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.”

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    I also think that venting’s tricky–if it becomes a habit, it can reinforce a mindset rather than relieving it. I don’t know if the OP can pull this off without it sounding like a poorly disguised “Shut up,” but I think it’s legitimate to note that continually saying how stressed you are is going to make you more stressed, not less.

    1. Hummingbird*

      Truth. Right now, I’m feeling quite overwhelmed in my work life, and while I do vent about it verbally, I feel it is not at all lessening, which makes me want to complain more. It’s a vicious cycle. In my mind, I want to keep complaining about it until someone comes up with the magic recipe on how to make it go away, but instead, for some people, it has fallen on deaf ears. Realizing this, I do try to change up strategies on how to approach certain things, but on the other hand, some of my stress comes from things out of my control. Yes, I can change my reaction to those outside influences, but at the same time, there’s only so much I can do. Long story. Not going to stress myself out again by writing it, but I do want to say you have a very good comment here. Like I said it’s a vicious cycle.

    2. Jennifer L*

      Yeah, I think a better thing to try saying is a simple question.

      It’ll put the focus on him to fix his problems, not you. Try asking, “Bob, how can I help you reduce stress?”

      Because if he doesn’t have an appropriate answer, it means you can’t help him, and he’s going to have to think of how to help himself. Which of course, he should have been doing all along.

      1. EvaR*

        It could be that bob’s stress reaction is just to whine a lot, but do it anyway. I am like this. When something bad or stressful happens, I just need to “get it out.” and unfortunately, many other things I know of that would help, like singing along to loud music, are not acceptable behavior inside the office.

        Some people dislike this trait, but others seem fine with it. I try to make it clear that I just generally talk to myself a lot, whether the situation is good or bad, so people know that I don’t expect them to do anything. Everyone has traits other people dislike, I guess.

        Point is, it’s possible that you’re trying to “fix” the problem when nothing’s broken, and Bob just needs you to ignore him and let him whine a bit if it helps him deal. Has he ever been on a two person team? Because to be honest, that sounds like a ton of pressure and if you guys mostly work with each other and he’s used to being on a team with, say, twenty people, he may not realize that it comes off differently when you’re working mostly with your direct supervisor on a project all day.

    3. Annie O*

      I agree completely, fposte.

      I’ve found that too much venting creates or perpetuates stress. On the other hand, venting can also alleviate some frustration – at least in the short-term. And sometimes I do find solutions to problems just by talking about the issue with someone else.

      So I guess the key here is balance. Some venting can be good, too much can be very bad.

    4. Brigitte*

      This is such a great point. I’m in a certification program (not work related), and recently our teacher addressed growing comments about stress and the amount of homework in what I found to be an incredibly productive way.

      She simply asked us to take note of how much time we spent worrying about the homework as opposed to doing the work.

      For the short, two-hour projects, I think something similar could be very useful.

      “It feels as though you’re spending more time stressing about this task than it would actually take to get it done — try and catch this and see if it relieves your stress” might put this behavior into perspective.

  2. Victoria Nonprofit*

    Tiny, tiny nitpick: You say in two consecutive sentences that this job doesn’t require more than 40 hours a week, and that you typically work up to 10% more than 40 hours a week (plus more during peak periods).

    Is it possible that part of the problem is that this job is framed, talked about, and sold to new employees as being 40 hours a week when it’s clearly not?

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I was thinking this too. Is a new person expected to work as fast and efficiently as a veteran employee? Is he new to this line of work? If so, seven months isn’t enough time to work on a veteran’s level.

      1. OP*

        AndersonDarling, my coworker is not new to this line of work and probably has twice the years of my experience in the main aspect of the work. I think what’s causing the stress is the level of autonomy and the pace at our workplace. As far as workload, no, my coworker does not have the same number of projects going that I do, although the major long-term project he’s working on is very complex. I actually started the work on that project, several months before my coworker got here, with about the same level of knowledge about it that he had taking it over. (And I’ve also been contributing to the project during the time he’s been here.)

    2. Lizzie*

      I don’t really see a discrepancy. It sounds like his job doesn’t generally require more than 40 hours per week, though she usually works 40-44 hours per week. She says that in the last 7 months, he’s been required to put in OT during two non-consecutive weeks. That’s hardly a taxing enough schedule to explain his stress levels.

      1. Bryan*

        It doesn’t sound like the situation here buy maybe the employer doesn’t want to pay overtime and he has a little more than 40 hours a week worth of work.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        One thing I’m already noticing in the comments here is the idea that someone shouldn’t be this stressed in such a situation, or the work hours aren’t enough to warrant this level of stress, etc.

        If I can offer this – those kinds of comments don’t really help the situation for someone suffering from stress. It’s sort of like spicy food – if you have a high tolerance then you might think something isn’t spicy and those who do are just weird. But the fact is – some people find it spicy and some don’t.

        Some people get stressed out over things that other people don’t even bat an eye at. It’s not a reflection of character or strength – it’s just how his mind and body respond to those particular stimuli. If you start from a point of recognizing that that’s a reasonable response – TO HIM – then it’s easier to help him with it.

        I was suffering from anxiety a few years ago and it took me a while to get my head around that. I kept telling myself I shouldn’t feel a certain way. My therapist had to teach me that it’s ok to feel that way, it’s what I do with it that matters.

        So it might very well be that this isn’t the right job for him or he needs to work with a therapist or something to learn to modify his stress responses.

        Anyway, carry on.

        1. Joey*

          The concern isn’t necessarily the stress-we all have stress. It’s that he’s showing difficulty dealing with it which is a long term concern.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Right, but I’m talking about the folks saying this like “XX shouldn’t make someone that stressed out.” Well, it does. You can address the behavior separately. But it bugs me when people think that just because something doesn’t stress them out then other people shouldn’t be stressed. That’s not helpful.

            1. Jamie*

              I agree that what causes stress is individual.

              But if I wrote in that I had a stressed out report and I’m only asking her to work 60 hours a week and she does get a weekend a month where she doesn’t have to come in – and she’s not really up to the job, but I still need her to do it…but definitely don’t have time to train her…yikes.

              People would rightfully be pointing out that of course shes’ stressed, that’s completely unreasonable and the default in that instance would be stress and eventually burn out.

              But I think it’s perfectly reasonable to factor in a 40 hour work week and paid OT twice (not consecutive) in 7 months isn’t an obvious source of workplace induced stress. Not to say there couldn’t be others, but it’s logical when discussing this to try to rule out that which isn’t typically stressful.

              IOW anyone would get stressed in my first hyperbolic scenario. The stress is inherent.

              But if someone were stressed out by a 40 hour week with 2 weeks paid OT over 7 months, reasonable workload, and manageable deadlines? Then that person either has something else going on or issues which will be a problem in any full time job.

              If one is stressed over basic requirements in most full time jobs that’s not something a lead or even manager can accommodate. So I think the conversation about whether the demands were such that they are inherently stressful was important.

              1. Anon For This*

                They are inherently stressful for some people, though. I thrive in a role not unlike that one, but some people find constant task switching and re-prioritization inherently stressful.

                Such a person may not be right in this role, but would do fine in other full-time jobs.

