Helping a Coworker Who’s Stressed Out

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Stress in the workplace is a significant issue for at least a quarter of the working population in the United States. Alarmingly, that percentage doubles to almost 50% for those in office jobs. Statistically, that means that one of the coworkers sitting beside you is likely experiencing a substantial amount of stress. At some point, it’s sure to affect you, either directly or indirectly. So, what should you do?

Ignoring your coworker’s stress is an option, but it’s probably not a good one. If you’re up for it, there are several ways you can take a more active role in helping your coworker manage stress.

A note of caution first: although stress isn’t contagious in the traditional sense, it can spread. That’s because your brain is wired to pick up on the emotional states of those around you. For example, sitting across from an anxious person will tend to make you

how your brain works. Before getting too close, remind yourself that the stress isn’t yours. Acknowledging this will help protect you from mirroring the other person’s stress.

With that said, there are three ways you can help a stressed out coworker:

1. Reduce isolation by listening and being empathetic. In other words, try some good old-fashioned kindness. When talking with a person under duress, adopt a calm and reassuring demeanor and focus on listening and validating that person’s experience. First, just let her know that you’re noticing the state she’s in. “I’m hearing a lot of big sighs from over there. What’s up? Can I help?” For some people, just being made aware of their emotional state will be enough to help them get re-centered. If they admit that they are overwhelmed, worried, or stuck, start by just repeating what you’ve heard. “I get where you’re coming from. You have a lot on your plate right now.” The object is not to agree or to justify the stress, it’s simply to make the other person feel heard and understood. Without that step, any attempts to help reduce the stress might feel judgmental or condescending.

2. Find the root cause of the problem. Once you understand the source of the stress, act as a sounding board or a coach to help your coworker get at the reasons behind it. Obviously, the exact nature of help needed depends on what’s causing the stress, but I will address three common stressors: too much to do; uncertainty about how to succeed; and interpersonal conflict. Once you’ve uncovered the cause, you can suggest practical ways to work through it.

3. Suggest tactics for minimizing the impact of the stressor.

Too much to do. If your coworker is overwhelmed by workload, help him talk through priorities and get clarity on one or two tasks. Start with “OK, you certainly have a lot going on. What are some of the most pressing things you have to do?” Then help select which one to do first by asking a couple of good questions: “When are they due?” “Which ones could someone help with?” “What’s the most logical one to tackle first?” After your coworker has chosen the first task, help get traction by talking it out. “How are you going to approach this?” Grab a note pad and jot down the steps so that they feel tangible. That alone will likely be enough to get your coworker unstuck and back on track.

Uncertainty about how to succeed. For the person who lacks confidence, talk him through the task and what it will take to complete it successfully. Reinforce the good ideas and help him think through other strategies for the parts that are more difficult. “Who might know more about this?” “What other project have we done that were similar?” Again, the goal is to get your coworker to a list of concrete steps.

Further Reading

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