By Robin Brinkworth - Everyone, at some point in their career, will find themselves working alongside someone who they might find challenging to work with, whether they make an existing situation more difficult, or create difficulty themselves. These situations can be difficult, stress-inducing, and hard to handle.
If a colleague is particularly difficult, the obvious response is to go and talk to your line manager or HR department about it. However, not everyone has that option, as the appropriate channels might not be available, or you may think that the issue doesn’t require that level of attention.
The other common response is to assume the stress is normal, to accept it, and simply try and bear with it. You wouldn’t advise your best friend to do it, so why would you do it yourself? There are various ways to deal with the root cause, and if that isn’t possible, then there are also strategies you can adopt to at least lower your day-to-day stress. As Professor Cary Cooper, occupational health expert at the University of Lancaster told the NHS: “There is always a solution to the problem. Not taking control of the situation and doing nothing will only make your problems worse.”
A key take-away here is that stress is a burden in and of itself. By addressing the cause or adapting around it, you make your life easier both in the present and the future. By reducing your work-related stress, you can improve your ability to handle unexpected difficulties down the road, such as ill health or a death of a loved one. The other significant benefit is to your immediate health. The relationship between stress and poor health is well-known, and you owe it to yourself to look after your body and mind.
So, how can you resolve difficult situations involving tricky colleagues?
1. Figure out why a colleague causes you stress
The first step is to figure out why you associate stress with a particular colleague. Is it down to the colleague’s personality? Is it due to a work project that you don’t enjoy that he or she has also been assigned to? Is it due to differing expectations?
Stress can come from a variety of sources that have nothing to do with a colleague, but it can be easy to associate that stress with a colleague close to the source. Your manager or boss may have asked something of you that affects your work with another colleague: clear communication, shared expectations, and an understanding of each other’s workflow could ease any tension.
Control is another factor, as Professor Cooper pointed out, and others agree. Dasha Amrom said to The Guardian: “A common cause of stress is the feeling that things are slipping out of your control. A key piece of advice I would give to avoid unnecessary stress is to plan ahead and prioritise… …Schedule regular meetings with managers and colleagues to update them on progress and alert them in case of unexpected setbacks.”
2. Address your reaction
A colleague may be causing stress for you, but he or she may not be doing anything wrong. Just because there is stress, doesn’t necessarily mean there is blame. As such, it may be worth investigating why that person’s actions cause you stress. Are they unconsciously reminding you of something emotionally difficult? Perhaps you have trouble processing certain workplace interactions or happenings.
While the main culprits of workplace stress are larger issues such as poor management, excessive work, and a lack of support, it is worth taking the time to identify if the problem is something you can address on your own before taking it to someone else at your workplace, whether that be your manager or a friendly colleague. It may be an issue best solved with a professional therapist entirely outside of work, or appropriate online resources – that is up to you to decide.
3. Talk to them
This seems a little obvious, but given that people are typically hired for their skills and not their personalities, working in the same environment doesn’t ensure that you are of similar natures. Often workplace stress is because of a conflict of personalities. In their guide for psychiatrists dealing with difficult colleagues, the Royal College of Psychiatrists acknowledges numerous possible causes for interpersonal conflict: emotions, rivalries, defence mechanisms, peer relationships, and organisational structure.
Understanding where they are coming from, their expectations, their ambitions and their motivation will give you more of a chance of overcoming a personal rift. It may not be to the extent of becoming friends with someone, but it may allow you to adapt your interaction with them to make it more positive and less confrontational.
4. Don’t talk to them
The previous point was about having positive engagements, but that isn’t always possible. It is up to you to decide whether you want to take on the mental load of understanding someone in order to lessen the stress they might cause you. You might decide that is less stressful to not take that on, and choose to avoid that colleague as and when you can.
Lots of us now work in open-plan offices, where it can be hard to manage such a colleague. Moving desks or working more frequently in your office’s quiet room may help. Other work environments may be more or less conducive, but you will know your best option. The caveat to this entire strategy is that while you may find that avoiding someone is less stressful than working to understand them, you will still be spending mental energy on the issue.
5. Ask for help
Colleagues being a source of stress is not a new workplace phenomenon. Older and younger colleagues may have dealt with similar issues before. Finding a sympathetic ear can be incredibly helpful in reducing stress, as it gives you an emotional outlet as well as added resources in finding a strategy that resolves the situation.
For many experts, communication is the key to resolving stress at work. Of the six experts who spoke to The Guardian on workplace stress, all six of them highlighted communication as the chief means of stress-reduction. As Lydia Fairman, an HR specialist, puts it: “Communication is crucial, so the most important thing you must do is accept you’re suffering from work related stress and make sure your manager knows.”
Workplaces can be frenetic, confusing places, and we spent huge amounts of time in them, impacting the rest of our lives outside of work. As often as work bleeds into our home lives, so does stress. Hopefully these strategies can give you a sense of what the problem is, what you can address, and who you can address it with, so that your stress burden does not become overwhelming.
Robin Brinkworth is a guest-blogger for Minddistrict and is web-editor for The Student View