                Or they might do fine if a structure that made task-switching less common were added. Sometimes, having two set email periods a day – and NO task switching unless a critical item comes up, in which case someone calls or walks over and delivers it – can help quite a bit.

                1. Brigitte*

                  This makes me wonder if the OP might suggest that her team member batch projects, because switching is incredibly hard for some people.

                  Would it be possible, for example, to set aside Thursdays for that two-hour task that always seems to interrupt longer-term project work?

                  I’m in a field that involves a lot of task switching (PR), and it really helps me to be able to hold specific times for different types of activities. For instance, my small boutique has marketing Mondays which is about our firm’s marketing and product development. Thursdays are our preferred days to work on new business. Etc.

              2. OP*

                Thanks, Jamie. What you said is what I was trying to communicate by providing the number of work hours and OT information.

              3. In progress*

                I think I’ve mentioned that I have chronic conditions, so I get stressed and exhausted very fast. That is where my mind went when reading this. Of course, I still try and avoid complaining. This protects me from being seen as incompetent, and protects them from being upset over it.

                Anyway I see the solution as not approaching it like “well you SHOULDN’T be stressed by this”, but talking about how his attitude and what he would like changed to reduce stress.

        2. Jillociraptor*

          This is really important. Thanks for saying it. It sounds like the OP is pretty sensitive to her direct report’s feelings, but I think it can really add to the stress when it’s just assumed that working the way that you work best is either the wrong way to work, or even a personal character flaw. It’s a totally value neutral thing that this guy might not be a great fit for the way this role operates, even if he’s great at the substance.

          1. OP*

            Jillociraptor, I really need to do a better job of remembering this. My kneejerk mental reaction is always, “Aaaaghh, this should not be stressful!” or “suck it up.” Neither of which is really productive.

            1. Ruffingit*

              For what it’s worth, that is generally my reaction as well. Quit or quit your bitching. Those are my immediate reactions to continual complaining about such things. I’m all for venting, I think it’s helpful. But there is a point where it’s not and it has to stop.

        3. LBK*

          But ultimately the goal should be to not have that stress response, right? If he works with a therapist the end result would hopefully be to either no longer be stressed out by those situations or to find a way to manage your job around the stress they cause. Continue to be stressed out constantly and to voice it all the time is not an acceptable way to do your job.

          IOW, it’s okay for him to get stressed out if he hasn’t figured out a method to not be stressed out, but it’s not okay to just permanently be stressed out. It should go away at some point, or at least stop being bad enough that he has to state how stressed he is every day.

          1. Katie the Fed*

            Right. I get that, I really do. My point in this particular comment is that there’s not really a good way to judge objectively how much something should be stressing someone out. So when you’re finding yourself thinking X situation shouldn’t merit Y stress level, that’s not helpful to anyone. Because if you’re starting from a position of “you shouldn’t be this stressed” then you’re already discounting feelings that to them are very legitimate. If you want to help someone learn to manage stress, you first need to accept that their feelings are real and legitimate to them.

            The end goal is to modify the response and the manifestation of the stress in a way that’s production or at the very least not disruptive. Of course that’s the goal. But you can’t start from a point of thinking the feelings aren’t valid.

        4. The Other Dawn*

          “So it might very well be that this isn’t the right job for him”

          This is what I’m thinking. Some people just can’t work in a fast-paced environment where things are always changing. They want something that’s routine, things stay the same, or want a slower pace. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I feel this siutation is about fit.

          1. Kelly O*

            And if it’s not, that just adds to the stress level.

            Because then you start worrying about finding the right job, and will you get let go from your current job because it’s not really the right fit, and the next thing you know you’re living in a box under the bridge selling your hair like Fantine in Les Mis.

            I mean, just offering the viewpoint. It’s easy to say “don’t let things stress you out and just deal with it.”

            Doing that is entirely another thing.

            1. a.n.o.n.*

              I’m actually in this situation now and it’s very stressing to know this job doesn’t fit me and I don’t have a clue as to what does.

        5. myswtghst*

          Thank you for saying this. I think it’s absolutely possible to discuss his behaviors (how he expresses that he is stressed) without discussing whether or not his stress is valid. Telling someone they shouldn’t be stressed doesn’t help. Recognizing someone is stressed and helping them find ways to deal with it productively does.

      3. Apollo Warbucks*

        I agree 44 hours isn’t a big deal, that’s skipping a lunch break hear and there or stopping a bit late in the office. Not a big a big deal.

    3. the_scientist*

      Given the hours that many of my peers work, an additional 4 hours per week hardly seems like much to worry about, however when you frame it as being 10% more it makes you realize how quickly those additional hours add up!

      To be clear, I think the employee needs to a). put up and shut up and/or b). evaluate whether this job is the right fit….but I think it’s worth thinking about how the job is being sold to employees. This job sounds very similar to mine- I’m required to frequently switch between tasks and projects, have to accomplish long-term goals and deliverables while getting daily necessities taken care of and have a lot of autonomy when it comes to scheduling and planning my work. I love it and thrive in an environment like this, and I rarely work more than 40 hours a week. But the thing is- I’m an hourly employee who, for whatever reason, is not entitled to overtime pay (instead of overtime, I bank my additional hours as I also don’t get sick/vacation time). The hourly rate at which I am paid is very low- the lowest end of the salary range, as the company has a strict pay structure and no room to negotiate. It sounds like this employee is also hourly (given that he received overtime) and even paid overtime, if there’s a lot of it or if your pay is low to begin with, can start breeding resentment.

      It could also be that the employee maybe has a second job or particular family commitments and if he was sold this job as a “never/rarely more than 40 hours per week; great work-life-balance” position he’s panicking at working any additional hours because his schedule doesn’t really allow for that.

      I mean, alternatively he could just be not overly competent and not good in this type of environment, and/or kind of lazy. But I do think the framing of the job *could* be worth exploring.

      1. OP*

        Good points, the scientist. We stated in the interview that generally OT is not required except for certain peak periods (which have yet to occur for my coworker), and I don’t think that characterization of the position was wrong. Also, from what I’ve seen in job postings and in average pay for this type of position, I think we are paid well. We also have above average benefits in terms of PTO.

  3. Bryan*

    This reminds me of the Slate article about being busy and the response article about where the author tried not saying they were busy for an entire year. Your coworker sounds like a good candidate for trying this.

    1. Lanya*

      This! I used to complain a lot at work until I finally realized how much I was complaining…and how much negativity I was always bringing down on myself.

      I implemented a “no complaining zone” in my office, for myself and my coworkers. My mood improved at least 70% in the first three days, and stayed that way. I fell off the wagon a few times, but always get back on when I realize the error of my ways.

      1. EvaR*

        That’s great for you, but I would literally quit a job that told me I couldn’t complain. Complaints encourage me to think about why I don’t like something and what can be done to make things better, and telling me I’m in a “no complaining zone” makes me feel like my job is to be dishonest and that people think I’m some kind of defective freak or something for being stressed about (x) or worried about (y) and no one else ever notices the weird smell in the breakroom or whatever, and then adding that to the general atmosphere of people interacting with one another where more extroverted people who know one another well tend to get more special treatment in little things like getting their preferred breaks or picking what place to order lunch from or getting to break some small rule, and I become a seething pile of resentment.

