my coworker’s stress is stressing me out

A reader writes:

I’m “team leader” for a group of two (I’m one of the two). We hired the coworker who I lead about seven months ago. We generally each have our own projects to work on. The projects vary from very short-term to fairly long-term.

My coworker is extremely skilled at the job’s primary task and produces good work. However, our work can be fairly fast-paced and often necessarily involves being able to shift back and forth between projects. Our work also provides significant autonomy in structuring and scheduling one’s own work. My coworker really struggles with these aspects of the job, and I’m running out of ideas on how to deal with his struggle but also wondering if that is even something for me to try to fix.

The main way he’s shown that he is struggling is by literally saying, several times a week, one or more of the following: “I feel so overwhelmed”; “I find this job so stressful”; “Oh, god, I just got another X to work on!” (when X is a fairly routine, two-hour task); “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get Y done when I keep getting X’s!” (with Y being a major, longer-term project).

Just to clarify, this is a position that generally does not require more than a 40-hour work week. With the exception of peak periods, I generally work about 40­-44 hours a week. In the time he’s been here, my coworker has worked on one project that had two nonconsecutive weeks in which some overtime was required. Initially, he thought he might have to work more OT for that project than he actually ended up having to (about five hours total, for which he earned OT pay), and this very much worried him.

Things I’ve tried to help him get acclimated to the job and not feel so overwhelmed:

  • Basic training
    • Suggesting strategies for organizing files and emails (fairly good results)
    • Suggesting putting up a calendar and noting key deadline dates (fairly good results)
    • Showing the steps I follow in completing a particular type of project (okay results)
    • Sending him links to specific resources and suggesting that he bookmark the site or create a shortcut to the file (okay results)
    • Asking him to take notes when we discuss processes (okay results)
    • Providing process documentation (fairly good results)
  •  Listening sympathetically and acknowledging that certain projects and coworkers can be challenging (okay results; this sometimes just brings on more expressions of distress)
  • When he asks me if I find the job stressful, telling him that yes, I do, in A or B regard, but also emphasizing (truthfully) that I find the job fun, interesting, and challenging (not sure of results)
  • Making it clear that he should always feel free to use his personal time to take off time when he needs it and happily approving the time he does ask off for (produces comments from him that taking off time will prevent him getting work done)
  • Trying “tough love” in response to his balking at certain tasks that are well within the job’s scope and his stating that he’s really bad at these tasks (Me: “This is just part of the job. It’s not my favorite thing either, but it’s not unreasonable.”) (bad result, continued distress)
  • Ignoring his comments about stress and feeling overwhelmed (not sure of the results, but I haven’t tried this consistently)
  • Trying to bolster coworker’s confidence in his abilities to do this role by writing a glowing (and true!) end-of-probationary-period review highlighting the great work he’s produced in the short time he’s been here (seemingly no effect)
  • Talking to our boss on behalf of and in front of my coworker about extending the deadline for his primary long-term project. Boss was very receptive (and extended the deadline), knows that the workload is high with additional projects our department has taken on, and has already started the process to hire another person. (seemingly no effect on coworker’s stress)

So how to handle the constant kvetching? Try to consistently ignore it? Would it be inappropriate to just tell him he needs to stop expressing distress?

If you were just a peer, you’d have two basic options: Ignore it or say something. But as team lead, you have a higher obligation to speak up.

As a peer, you could try, “Bob, you’ve been pretty vocal about how stressed the job makes you, and so I’ve tried to find ways to help. At this point, I’m not sure what else to suggest, and I’m not sure how to respond when you talk about being so overwhelmed. To be honest, it’s making me stressed out, when I’m generally not. Can I ask you to rein it in, unless there’s something specific I can do to help?”

As a team leader, you can and probably should frame it as: “Part of this job is figuring out how to structure your work, shifting back and forth between projects, and rolling with the punches when things change. It sounds like you’re really struggling with these elements of the work. Are there specific things that would be helpful to you in navigating this?”  And depending on what the answer is to that, you might also ask, “Knowing that this is the reality of our work here, do you feel like this is the right job for you?”

If you were his manager, I’d advise you to have a serious conversation with him about expectations and fit. As team lead, you don’t have quite the same authority, but you can get close. And if that doesn’t work, your role probably means that you should be talking to your manager about what you’re seeing and putting it on her plate to talk to your coworker about — and not taking on quite so much emotional responsibility for “fixing” this.

And from there, I’d stick to the coworker script above — the one that says “hey, you’re transferring your stress to the rest of us.”

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