is being visibly stressed at work a sign of commitment?

A reader writes:

Can you advise on a discussion I was having with a colleague?

We were chatting casually and I said that whenever she has been panicked and overwhelmed in the past — and felt sure everyone would blame her for the unfolding disaster with a client — it has always turned out well. She has even been acclaimed recently for how she handled a tough situation which she was sure would reflect terribly on her. She is good at her job and widely seen that way.

I said she would enjoy work more if she was able to deal with difficult situations and tough clients calmly. I didn’t say this part, but I also feel it would be better for junior staff who I see getting really unnerved by an atmosphere of panic. I then spend time reassuring them that they are doing a good job and no one else sees them as party to an unfolding disaster (usually it’s just a standard working week).

We are a big office, so I don’t want to exaggerate her impact on the wider atmosphere — but working on projects with her is working in a sea of negativity, especially about clients who I mostly find to be nice people who are not doing anything to merit the constant cursing as soon as their backs are turned.

She acknowledged that when she had shown this stress in the past it had been unwarranted. But she said it was partly beyond her control, and partly that she wanted people in the office to know whenever she was stressed. She said it was a way to show you care about the work you are doing — she wouldn’t trust someone too laid back. I replied that I would think twice about hiring anyone who couldn’t handle stress, that I would worry they would take it out on colleagues or one day snap and never return — that someone more level headed is a safer bet. I didn’t add that it makes her a difficult person to work with.

Obviously there is a happy medium between panic-stricken and excessively laid-back, but what precisely is that balance? I am pretty sure she is not striking it, but I do wonder if I am either? Am I getting judged harshly for being pretty level-headed — as less invested in the work? How do you show you are serious about your work and competent without the histrionics?

You show that you are competent by doing good work. You show that you are serious about your work by taking your work seriously — acting with a sense of urgency, flagging issues early on rather than waiting until they blow up, being flexible when you need to in order to meet deadlines or get the right results, seeking input when something is high-stakes or new to you, making a point of learning from past projects so you’re constantly improving, both soliciting and welcoming feedback, and being respectful toward coworkers, clients, and others you come into contact with.

Your coworker is failing dramatically on that point. It’s not respectful to curse about clients as soon as their backs are turned (and in fact, that would make me think your coworker doesn’t take her work seriously enough). And it’s not respectful to “want people in the office to know whenever she’s stressed” — that’s transferring her own stress over to them and making less life pleasant for them.

You’re also absolutely right that it makes her look like she can’t handle the demands of the job. That’s not to say that anyone who ever shows stress at work looks like they can’t handle the work. But someone who’s visibly and vocally stressed on a regular basis, and who makes a point of performing that stress so others will notice it, is indeed going to come across as breaking under the pressure of the role. That doesn’t inspire confidence in the people around them, and it can have real consequences for the work because some people will stop bringing them questions or new tasks during that time and may hesitate to provide necessary feedback, for fear of adding to their burden (or causing them to crack).

You asked if you’re coming across as less invested in your work because you’re level-headed. If you’re in a reasonably healthy workplace, I doubt it very much. Reasonable people don’t look at someone who’s getting excellent results in her realm and think, “But it doesn’t seem like she cares enough.” (That does happen in unhealthy environments, though — usually in the context of trying to hold you to unreasonable expectations about things like work hours. But you don’t want to alter your behavior to cater to that.) In a healthy environment, you show your commitment by ensuring your work is good, not by emotional displays about it.

If you are close with your colleague, it’s worth going back to her and saying something like, “I was thinking about our conversation about stress. There’s something I didn’t say at the time that’s been weighing on me since then because I know it’s something I would want to hear if I were in your shoes: When you share so much of your stress, it creates so much negativity that it can make working with you difficult. I’ve noticed our junior staff are particularly unnerved by it, and I’ve had to spend time reassuring them that things are fine. I think you do amazing work, but sometimes this does make it tough to work with you.” You may not have the kind of relationship where you can say that — but if you do, you’d be doing her (and everyone else in your office) a genuine service.

{ 242 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber Rose

    Being widely seen as good at your job and being complimented on how you handle a disaster are separate from your attitude of stress and panic. I mean, to an extent they relate, but you can absolutely be great at your job and good at dealing with disasters, and a massive energy black hole to everyone in the room while you do it. And upper management doesn’t always notice/care about the effect you have on the people around you.

    My boss is amazing at her job, and the best ‘firefighter’ we have. She’s also damn scary to be around when she’s fighting said fires. It’s not ideal.