        Whereas if I can just say “The light from that window is going to fry my retinas.” or “Wow, lady, you clearly don’t care that I just did my best to help you.” or whatever, then I forget about whatever was bothering me within 20 minutes or so, and can move on with my day.

        I’m glad that this works for you, but I wonder how many of your coworkers it’s working for? There’s science behind the idea that people with positive attitudes are happier, but also science that says that if people feel obligated to maintain a positive attitude- to be healthier or more productive or whatever, they actually feel worse than ever.

  4. AndersonDarling*

    I’m wondering if he came from a bad environment where there was a lot of criticism and backstabbing which is causing stress to pour into this job when it really isn’t the same situation.

    When I used to get a pile of work, it was hard for me to tell how long it would take to finish each part, and I panicked because I didn’t think I could get it done in time, and I would hear a voice from an old job that told me I’d get in big trouble if I mess anything up.

    It took me a good year to create a new structure in my new job and more past the old habits.

    1. SRMJ*

      I had the same thought…perhaps he’s come from an environment where he was abruptly (and unfairly) fired with no warning and no chance to improve, or an office culture of fear, lack of job security, and intimidation, and is now constantly worrying that the other shoe could drop at any moment.

      If I were him, what may help me is to explicitly say to me that my work ethic and work itself is good, and that aspect is nothing to worry about and there are no concerns with performance (presuming all that is true), but that the worrying and stress is bad for morale and probably impacts my productivity because I spend so much time on it, and that’s the area that needs some improvement, along with learning how to structure and schedule my own workload. And, again, emphasizing that you’re pleased with my work. I realize it sounds like a lot of reassurance, but maybe that’s what the guy needs to chill out and feel comfortable in the role – hopefully not ongoing and constant reassurance, though. It might be a once bitten, twice shy experience that’s making him respond like this.

      1. Laura*

        Exactly this. The comments themselves, about being stressed, sound like a minor performance issue to me, and I’m little suprised that Alison didn’t bring that up specifically (when I’m usually so on the same page with her that if feels like she’s reading my mind!)

        I would add to her suggested comments (I guess you need to have the manager hat on for this) that simply talking about your stress without providing solutions is not helpful to anyone, and not very professional, and you as a manager need them to work on channeling their feelings of stress into productive steps that they, or you as their manager, or SOMEONE could act on. So if they find themselves wanting to complain about how stressed they are, instead go make a list or bring a solution, and not to mention it without offering a solution.

        Just my $0.02.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I agree with that, for the manager to raise, but I’m not sure how appropriate it is for a team lead (who isn’t the guy’s actual manager) — so that’s why I steered her to taking this to the manager to address. But if some team leads have more authority than others, and if she’s comfortable doing this, I agree it would be a good approach to take.

        2. Joey*

          Eh, I sort of disagree. Doing that would tell the person that talking about stress is not allowed and not helpful ever.

          But when it really is a stressful time it can be very useful to get it out. It’s more about getting the stress barometers to align.

          1. Jessa*

            I don’t think it was meant “don’t ever talk about stress,” but “now that you’ve had seven months, it’s time to talk about solutions.” From the employee’s end. They can’t keep talking over and over about stress, and be given coping strategies, and still talk about stress with NO attempt at coming up with a solution on their own.

            Yes they’re stressed, but they either have to help come up with a solution for it (it really can’t be imposed on them that easily, they have to buy into it,) or they need to find a different job.

            Sooner or later the talk stops being productive and becomes a drain on the rest of the office too. If an employee gets a reputation for complaining and NEVER coming up with any solutions to the complaints…well it doesn’t work out well.

    2. Mints*

      Oh good point. It might be hard for new employees to guess how long things take, so interruptions feel larger than they are. In that case, maybe it would help to say like “it took me three weeks to finish project Z last quartet, working on it about three hours a day”
      I just realized what an important skill this was in my last job

    3. Carpe Librarium*

      Great point. Perhaps strike up a casual conversation about your coworker’s former job. Any people or tasks that they really liked, any people or tasks that they don’t miss?
      All jobs have their positives and negatives, maybe mention something from one of your former workplaces.
      Not necessarily inviting a gripe session, but you may get some useful information about your coworker’s work style, or identify a red flag or two about a potentially unhealthy environment.

    4. OP*

      AD, this may be part of it. He has mentioned that at his old job management did not really have employees’ backs. Here they definitely do, and if something goes wrong, there’s not a sense of “you’re in trouble!” It’s more, “OK, so how do we fix this.”

      1. Jessa*

        You may need to actually say that in as many words, and make sure it’s modeled for him. Because it takes a long time to internalise the new proper way of doing business. And you may have to continue to say “we have your back,” when he gripes. Also if he’s willing to be specific instead of general about the stress, you can probably find better solutions for him.

  5. College Career Counselor*

    It also sounds to me like the expectations/requirements for the job might not be a good fit for this person. And that he’s using you as a workplace sounding-board for his stress. Maybe he views that as part of your role as a team lead?

  6. Mena*

    A couple questions to ask yourself: does he understand the job and possess the skills to do it? Does he require additional training? Does he need time management skills and strategies? Is he an arm-waving complainer (and as noted above, this becomes a habit)? He may decide that the job is not a good fit for him and that he needs a less stressful environment?

    And everyone’s definition of ‘stressful’ is different. It seems like you’ve been a good coach. But you are the team lead and not his boss, correct? You’re not responsible for his career success and need to separate this from your own.

  7. Em*

    Is it possible that complaining is just the person’s way of dealing with it? This obviously isn’t acceptable if their complaining is creating work problems, but I’ve known people where complaining is there way of getting through stressful situations. Also – as was acknowledged it seems to be a badge of honor in our work culture anymore to be “stressed” or “overwhelmed”, and this might be a symptom of that. If he is still producing great work, and getting things done within the allotted time I would focus more on the fact that their complaints are distracting.

    Also if this is a real issue of stress and inability to meet deadlines – have you tried suggesting that he create lists? Sometimes with projects I’ve found that creating the initial list, checking them off as I go, and seeing the list “shrink” as a result lets me relax and feel more confident about the progress that’s been made.

    1. OriginalYup*

      I wondered something similar, whether talking about being stressed all the time is a carryover from his prior job. There are plenty of dysfunctional workplaces that don’t believe you’re being productive unless you’re quacking loudly about how overwhelmed you are all the time. It becomes a defense mechanism — you prove that you’re working at the same pace as everyone else by making a comparable amount of noise. If the employee is just saying the words as a habit, perhaps just pointing it out (by virtue of asking what else can be done to address his stress etc.) will do the trick.

  8. Lizzie*

    I just want to give kudos to the OP for having tried so many strategies and attempting to assess the results!

  9. Katie the Fed*

    You know, some people just aren’t suited for those kinds of environments. I worked in a very fast-paced, high-stress environment and I generally love it. I do worse in slower environments. But some people just can’t function in high-pressure jobs.

    One thing you can try is coaching him on very specific stress responses. Like, when you’re stressed you don’t realize that you’re not breathing well. So you can ask him to slow down and focus on the one or two issues, but ask him to help come up with solutions.

