Fresh Look – supporting a stressed out co-worker

We know a lot about stress. We know its symptoms, causes, and social effects. However, when we have a colleague who is significantly affected by stress, it is not straightforward how to intervene. Here are some useful ideas:

1. Stress is contagious, so be aware that you can be sucked into a co-workers experience. One study shows that the mere presence of people experiencing stress can quickly spread to others around them, especially those who are not stressed out themselves.[1]

2. The causes of stress in another person are very difficult to diagnose.[2] A co-worker’s stress may be caused by something immediate or time-distant, something at work or something at home. Its triggers may be highly individualized. So, rather than play amateur psychologist, focus on the effects of a colleague’s stress rather than the causes.

3. Realize that high stress typically negatively affects one’s performance, and it also increases feelings of being alone and incompetent. Accordingly, it is useful to acknowledge your peer’s stress experience, praise that aspect of his work that is unchanged, and offer to help in a specific way.[3]

4. Stress makes people less capable of complex or abstract reasoning.[4] Keep communication with a stressed out colleague simple, concrete, and direct. Avoid complicated explanations and multi-step instructions.

You can’t always solve another’s stress problem, but you can protect yourself from its negative effects and offer support that may be beneficial to a stressed out colleague.

[1] H. Friedman & R. Riggio. 1981. Effect of individual differences in nonverbal expressiveness on transmission of emotion. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 6 (2): 96–104; S. Achor & M. Gielan, 2915. Make yourself immune to secondhand stress. 2015. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles. 9/2: 2-5.
[2] H. Pannu & M. Tikku. 2014. Outcomes of stress: A study of causes and remedial actions for reducing stress. International Journal of Research in Commerce & Management, 5 (9): 34-37.
[3] R. Knight. 2017. How to work with someone who’s always stressed out. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 8/17: 2-6.
[4] M. Driver & S. Streufert. 1969. Integrative complexity: An approach to individuals and groups as information-processing Systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 14 (2): 272-285.