Stress-How to Cope with it...

Stress! It’s become a constant in our lives in the last ten months. Speaking for myself, how I’ve handled it has not always been as constructive as I’ve wanted it to be. I thought, therefore, that it would be helpful to review some basic suggestions for handling stress on the job.

Where Does Stress Come From?

Two reminders: first, stress comes in two flavors. There is “good” stress that helps us focus and motivates us to achieve. But there is also negative stress that is usually caused by issues over which we feel out of control. Much of this “bad” stress can be bled off with positive lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, a good diet, good sleep habits, and supportive relationships. To the extent that these positive lifestyle habits are either missing or inconsistently used, stress can build up and lead to unproductive behavior.

Second reminder: we may be aware of our own internal stress, but we often don’t know how much stress a coworker is feeling. Aside from the stress of working remotely, assignments and deadlines that crop up in the normal course of the day, there is a long list of sources of stress that occur outside of work, such as marital problems, kid problems, health problems, financial problems, and on and on. There truly is no limit to potential sources of stress.

No matter whether it is “good” stress or “bad” stress, or whether it is job-related or comes about because of a person’s private situation, most people make at least some effort to avoid bringing their problems to work. Our society generally places value on being able to “cope” – to avoid loading up the people around us with a litany of our troubles or complaints – and that often leads to a person’s keeping his stress bottled up for too long. It’s useful to remember, therefore, that just because you are unaware of a coworker’s difficulties doesn’t mean he’s not feeling any. In fact, the first clue that a coworker is coping with extraordinary stress may be his inappropriate emotional reaction to circumstances that don’t seem warrant such a strong reaction.

Now, here is why it matters that we each bear in mind that everyone around us has unknown stress to deal with: the kinds of emotional displays that seems inappropriate and unwarranted will be different from one another but they all have one characteristic in common: they will all appear to be aimed right at you! And being the recipient of a big emotional event that seems to have come out of left field – with no warning! – is not a comfortable place to be.

Four Kinds of Stress-Related Behavior

Let’s take a look at four kinds of emotion-driven behavior that, when they appear suddenly and out of context, are often signs that the other person is trying, probably less successfully than he wishes or believes, to deal with some sort of stress. Beyond that, I’ll talk about some constructive actions you can take that might help de-fuse these situations.

1. Stubborn/Argumentative (“I’m not having a good day, so I’m going to make sure you don’t, either.”) Some people react to the build-up of internal stress by becoming argumentative or stubbornly resistant; they often justify it by saying that they are taking a devil’s advocate position, but if most of their comments are negative, focused on what is wrong, and do not seem to move the discussion toward a solution, then their actions are more oppositional than helpful.

How to handle stubbornness and argumentativeness: you just can’t win the argument, so the best thing to do is not to engage with it. Listen and do not react to the negative comments, and continue to re-focus on what can be done rather than on what cannot. Have a private word with this person, thank them for the different point of view, and then ask them to express themselves in a more positive way.

2. Passive Aggressive (“I can’t/won’t/don’t want to confront you directly, so I’ll just drag my feet.”) Psychologists define passive aggressive behavior as resistance and sometimes outright sabotaging disguised as honest effort. This person brings up issues that are seemingly innocent, accidental or neutral, but that indirectly display an aggressive motive. Some examples of passive aggressive behavior on the job are taking longer than necessary to complete tasks, doing sloppy or incomplete work, or intentionally “misunderstanding” instructions, directions or procedures so as to slow work down without appearing to do so.

How to handle passive aggression: Confronting this person is usually not very effective; remember, it’s passive aggression. It’s more effective to speak privately with the person and point out that you sense a lack of cooperation. Ask if there is something you have done that has offended the person; if there is, and he admits it, deal with it honestly. If, on the other hand (and more likely), the person offers a vague complaint about “stress” that is leading to the behavior you describe, sympathize but ask the person to find a more constructive outlet. Explain how the passive aggressive behavior is interfering with legitimate goals that are just as important to this person as to you. Be part of the person’s solution, not part of the problem.

3. Sarcastism (Here’s a ‘gotcha’ that I’ve disguised as a witty comment: “What, me attack you? Never.”) Sarcasm, best described as thinly veiled verbal aggression, can be one way a person takes out his stress on others. A sudden increase in sarcastic comments from a coworker who isn’t usually sarcastic may be a sign of building stress.

How to handle sarcasm: At the first opportunity, speak to the person privately. Calmly point out that you aren’t used to hearing sarcasm from this person and wonder if there is something else going on. If there are issues between the two of you, deal with them. If there are not, explain to the person how sarcasm feels to the recipient (like an attack) and point out that you don’t have time to defend yourself against attacks. Re-focus on the issues that need to be solved, offer sympathy but not a “free pass” for inappropriate behavior.

4. Temper Outbursts (“I can’t put up with this anymore!”) The most visible sign of pent-up stress, a temper outburst can be accompanied by emotional accusations aimed at the person who triggered the outburst, and at others. The temper outburst itself may take many forms, from tears to slammed doors, papers, etc., to loud and even abusive language.

The most important thing to do first is not to react in such a way that escalates the outburst. Tempers are out of control, emotions are running high, and the person isn’t thinking clearly. Don’t join him in not thinking clearly! If this occurs in a group or meeting, call for a break and get the person alone. Talk calmly, modeling the calm you want the other person to display.

Here’s the Bottom Line

If you are on the receiving end of any of these types of emotional displays, the thing to remember is that the display isn’t about you, no matter what it looks like. It is about the person who feels the stress. So, the first thing to do is to calm the person down. Do this by saying something like, “I understand you are really upset by this. Let’s talk about it. What do you see as the source of the problem? What could be done about that?”

And on the Other Hand…

If you are the one who is upset, try to get to the bottom of your stressful reaction. Is it really work related or is the offending work situation only “the last straw?” If so, what was the first straw? If it was something at work, separate that issue from how you are feeling at the moment and try to deal with the issue first. Taking your frustration out on a coworker who had little or nothing to do with it in the first place is not only unproductive (it doesn’t address the core issue), it is unfair to the unfortunate person who is in your “blast area.”