    But it might be worth pointing out that this just might not be the best fit for him. He might just be a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, but this isn’t the right fit. Can you help him find a different role or position?

  10. Celeste*

    If he’s getting the work done, this may just be his personal style for how he goes through life. I’m reminded of how some babies cry, and when you pick them up they are comforted, calm down, and go to sleep. Then there are the others who get even more worked up if you pick them up, and will calm down and sleep faster if you just let them cry their tension out. Maybe he releases his tension by venting about being overwhelmed.

    It’s worth a talk with him to see if this is a cry for help of some kind. If it isn’t, then you might just have to shut the door on his cries and let him get down to it, knowing there is nothing you can do.

    You sound very caring, but if this his personality then you have to care about yourself and not let it get to you.

    1. Del*

      I was thinking something similar. One of the members of my social circle has a pretty well-known tendency to flip his lid at relatively minor stressors, go on big overdramatic speeches about how this is the Worst Thing Ever and there are going to be all these terrible consequences…. and once he’s blown that off, he just settles down and deals with it. It’s his own way of letting off all the initial emotions and getting them out of the way so he can fix the problem.

      1. Celeste*

        I have a coworker who has a great answer for peoples’ quirks: “Joe is Joe”. There comes a point where you may have to take people as they are. This assumes they are getting their work done.

        1. Del*

          That’s pretty much what it comes down to! With this guy, if we don’t hear “omg you guys I’m seriously about to lose my job” from him at least once a week, something’s wrong. It’s just how he is. He does his job well (at least so far as I’ve ever heard), has kept it for years, and everything is pretty okay. Joe is just Joe.

          1. Laura C*

            You make a great point – all too often people these days forget about tolerance and acceptance of others and its worth pointing out.

            However, some people have quirks and ways of dealing with stressful situations that really, really adversely affect others around them. In those cases I would say alleviating the adverse effect on others is more important than accepting Joe’s quirk. The OP might have been able to accept her coworker’s quirk if not for the fact that it is stressing her out, too.

    2. Sunflower*

      Exactly. I have a boss who is so tightly wound and an over worrier. Something isn’t done until it’s checked 5 times and even then he’s worried about it. It’s possible this is just his personality and you will have to stick with saying something like ‘Is there anything I can do to help’. It sounds like he’s more venting than complaining so if it gets to be too much, it might help to physically separate from him. If you’re in the same office or space, pop in headphones or see if you can build your own personal space.

  11. ali*

    Wow, OP, it’s like you pulled that letter out of my brain. I am in the exact same situation right now. The thing that we’ve found that works best in my two person team is that one of us takes all the shorter-term projects and one takes all the longer-term projects. I don’t like this so much, because I prefer a mix (I’m the one on the short-term projects right), but it has definitely helped my coworker out a lot – he doesn’t feel he has to stress over short-term deadline, and I thrive on them. I figure once our busy period slows down, which it will in a few weeks, we’ll start evening things out again and see how it goes.

  12. Joey*

    I’d be a little more straightforward. “Bob, I’m not sure if you realize, but the workload and pressure right now are about as good as it gets. Are you going to be able to handle this long term? Especially our busier times when the pressure really ramps up? You might want to think about whether you’re going to be able to adapt. Is there anything I can do to help?”

      1. Laura*

        I have a longer comment below, but this feels really harsh to me based on what he’s actually done. He’s good at his job; he just complains about it. Isn’t the first step to deal with the complaining itself (to say that it isn’t useful, and that he should find some way to channel it to some more productive step) rather than assume it’s the wrong job?

        “Are you going to be able to handle this job long term?” would sound to me like I’m a short distance away from being fired.

          1. Laura*

            But saying things in a menacing tone always makes things go down better!

            No, seriously, it just feels a little roundabout rather than direct to be saying “if you feel really stressed maybe this isn’t the right job for you” rather than “i’m sympathetic to the fact that you’re stressed, and I’d love to work with you on ways that you’ll feel less so, but venting unproductively to me about it isn’t a useful or professional way to deal with it, so let’s talk about more productive things you can do?”

            Isn’t this addressing the issue more head-on, rather than moving to the assumption that he’s complaining because he actually is so stressed he maybe can’t do the job at all? As opposed to assuming that he’s more dramatic about minor stress than is productive, or assuming anything?

            Or maybe I’m missing something. I’m a little freaked out to be disagreeing with AAM — I’m usually so on the same page that it feels like you’re in my brain!

            1. LBK*

              I’m confused – how is “if you’re really this stressed all the time, this may be the wrong job for you” not a direct approach? That seems to be about as direct as it gets.

              Is your perspective that the coworker isn’t actually this stressed but is just complaining, and the issue that needs to be stopped is the comments rather than the coworker feeling stressed?

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think that’s a great place to start, but since the OP has already tried lots of methods to help, they might be at the point now where the coworker needs to take a realistic look at whether he’s going to be happy in this job, knowing that this is the way it is. In other words, Joey’s language isn’t step 1 — it’s step 20, since the OP has already done steps 1-19 of trying to talk about productive ways to deal with it.

              1. Laura*

                re: LBK… I’m feeling like we don’t have enough info to know whether he’s complaining because he can’t deal with stress or because he’s overly prone to complain.

                So to me it was feeling to me like it would be useful to address the actual behavior directly (complaining) rather than even subtlety implying that his job is at stake (because his complaining is because he can’t handle his job… given he is handling his job). (by direct, I meant straight to the behavior, rather than straight to the point — I completely agree that it’s hard to be more straight to the point than “if you can’t handle the stress, is this the right job for you?”

                But I agree, it might be time to sound semi-ominous, given how much OP has tried (a lot of good stuff!) I’m persuaded.

                1. Joey*

                  He comes right out and says he’s stressed and overwhelmed. The message doesn’t get any clearer than that.

                  Most people don’t complain for no reason. He’s mentioned no reason other than stress.

          2. Tinker*

            Not that it’s not the right thing to say, but I’m not sure that phrase has a non-ominous tone. Less ominous, maybe, but even with the maximum number of hearts and ribbons it’s still kind of a “Should you even be here or not (I’m entertaining the option of not)?” statement.

      2. OP*

        Thank you, Alison, for answering my question and for the suggested script!

        Thank you also to all the commenters who’ve offered advice. I just got home and saw that this was published. I’m about to head out the door to an event but plan to read the comments thoroughly later tonight or tomorrow morning.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Yep. There comes a point when you just have to be clear. “this is the job. The job can only bend so far to fit you.”

    2. OP*

      Thank you, Joey. This is helpful. I have said several times different variations of “This is the job.”

      I would feel comfortable asking “Is there anything I can do to help?” (and asked around the time of the review if there was anything about the way we do business or our overall processes that he thought might make the job easier). But I wouldn’t really feel comfortable telling him to think about whether he thought this role was a good fit for him. At least not without talking to my boss first. And so far I have not bothered my boss with this because (s)he is very busy with things that are a lot higher priority than this is.

  13. Jax*

    I’m 2 years into a high stress job (that was sold to me as a simple office job) so I can relate to where your co-worker is coming from. I’m just now feeling more comfortable at work and not rushing around feeling that panic and doom rising in my throat!