    1. JokeyJules

      yes! It becomes a total energy and timesuck to listen to someone on a total rampage about something. Fight fires and get the stressful stuff done, but I can’t imagine being rude and cussing and yelling is actually helping you fight the fires and get the work done any better or faster, short-term or long-term.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

      Absolutely. The Coworker’s behavior is so toxic, and it will inevitably turn her into the Office Dementor. She’s making excuses for bad behavior by trying to recast that behavior as virtuous—it is not. It’s going to make her look like she can’t handle the expected stress of the job or that she’s overdramatic. Those are not reputations a person wants to have.

      Being a stressball does not show commitment or care. Emoting all over everyone else does not show consideration or care. I know all of us occasionally are going to show our stress, but if that’s our default setting in the office, then we’re doing something wrong (or our job is structured to fail).

      1. Roy G. Biv

        +++ Office Dementor. The latest participant in the “But I care sooooo much more about work than you do” Olympics. Bonus points if you tell everyone how very stressed you are instead of, you know, working.

      2. RUKiddingMe

        “Emoting all over everyone else does not show consideration or care.”

        Quite the opposite actually.

        1. Fortitude Jones

          Doing this just got one of my teammates promoted. So yeah – definitely a YMMV thing.

    3. Où est la bibliothèque?

      My reaction to performative anxiety is to slow down and chill out–I mostly can’t help it, and it makes me deeply incompatible with this type of person. The more frantic someone else is, the less affect I display.

      And this is a problem, because I know it can come across as indifferent or even contemptuous. Sometimes I can shift it into calm and supportive, and there are words I’ve removed from my vocabulary because they sound too glib (like “yup”) but often it is just a Daria-style monotone and it’s not my best look.

      1. valentine

        The more frantic someone else is, the less affect I display.
        I’ve had to do this to avoid matching them, and I am contemptuous.

      2. hbc

        I think I do the same thing. I don’t know if I’m trying to keep the total emotions in the room at the same level by dropping mine to zero, or trying not to reward the panic, or what. There are definitely people who find it reassuring to not have the emotion ramped, but others don’t feel heard and understood when I’m there for the logistical discussion but failing to play along emotionally.

        1. RUKiddingMe

          I see this behavior as being akin to a toddler having a temper tantrum. Child starts tantruming (that’s a word right? I’m calling it a word…) and you make sure she is ok, not hurt or in immediate need or anything and then just resign yourself to the fact that the kid is feeling Big Emotions™ right then and there is nothing to do but wait it out. So yeah…adult temper tantrum. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      3. Amber Rose

        I actually do this too. I think others do it to me, which is where I picked it up.

        It helps me though. The calmer the people around me, the calmer I become.

        1. Où est la bibliothèque?

          There’s definitely a way to get this right, and I sometimes do–I’ve been praised for cool under pressure. But it’s more likely to help people who are actually feeling panicked than the ones who just tend to Kermit-flail at everything and want validation.

      4. Sandman

        I do this, too. I think it generally helps calm the situation – but hadn’t thought of it coming across as indifferent or contemptuous. I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

        1. Clorinda

          A calm echo should reduce the effect of indifference. “So you’re saying the building is on fire and we should all get out, is that right?”–calmly, not screaming it back.

      5. AnonEMoose

        When I’m dealing with a crisis – an actual crisis – I get very calm, and very task-oriented. My basic attitude at that point is essentially: “Either be helpful, or get out of the way.”

        People waving their emotions in my face at that point…does not go over well. Not that I won’t be supportive once the immediate problem is handled, but until then, your feelings are not the most important thing. They’re not even in the Top 10.

      6. Carbovore

        I’ve *learned* to do this based on the fact that it seems my dept head has a personality disorder that causes her moods to rapidly change, sometimes leading to explosive anger–recommendations from everything I read says that it’s actually better to remain calm!

        (When you think about it, anger is often just the end-result of a fear-based panic… so if your coworker is freaking the heck out, the last thing you want to do is freak out with them! Remain calm…)

        And one of the best pieces of advice I got from equity and HR regarding this boss (and dealing with people in general) is that the emotions of others has nothing to do with me and is not for me to bear–my reactions are mine, theirs are theirs.

      7. BuildMeUp

        This is what I do, too, especially when the performer and I are in the same situation. I don’t have time to soothe their anxiety or commiserate – I’m busy! I’m dealing with the same thing they are, and it always annoys me to feel like they want something else from me on top of that.

        1. RUKiddingMe

          This. I feel no shame for feeling contemptuous of people like this. Dudes…we’re all adults here (supposedly) and this is work. I am not in the business of doing excess emotional labor. Save the break downs for your therapist.

