third party can help us to clarify those situations.
Above all, actively listening to your stressed out coworker goes a long way. As does grabbing them a snack when you make the afternoon Starbucks run. And sending them a funny video at the end of the day. We are all in it together. By helping a coworker with his or her stress, you will be helping to improve your own life as well.