    In my case, I came from very boring office jobs where there wasn’t enough work to do and lots of down time. It was one of my biggest peeves and I was looking for something more challenging. My current job was sold to be as “helping” in a busy department, 40 hours per week, and it sounded perfect.

    I felt thrown into a fast-paced, hectic, workaholic environment. Most of my coworkers never take a lunch and work from 8-5 straight, juggling phone calls and projects in one long manic session. My hours creeped into 7:30-5:30 (with lunch shoved in my face at my desk) and I was very stressed by the pace.

    The more confidence I gain in my abilities to juggle, the more relaxed I become. But in the beginning I did have out-loud freak outs of “How am I going to do all this?” and lots of churning panic. Now I’m more able to say, “I need to get out of here. I’m taking a lunch!” and putting the work in perspective.

    I think–for your coworker–it might be a case of give him time. If the work is to standard, then he IS capable of doing it. He just needs to get more and more used to the pace and more confident that he can pull it off.

  14. MaryMary*

    The next time your coworker starts telling you how stressed he is, ask if he’s looking for you to help, or if he just wants someone to listen.* if he’s asking for your help, I like the earlier suggestions of pushing it back on him as to exactly what kind of help he needs (help prioritizing, additional training on X, etc). If he’s venting, you can continue to be supportive, but I think it’s fair to set boundaries: “Jim, I am always available if you have a question, but if you just need to vent, I only have five minutes/can talk with you tomorrow/really need to concentrate on Y right now.”

    *This trick can be helpful when talking to family and friends as well!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d also add that the OP isn’t obligated to be his venting outlet — it sounds like it’s making her stressed and it’s not unreasonable for her to prefer not to.

      1. Windchime*

        Yes, this. Venting on a limited basis is understandable and sometimes helps, but there is a fine line between venting and complaining unceasingly. The latter gets old really fast and if someone is constantly expressing frustration and stress, it seems to be a sign that this job just isn’t a good fit. As others have said, that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with this employee; just maybe that this job isn’t a good fit for him.

  15. Jamie*

    Fwiw I think you did all the right things, OP, and more than most leads would have done.

    I do know some people who aren’t happy unless they are complaining. For those people this is just their normal manner of being not realizing how they are a fountain of negativity splashing everyone within reach. It doesn’t even mean they are feeling particularly overwhelmed, but some people if they aren’t completely relaxed and happy (or sleeping) they are bitching about something.

    If he’s one of those simply telling him how it’s affecting you could be the wake up call he needs. Hard habit to break, but awareness is a huge step.

    If he’s really overwhelmed I’d ask him to detail what exactly is causing the stress. Is he not confident he is doing things correctly? Is it the deadlines? I am no stranger to stress – but instead of marinating until I got complaint letters from my stomach lining I trained myself to identify it.

    IOW on a day off I get an email from work. If it causes me to immediately clench I stop and take a split second to slap an identifier. Is it a major issue I have to research and figure out how to solve? Legitimate stress which will be alleviated by getting immediately to work and resolving the issue. Is it because I’m resentful of being bothered with non-emergency issues and this makes me feel unappreciated and thus pouty? I can either tell them I’ll do it when I’m back in the office and enforce my own reasonable boundaries or cave because it’s the path of least resistance and get annoyed with myself for being a soft touch.

    Either way – identifying the stress helps so much in keeping it short. And when it’s my fault it keeps me from venting too much about it, because I’m too aware of the disconnect between complaining about a problem in which I’m complicit.

    Seriously though, I worked with a receptionist once who was hired to answer the phones. And rolled her eyes and sighed every time it rang. Some people don’t have a filter when it comes to being asked to do anything they don’t expressly enjoy doing. Then they need to either learn to fake it or suck it up because that gets old really fast.

    1. Jax*

      Bwahaha! I think that receptionist has worked at my company for the past 3 years. I have no idea why she hasn’t moved on!

    2. Tinker*

      Yeah, I’m wondering if this is more of a bad habit of speech than a case of being stressed beyond capacity — some environments reward a “so stressed, so stressed” narrative and it can be hard to break that habit once established.

      I had a similar thing going on for awhile — I hope I can use the past tense with regard to this — of being perchance overly whiny and in any case doing a lot of talking in the mode of analyzing negative things in my environment. Mostly not at work, fortunately. Then I realized that doing this was making me seem like a puling weakling and not the badass mofo that I in fact am, and THEN I got in a situation where someone was behaving like that around me and it drove me batshit in short order (it really is an astoundingly irritating habit). So, with much shamefacedness, I have endeavored to reform.

      If that’s the case for this person, they might well seem resistant to problem-solving aimed at the supposed stress because they might well not be experiencing that much stress internally. In that case, it’s more of a “Grampy sits you down and gives you life advice” sort of deal, addressed at all the yip-yapping and jaw-jacking instead.

      1. Judy*

        There are certainly environments in which those that are “firefighting” are rewarded much more heavily than those who just quietly go about their jobs.

        I was on a 7 engineer team that was working on a project, which about two years into it, required pretty much the entire software to be re-written due to marketing changes. Well, we worked out a plan, brought on two teams of contractors, and between the 11 of us re-wrote the software to rapidly moving specs in about 9 months. Another team of 10, had been working on a project that was fairly static, and at one time to meet the deliveries, had to staff the project up to 30 engineers. That team was praised for stepping up to the challenge of the project. Our team wasn’t mentioned in the quarterly review.

        It is what it is. If it doesn’t LOOK hard, then it must not BE hard, right? We did it, so it must not have been hard.

  16. Jen*

    I almost asked a similar question, but as usual, my Head-Alison answered it before I wrote anything. I will be going back to my former job – on a different team, but still working closely with my old team, including the team lead. She is good at her job, but also very new at managing, and she just doesn’t realize that her negativity is affecting everyone. I’ve been writing a script in my head for the past two weeks to address this with her! (Although she is a team lead and I’m not, we interact as peers.) Being in a less direct culture (and being a very non-confrontational person), this is proving to be a challenge… but I have ~3 more weeks to think about it!

    1. Jen*

      Oh, and OP, I feel your pain – I’ve tried most of those strategies too and no magic results. For me, the most successful has been deflecting – “yeah, this is stressful, but it’s not *that* difficult and we’ve done harder things”, “yeah, Jane seemed rude, but maybe she didn’t realize that our process is XYZ, let’s try to explain that first”.

      1. Celeste*

        In some ways, it’s good that you know what to expect going in! Sounds like you’ve got a real Eeyore there. Keep on being your cheerful self; you can only look great in comparison.

        1. Jen*

          I don’t want (only) to look good, I want everyone to be happy and productive! Our boss did appreciate my attitude – I called it being calm when faced with “my hair is on fire” (google if that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s from Dexter’s Lab). And I don’t mind her being stressed out and venting – I want her to vent at *me*, since I can take it, instead of venting to everyone and creating a negative attitude… especially since some of the other coworkers are also prone to panicking about stupid things!

          My new team has 3 new people at our location, so I have made it my goal to turn them into *calm* workers. They are new to the company AND the working world, so I hope this means they will be easier to “mold” (this sounds more manipulative than I intend, but I can’t find a better word!).