      8. Fortitude Jones

        I’m the exact same way. I have a drama queen coworker that I barely speak to because every.dang.day she’s complaining about something. Everybody else around me laughs it off like it’s funny, or they try to console her, but she acts like a damn child – I just turn back to my computer and put my headphones on. I’m so glad she got promoted into a remote role so she no longer sits in the office with us – she’s been working my last nerve for over a year. I don’t get this behavior AT ALL.

    4. Sara without an H

      I’ve forgotten the source for this, but here goes: “Show me a manager who takes pride in fighting fires, and I’ll show you a pyromaniac.”

      OP, you know your co-worker better than I do, but the fact that she believes dramatizing stress shows commitment makes me suspect that she’s probably looking for stressful opportunities. Does she let things go until they become urgent, so that she can “display stress,” rather than dealing with stuff early when it could be solved without drama?

      I admit I’m a Vulcan, but if I were collaborating on a project with your colleague, I’d be on the alert for injections of urgency that didn’t need to be there.

      1. NotAnotherManager!

        As the fire fighter who gets called in to deal with other people’s arson, YES. It is maddening to know that fires can be avoided by some basic planning and foresight and that there is little appetite amongst the pyros for debriefing, fireproofing, or process improvement.

        I work in an industry where they will tell you if it’s not urgent, but the best people are proactive and ahead of the curve so it’s just urgent and not on OMG ON FIRE.

      2. Letter writer

        Sara, no, I don’t think she is actively seeking out stress but I do think she experiences it far too easily and then communicates it deliberately whenever it arises. She told me as much herself.

    5. Jennifer

      It also sounds like she doesn’t know the difference between a “disaster” and just normal issues that arise during the course of doing business. That can be stressful as well.

        1. Gumby

          Would she respond well to a “you seem really upset by [thing] and that’s weird since we successfully dealt with [similar thing] just last [month]. What’s up?” Basically, a nicer way of saying “you are overreacting and it makes you seem weak/odd, not sympathetic.”

          People performing their stress are not at their most effective in actually getting work done so on top of being annoying, it’s delaying a solution.

          1. Letter writer

            Unfortunately your suggested phrasing was almost exactly how I did phrase it – that’s what triggered her to say she thought it made her look committed etc.

            1. Someone Else

              Depending on what kind of calm she’s getting reflected back, she’s quite possible making herself look incompetent. Like if she’s all flaily “how will we ever possibly aaaaaaaah” and you or another coworker are all calmly “I’ll just do X. That’ll fix it.” and then they do, and it does, she’s going to look like a moron for getting so agitated when, yeah sure, not ideal, but there’s a fix and you just…do it. I’m not a Nike shill but so many answers at work with flaily people so often are just do it.

  2. Dragoning

    Agh, I have a coworker like this. I don’t think she’s performing her stress at all, and I have never heard her swear ever and cannot quite imagine her doing so, but she is constantly stressed out and worried preemptively about things that aren’t an issue, or aren’t going to be an issue, and it stresses everyone else out. I just want to shake her shoulders sometimes and tell her everything’s going to be okay, it’s going to be fine.

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.

      Do you hold back from doing that because it’s a case of fueling the fire or feeding the bottomless pit? Or do you let her do her thing, kind of like a toddler with a temper tantrum and then get to the business of work?
      I sound unsympathetic, and I am. I broke down in tears at my desk because of things going wrong back when I started. It happens. Once or twice in ten years, not every single time you have a project. If that is coworker’s process, needing coworkers’ attention, acknowledgement and energy, I have limited of all to share.

      1. Dragoning

        Mostly I sit there and let herself talk and explain all of the problems while I sit/stand there and nod going, “Okay. Yeah, sure, I can do that. This is the answer.” And then thirty minutes later, she feels reassured enough to go back. Basically I just sit there being totally chill about being able to handle something she’s worried will screw with my workload, she feels better, thinks very highly of me, and then goes away again.

        1. JokeyJules

          it seems like you are being a really good team player for her with this, but think about yourself, too.

          If she came over flustered i would just say at the beginning of the conversation “okay, so to get this done, what do you need me to do to help?” and once she says it say “alright, got it, i’ll get on this and you got (whatever she will do to resolve the problem) and it’ll be just fine!”
          Maybe I’m being insensitive, but i dont have the time or patience for a therapy session when you just need me to help out with a task.

          1. Lance

            Yeah, letting her talk at you for 30 minutes and coming with a reassurance is… quite a lot of emotional labor and time investment to take on for an issue like this. I definitely agree with this advice: try to get to the root of the issue early on and spare both of you this time and energy investment, and who knows? Maybe it’ll set the new pattern, and you’ll be able to work out issues without this heavy overlay of stress.

          2. Dragoning

            She does this on my lunch break sometimes–and I’m hourly and not getting paid when I’m on lunch. /sigh

            The problem is, when I do that, she just. Keeps. Talking.

