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How to spot a stressed colleague; and what to do about it

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Stress is a big problem in business. In the USA alone, $300bn is lost each year due to stress-related absence. And for an individual, stress can cause long-lasting psychological problems that are difficult to recover from.

Stress can be caused by many things, but the underlying factor of stress is uncertainty. Work-related stress can be caused by our perception of a lack of control, increased responsibilities, and a lack of support.

Being under stress for too long isn’t good for us. Constant stress can make us more likely to get sick more often. It can make any underlying pain feel worse and it can also lead to prolonged health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, back problems, and depression.

When we recognize stress in ourselves, we can do something about it. Awareness and acceptance of it is an important place to start. But what if we suspect a colleague is suffering from stress?

Sometimes it can be easy to spot stress in a colleague; they might be exhibiting one of the following:

  • Nervousness and shaking
  • Clenched jaw
  • Changes in appetite — either not eating or eating too much
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
  • Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
  • Constant worrying
  • Forgetfulness and disorganization
  • Inability to focus
  • Poor judgment
  • Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
  • Short temper

We might not be physically close enough to a colleague to identify these behaviors, e.g. If your colleague is a remote worker. What are the signs then?

There are other markers that indicate stress-levels that you can look for.

  1. Avoidance of meetings. Stressed people often miss meetings, especially if they are required to provide a status update. This is avoidance. A stressed person is often not in the frame of mind to articulate their problems well. Self-applied pressure can become so great that an open discussion is perceived as disclosing failure.
  2. Diverted conversation. Stressed people can often steer conversation away from their stressors onto something more positive, in the attempt to provide good news and create the perception that all is ok. When pressed on a stressor, they may use excuses to shift blame. Again, this is avoidance.
  3. Time spent on menial activities. Stressful people can shift their focus onto menial tasks to avoid the activities that are causing them pain. You might be questioning why they’re doing something of insignificant importance, right at the time they should be tackling a big problem head on.
  4. Incommunicado. Stressed people will avoid contact. They might be avoiding answering your calls or emails.
  5. You will be told what is being done rather than what has been done. Stressed people will tell you about what will happen instead of sharing fact-based reports on what has been achieved.

Signals 1-4 have a common factor: avoidance. When we are under stress, talking and even thinking about the current state is painful, and adds to our misery. Stressed people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid this pain, and may bluff their way through the day, just to escape at the end of it. They will cherry-pick the tasks that are easier to complete but lack material substance.

Signal 5 occurs because stressful people perceive stagnation and a lack of progress, and feel a profound sense of failure. Painful failure. So conversation focuses on the future, rather than facing up to reality.

What can you do to help a stressed colleague?

Stressed people can lack a sense of perspective and are not often grounded in reality. It is a very painful place to be. So it’s important to remember that your colleague will be feeling very vulnerable. A direct approach is rarely constructive – so don’t begin by telling them to Do This and Do That. Show empathy and patience.

Before doing any of the following, ask your colleague if they would like your help and support, and get their permission to provide assistance.

Stressed people can lack a sense of perspective against what is important and what is urgent. They will tend to fight on many fronts but win no battles. My suggestion is to work with your colleague to create a short to-do list and identify what important tasks need doing urgently and what can wait, and then rank them. It doesn’t matter, so much, if there is a science to this process – it’s important to get your colleague to understand there is a way forward and that it can be achieved. Then encourage them to pick off tasks from the top of the list, and focus on just one with no distractions. Help them get traction! What will follow is a sense of achievement and opportunities to report on progress.

You could suggest to your colleague that they represent this list in a form of ‘burn-down’ chart – a visual tool to track and monitor progress as the to-do list reduces. (These are used in Agile Software development, but in my experience of coaching people through stress, they work very well.)

burndownAgain, nothing too fancy. They may be surprised to see how a one-page visual can help them regain perspective.

I don’t advise taking on a critical task by allowing your colleague to abdicate it to you. If you just take the task away then you risk damaging your colleagues self-esteem even further. They should delegate a task to you, instead. The difference is that your colleague maintains overall accountability for the task but you take on responsibility for completing it. This will help your colleague see progress by your assistance, within their own control.

Most of all, be there for your colleague when you’re needed, and give them space when that’s needed too. Put your arm around them – physically or figuratively (you will know what is appropriate) and help them see a way through the fog of doubt.

Are you stressed, or have a colleague that is?

Please share your story and how stress affects you by leaving a comment below. Or contact me privately if you require special assistance in getting through a stressful period at work.

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About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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