            1. Jen*

              Much better. I will groom and mentor them to become the kind of people who *don’t* start panicking the second a vaguely unhappy email comes from a customer.

              1. hamster*

                I have the exact same issue with my team lead . She is managing one process. I am managing another, but as the older and more experienced she is the lead / get to make some final choices/answer more high-level to people etc. She is incredible smart and fun woman BUT so prone to paniking and negativity. And she is stressing one of my co-workers who is prone to doing rushed stuffed when panicked. It’s a step in my mental evolution to learn 1. to work with her and 2. gain her trust enough to shield my co-worker(s) from “the panic attack”. However, she realises that and she wants to improve. And helps me improve on other areas ( like being really nice ) . So i guess it’s a win win

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                That’s one definition, but not the only one. It’s also commonly used to refer to preparing someone for a particular professional role.

                1. PSB*

                  Oh yes, definitely.

                  I just don’t know how widespread that knowledge is. Personally, as someone who works in law enforcement, that term makes me recoil even though I know it’s meant wholly innocuously. So in case someone wasn’t aware I thought it was information worth sharing; my intent wasn’t to try to make people stop using what should be a totally appropriate word.

  17. Jillociraptor*

    So much smart stuff has already been shared! Seconding all the smart advice about potential personal misalignment with the role. It sounds like you have tried a lot of really useful approaches, OP, and adding the more direct communication of expectations that AAM recommended will help, I think.

    In some ways, I am (or could be) your coworker. My “happy words” when it comes to work are: depth, concentration, and quality. Right now my job requires me to turn around multiple products really quickly, with limited information. I can actually do this really well (as it seems is similar to your coworker), but it drains all my energy. I try not to complain too much for exactly the reasons you write about and because it unleashes a whole torrent of anxiety in my kind of high-strung division; however, it has been helpful for me to identify exactly what is driving the stress in order to figure out whether this is a fit issue, a skill issue, or anything in my control to change.

    Maybe it might be helpful to sit down with your coworker and explain that this is the culture of operation in your role, and that it is unlikely to change significantly. You can discuss what it is, specifically, that causes anxiety for him, and talk through how likely it is that that will change.

  18. Just a Reader*

    It sounds like he has no idea how to prioritize and feels no control over his workload.

    This is NOT for everyone, but the Franklin Covey time management course and planning system really helped me early in my career, when I was unable to balance shifting workloads without freaking out. I took that class 10 years ago and still the info and system today.

    The conversation is a good idea and perhaps some training would help too.

    1. Cube Ninja*

      This. The co-worker’s difficulties absolutely scream time management to mea, and that’s a tough thing to learn because unless you’re going to micro-manage someone, all you can realistically do is give them the tools and hope they’re put to good use.

      I also find that more often than not, work stress is somewhat self-imposed among people who have an average-or-better work ethic. That’s not to say that other factors like anxiety aren’t in play, but I’ve had my share of employees who think the entire world rests on their shoulders and if Widget X doesn’t get done by Z-Day, they’ll be the first ones eaten by the zombies. Frequently, that signals a lack of understanding of the “big picture” concepts and going over some of those ideas tends to alleviate a bit of the stress. Using OP’s example:

      “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get Y done when I keep getting X’s!”

      While Y is certainly important and is our longer term goal, X is important right now because it impacts W, T and F. What are your concerns about X’s impact to Y? … Ok, I understand where you’re coming from there. If we can get X completed by Thursday, that should still leave us time to make progress on Y, remembering that our deadline is 2 months out.”

      Obviously, adjustments can be made if the deadline is 2 days out, but that’s the gist of my usual thought process in managing this type of staffer. :)

  19. Another Cat*

    Could you feed him fewer tasks at a time? Maybe the length of his to-do list is the overwhelming part, no matter how far out the deadlines of some of the tasks.

      1. Jessa*

        You don’t do it forever, and you start increasing the task list as he learns to handle them. You kind of ramp him up in segments instead of dumping the whole lot at once (at first.)

    1. OP*

      Another Cat, this is something I’ve been trying to do to the extent possible. Also, if we need to go over something that’s new, I try to offer the option of doing it right then or doing it the next morning, and that seems to lessen coworker’s stress.

  20. Geegee*

    Two of my coworkers like complain about their workload constantly. It’s annoying. One of my other coworkers will yell out “job security” every time they start complaining. It’s kind of funny.

    1. Just a Reader*

      I have one of these too. OMG I had to drop everything to do X!

      …and? Today I quit placating her and said “welcome to the teapot marketing team!”

      That stopped the complaining in its tracks.

  21. Ms Enthusiasm*

    Maybe your co-worker also needs a refresher on what the normal job duties are? If they freak out when they are asked to do X but you say X is a normal part of the job then what does that mean? Maybe a good sit down with you and your manager on what duties your co-worker is expected to be doing, how they should be prioritized, how long (approximately) they should be working on each, the importance of each, what duties can be put on the back burner if something urgent comes up, and what really is important to your manager? Maybe just a good talking through will help a little at least.

  22. JuliB*

    Perhaps he doesn’t expect you to solve anything, but is merely talking as a way to handle his stress. Could it be that he doesn’t even realize that it’s causing you concern?

    I used to vent, but then when a specific PM decided she had to respond to my statements, I realized that she was reacting to it as potential problems to solve. I decided to keep everything light unless there really was a problem. I’ve found that by not venting, I can deal with things better.

    1. Jessa*

      My sister is like that so I always ask “are you asking for help or should I just commiserate?”

  23. Celeste*

    I read it again, and praise for good work did not seem to have an effect. The venting does have a certain sound of not being happy with the actual tasks, and when asked you said that to you, the work is challenging but fun.

    I don’t know if this person can “find the fun” here or not. Since the boss knows the workload is heavy and has commenced hiring a third person, maybe you can find the time frame for that and tell the coworker to hang on for a while longer. Unless the workload keeps expanding, this might be the release that takes away the need for the venting.

  24. Another Sara*

    Reading this through the lens of my own experience, I think a key part of the issue is this:
    “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).

    Even if X is routine and “only” two hours, four of those and your whole days is shot.

    In my own job, I have several large initiatives that I want/need to complete this year. However, I am constantly putting out fires and working on the latest “drop everything emergency” for one of my client teams. Every time I get interrupted for a “short” task, I have to spend a not-insignificant amount of time getting back into the zone on the big project. That’s the job, and I understand it. However, eventually those interruptions start to eat into the time required for the long-term project. With enough interruptions, the deadline may become impossible to meet.

    If the person setting the goals and priorities at a higher level doesn’t understand this trade-off, the person doing the work is stuck between a rock and a hard place. She is expected to drop everything every time an “emergency” comes up (where “emergency” is defined by the requestor), but is still expected to keep on (the original) target with the long-term project. Even if the balance works out so that there is just enough time for both, she is left in a constant state of anxiety that the pace of interruptions will put her over her deadline. Even if she gets to prioritize her own work, the deadlines set by someone else put a boundary on the number of hours available to spend on all work.

    Your coworker may feel like he is in this situation, either because the people assigning work really do have unrealistic expectations, because he has a poor understanding of what projects he does need to drop everything for, or because he doesn’t realize that the initial deadline for the long-term project can be adjusted if necessary. Talking through these issues should help (What are the actual expectations? Can deadlines be moved? Can project X wait until tomorrow?)

    Another thing that could help in all of these situations is encouraging him to set aside large blocks of time to dedicate to the long-term project, during which he will not stop to work on new short-term projects. If those routine tasks really do need to be done immediately, perhaps you can set up an alternating focus schedule: one of you gets to focus for 4 hours/1 day/1 week while the other does triage, then trade off.

    1. Another Sara*

      Oops, somehow I missed your last bullet point. If that was a one-time event, maybe a follow-up “big picture” discussion would be helpful. Explain that preliminary deadlines are not set in stone in general, that you can always talk to your boss if work is piling up and deadlines need to be moved, and that your coworker does not need to feel like it’s his responsibility to meet an original deadline if it becomes unrealistic.

      Also keep in mind that your coworker may have a personal interest in some of these long-term projects, and being unable to complete them in a desired timeframe can be frustrating.

    2. Celeste*

      I guess I wonder if an X is a drop-everything task, or if it can be put into a workflow so that X’s are done in the morning, leaving the afternoon to go forward on Y. I have known people who tame their email by setting aside a time of day to respond to it, or making all of their appointments in the morning, and so on.

      I guess a lot just depends on how quickly they might be able to get that third person in there.

  25. KrisL*

    I have found that keeping very organized and making lots of notes really helps with switching tasks.

  26. GoochieWoman*

    Complaining about work doesn’t make the work go away, unless he’s looking for a more permanent solution. I’ve found that the energy I spend complaining, dreading, anticipating or procrastinating about a job is usually the inverse of the time it takes to actually do the job and get it done. I’ve battled this both in the job and at home and it is always the same. Jobs take more time dreading than doing (unless it involves cleaning a 500 lb. aquarium). I’ve learned to do the hardest thing first every day, so that even if I never accomplish anything else all day, that is done!

    I’ve also eliminated the words “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time” from my vocabulary. Every time I hear myself thinking I don’t have time, I set a timer and do the job. I find it usually takes much less time than anticipated and then it’s done! I have that knowledge, next time the task comes up and I know it’s only going to take X amount of time so it’s not even worth complaining about!

    I realize this is not going to help OP with her co-worker. I had a co-worker who sat and sighed and complained under her breath all day long. I found turning on my mp3 player helped me tune out the negativity coming through the cubicle walls and helped me get my tasks done faster.

    I wish I could have a chance at this person’s job, as I appreciate work and challenges and having been unemployed for a year now, it floors me that people are not grateful for what they have!

    1. Laura*

      —“I’ve also eliminated the words “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time” from my vocabulary.”

      I’m not sure about just assuming you do have time, but I do think it’s worth translating “I’m too busy” to “I have a long list of higher priority things to do” and seeing if it resonates for you. Fundamentally, unless that one extra task is in of itself more time than you have in the day, then there IS time to do it — you’d just need to knock everything else off your plate to get it done.

      So it’s a priority thing. Like responding to your manager “Sure, I can do that by the end of the day — should I do that even if it means I can’t do X, Y, and Z ? I’m assuming this is higher priority than those…”

      1. GoochieWoman*

        It’s more of a programming signal I’m training myself to hear/think feel. When I hear those words, I take the time to stop and assess the task, the time, the stress and determine new priorities.

  27. QualityControlFreak*

    ***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)***

    This just makes me wonder if your coworker isn’t hoping that as team lead, you will simply take over those tasks he finds objectionable. I have found some people will emphasize how bad they are at tasks they don’t enjoy, in hopes this work will be shifted to someone else. I don’t recommend letting yourself become that someone.

    1. Brigitte*

      I noticed this, too, and thought that if the team member is actually not great at these tasks, that could be a big source of anxiety.

      Have you offered training on them?

    2. OP*

      I can definitely see how complaining to get someone else to take over might be the case with some people, but my coworker really is (or very much appears to be) genuinely distressed, especially about the particular task I was referring to and his abilities. Funnily enough, he had to do this task last week (for only the second or third time) and did a really good job (which I told him).

  28. Not So NewReader*

    All that complaining is really not professional, I am sure it does not inspire confidence in those around him. That is best case scenario. Years of this will pull an entire group right down.

    OP, I think you have done an outstanding job of trying to pave the way for this guy. I would try one last time, pick from the great examples here and talk to him. If he does not respond or if he only dials back the complaining for a few days, then move to plan B of talking with your boss. Be sure to let the boss know everything you said here.

    As an aside: It’s been a recurring theme for me that the complainers are the ones that get the least amount of work done. All that negative thinking slows them down and it shows, plus the time spent complaining. I don’t know if you have a way to track his productivity level or something (ability to meet deadlines?) but you might want to start so you can see how those numbers fall over time.

    The way I frame this is: I have finite amount of energy. I can use it for complaining or I can use it for working. Which one do I want to put my energy into?

  29. Laura C*

    Reading this letter, two things stand out to me:

    1. OP, you’re a very nice person.
    2. This colleage of yours probably wants to do a good job very badly, and is likely not secure enough in his professional abilities to look at a lengthening to-do list and say “I can handle this”.

    Hopefully more time will straighten this colleage out. In the meantime, he would probably benefit from some startlingly simple but very effective advice I once received from a very busy lawyer: “You can only do what you can do.”

    1. OP*

      Thanks, Laura C. I don’t know about the nice part, but I really do want my coworker to succeed. And part of that is selfishly motivated because I think it would reflect badly on my ability to “lead” if he doesn’t.
      Also, to be honest, I’m by far not an ideal trainer; I’m much more comfortable being an individual contributor. I know that sometimes my frustrations with my coworker not “getting” something after we’ve talked about how to do it a few different times has shown. And I have a hard time getting away from “shoulds.” I was frankly surprised about having to tell someone outright that they might want to take notes or note a deadline on the calendar. I’ve had to train myself not to remark, “We’ve actually covered this a couple times, so you may want to take notes” and just say, “you may want to take notes,” since the “we’ve covered this a few times,” while true, is not helpful.
      And yes, very much so to your point 2. My coworker really does want to do a good job but seems to doubt his abilities. I think I need to focus some on really reinforcing that he’s done a great job when he has.

      1. Laura C*

        I would be a bit taken aback at having to tell someone to take notes or note a deadline, too. Here comes a “should”: that SHOULD be common sense!!

        Yes, it definitely sounds to me that he just doubts himself a bit too much. Maybe you can respond to his stressing, when appropriate, with something like “I wouldn’t worry – you did such a great job last time!”

        And when he asks how to perform a task for the umpteenth time: “Write this down – that way, you can refer to it for next time”.

  30. HAnon*

    It seems to me like having enough work to do to fill 40 – 45 hours a week is pretty standard. Not being busy is not a good sign in my book, which is when I would start to worry…and when was the last time anyone in corporate america worked a 40 hour week? Not to nitpick at the employee (maybe the job is a different kind than what I’ve held), but I don’t think I’ve ever had a job where the actual hours worked added up to 40. Even if that was the stated expectation, there were a lot of work through lunch/get there early/stay later/work a weekend days in the first several jobs I had, and I wasn’t getting overtime pay. Now, I figured out that 70+ hours a week was by far not a good fit for me, and I’m now working closer to 45+ on average. I have a good amount of work to do, we have a reasonably fast pace and deadlines to meet. But it stresses me MUCH less than when I first started working, now that I’m a few years into my career and I have revised my expectations. If you go into a job thinking “Working more than 40 hours a week is unreasonable” you’re going to be constantly let down when you have to work a few extra hours. It may be a combination of expectations that are a little out of touch with the new reality of the workplace, and also an internal issue that he needs to resolve. He may need to talk to a professional (counselor) or learn some techniques to personally manage his stress, since that’s a skill he will need if he wants to advance in his career. I took that route and it’s been really helpful for me as far as evaluating the source of my stress (not always about work) and learning ways to cope/succeed in different environments. As I mentioned, for me that meant changing from 70+ hours a week to 45+, but learning some skills to manage my emotional stress really helped. For that reason, I wouldn’t say necessarily that this “isn’t the job for him.” It sounds like the work environment is pretty typical, and it would be doing him a disservice to tell him he needs to change jobs at this point since he might just need to have a shift in his perspective…

    1. Amtelope*

      I don’t know that this is the “new reality” in every field, though, or in every job. I work at a full-time (exempt) job where we work 35-hour weeks, and with some exceptions (weeks when we are traveling, occasional crunch times), that really means you’re expected to be in the office for 8 hours, with a half hour lunch, and then go home and not take your work home with you. Is the pay comparable to jobs where a 45-hour+ work week is normal? No, it’s not. But it’s not terrible, either. If a short work week and a low-pressure environment are priorities for the OP’s coworker, I do think he might be better off looking for a new job, and making this aspect of office culture a priority in his job search.

  31. ella*

    Two random thoughts:

    1. I love your list of attempted fixes because it reminds me of Watson’s inventory of Sherlock Holmes’ skills.

    2. (Actually possibly helpful) I had an issue at work over the past several months with my own time management skills; my manager felt I was spending too much time on some tasks and not enough time on others, and was just generally not prioritizing my workflow in a manner she was comfortable with. The way I steered my own behavior was to write down every single thing I did over the course of several months, and how long it took me. Then (on my own time) I put them into a spreadsheet and graphed them. This helped a number of things:
    -It gave my manager and me concrete data over which to have a conversation about how I spend my time (I’m often out of her line of sight doing my own tasks, so it’d be really easy for her to put together an incomplete picture of my day based on ten minutes here and ten minutes there, and I wanted to make sure that wasn’t happening).
    -It gave me a better picture of how long tasks typically took me. I found that I was overestimating the time it took me to do a lot of things. Because I was overestimating, I often wouldn’t start something that I actually had time to do (I hate starting things and not finishing them, even though in my job leaving half-done tasks for the next person or the next shift isn’t a big deal). When I realized this, my productivity went way up, because I realized that I had more time than I thought I did.

    It sounds like part of your coworker’s problem is that his conception of the job is that it’s way bigger and harder and more time consuming and stressful than it needs to be. I found my documentation exercise hugely helpful in bringing my conception of my job and the actual reality of my job more in line with each other, and both me and my manager are happier for it.

  32. teclatwig*

    OP, since you are clearly open to trying on different perspectives re: this coworker, I am going to throw out another potential scenario, which a) may or may not apply, and b) may it may not lead to useful approaches. I should also probably preface this by saying I have recently self-diagnosed (& am waiting for the doctor’s appt after watching a kid go through evaluation) and have been researching up the wazoo.

    What this made me think of was ADHD. In particular, the difficulty with prioritizing, the frustration with constant new input, and the anxiety. These can all be present with executive function difficulties, whether or not there is an ADHD diagnosis.

    Here is what I know about me: I love high-pressure environments. Heck, my dopamine system is only properly functioning under deadlines and when directing complex, semi-chaotic systems. I have been a kickass legal secretary and stage manager. What I cannot do, however, is shift frame back and forth between projects, as each project, no matter how big or small (though, if they are too small I can’t get my prefrontal cortex to care), consumes my entire focus. There is a productivity lag whenever I have to frame-shift like that, there just is. And if the shifting has to accommodate brand new input as to the nature of the project? And if I have to shift from my visual-spatial thinking to interpret verbal-sequential instructions back into my visual-spatial world? Well, I sucked at it.

    So, OP, I guess my reason for sharing this is to support those who are saying “if the workflow process could be tweaked in any way — even if the current way seems eminently practical to you,” then please do so. Yes, continue to help him if you have useful organizational approaches, but also encourage him to develop his own systems once he is more familiar with the work (it always takes me about 4-6 months to work my way through all the interrelated details before I can perceive the totality of the big picture and go back through to optimize systems).

    I do think you should mention the complaining; maybe even just saying “I notice you are complaining a lot. Are you really stressed, or just venting?” If he’s truly freaked, I think you should revise your response to his “does this stress you out?” question — he’s clearly not in the right job and won’t be able to make a good assessment if he thinks that level of stress is the norm. Once you have done this and helped him to mitigate the stress, then if he says it’s helpful to vent or otherwise indicates it is a coping method, I think you need to set a boundary where you are happy to help out, and you’re there to hear any complaints about irregularities or especially difficult moments, but the xomplaints about fundament aspects if the job are inappropriate, and stress you out besides. After that, I think you are in a position next time he xomplsins to either shut it down nicely, or ask if he needs to schedule a brainstorming session with you.

  33. teclatwig*

    Whoops, sorry, was trying to type and make dinner, and my screen keeps jumping up to the Search field. *complaints, *complains

    Also, I would like to say that I never recognized myself as organizationally challenged because I am good at creating organization in systems once I understand them. I can’t remain organized, or perpetuate the organized functioning of the system, just perpetually creation, entropy, creation, entropy. So, your teammate may or may not recognize his issues as organizational in nature. Similarly, I thrive in certain types of high-pressure environments, so suggesting he can’t handle pressure or deadlines may or may not resonate for him.

  34. MJ*

    I think you are trying way too hard to fix something that isn’t your to fix. I would use the same approach I used with my kids when they complained about the stuff on their plates – just express confidence that he can handle it. Keep it really brief, and don’t take on responsibility that’s not yours. Example: “Yea, it’s stressful, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” If he continues to moan, do not respond. If he succeeds in getting the thing done, you can say, “I knew you could do it.”

    Your coworker is getting a pay-off from you every time he complains. Detach. If you know the work is doable within the time frame and that your coworker has the skills to complete the tasks, his stress is his to figure out, and he will be forced to figure it out if you step back and let him.

    Ignoring a complainer can be difficult, but I’m sure you’ll get it with practice.

    1. MJ*

      Ok, when I typed the comment above there was a note after the last sentence indicating that it was meant as humor, but the note disappeared!

    2. I am so happy to be here*

      I totally agree that the complainer gets a payoff everytime he complains. The answer here is to take away that payoff. Whether this us the OP’s job, I don’t know.

Comments are closed.