            “Yeah, that’s fine, not a problem at all.”

            “Are you sure? Because [things she has already said].”

            “I am sure.”

            “But what about [thing that doesn’t even exist].”

            “It’ll be okay.”

            1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              Have you ever told her to just take “yes” for an answer? I know that sounds kind of blunt, but 30 minutes (during lunch, no less) is a huge time suck!

                1. Dragoning

                  Kind of tempted to say “I will let you know if I have a problem like usual, but I’m pretty good at this, I promise.”

                2. valentine

                  “Let’s put a pin in this until after lunch.” *email an answer*

                  If you walk away, does she follow?

                3. RUKiddingMe

                  And seriously, during your unpaid lunch time you really should lay down the law about her sucking your time. IMO of course…

            2. JokeyJules

              …how do you deal with that? I’d dismiss her, ”
              “Yeah, that’s totally fine, not a problem at all”
              “are you sure-” “YUP! You quick do get that taken care of and i’ll do mine right now”
              “But-” “No worries! We’ve got this but the longer we take discussing it the longer it’ll be until it’s done.”

              You’re a saint.

              1. Dragoning

                Unfortunately, it’s usually about “upcoming” stuff because she likes to worry about things that we can’t even start for another two weeks, so I can’t just shove her out of my cube to go work.

                Once she cornered me in the hallway when I was going to fill up my water bottle to tell me about a possible-problem-that-may-come-up-so-this-might-happen and then after talking to me she found her own problem.

                I’m her rubber duck, basically. At least half the time.

                1. Dragoning

                  Last time she asked me if I was still assigned to work with her because she was worried I didn’t like working with her anymore because she always has complicated problems.

                2. Natalie

                  I can’t just shove her out of my cube to go work.

                  I think you could, actually – not physically shove her, but if there’s something you can do to visibly signal that you’re working right now and not available to talk, that might help her move on. What exactly you do is going to depend, and maybe it’s nice to switch it up sometimes, but it could be putting headphones on, picking up your handset and making a call, and even walking away from your desk to the printer or whatever. The trick is, she’s not going to sprint away the first second that you stop having a conversation with her. You might have to leave her hanging for a moment – it will feel like 5 minutes but it will actually probably be 30 seconds – before she shifts gears.

                3. valentine

                  Last time she asked me if I was still assigned to work with her because she was worried I didn’t like working with her anymore
                  So you can ask to be reassigned?

                  What if you suggest she get an actual rubber duck?
                  Or repeat “Don’t borrow trouble”?

                4. smoke tree

                  I would have a broader conversation with her about this. Apart from being a huge waste of your time, it’s probably just enabling what sounds like significant anxiety about things that haven’t even happened yet. Not that I blame you for that, but I don’t think it’s doing her any favours, and she needs to come up with her own ways to deal with stress that don’t involve offloading it on others.

                5. Gumby

                  Sometimes I deal better w/ my worries if I write them down. That at least gets them out of my head because I know they are stored somewhere else. It sounds like she’s using you for that. Would it help to give her another place to store her worries?

                  In fact, have her make up a risk register. The process of writing them down might help, but the true benefit could be in the analyzing the likelihood and magnitude and in having a response already semi-pre-planned.

            3. Not Your Mother's Taco Salad

              Have you told her that you don’t want to spend your lunch hour that way?

              1. Dragoning

                When it happens on lunch I tell her I’m on lunch break and she usually apologizes and leaves.

            4. whingedrinking

              See, I’ve dealt with people like that before. Most of them were kids under twelve dealing with anxiety and responding to “that’s not going to happen” with “but what if it did?”

        2. Havarti

          30 minutes is a long time. I had a 10 minute call the other day with someone fussing about a report and I was ready to fake my death via carnivorous chinchillas just to get him off the phone.

          1. Dragoning

            I have a very good poker face, so I pretty much sit and listen to her repeat herself and nodding and going “Yep, that’ll be fine” while drifting off and thinking about television or something.

            1. Blue

              Can you ask her to email you with her concerns instead? And maybe the process of writing the email would serve the same rubber-duck effect.

          2. RUKiddingMe

            I had that call this morning. Five minutes in I was ready to stick an icepick in the back my own head.

        3. Parenthetically

          Do you think it might be time to bring the pattern to her attention? “Hey, Jane, let me stop you there for a sec. Do you mind if I point out a pattern that I’ve seen over the last X weeks/months/years?” *pause for affirmative response* “(At x frequency and with x duration) you seem really stressed about (upcoming projects), for instance A, B, and C. It seems like you feel really compelled to get reassurances from me and other coworkers about whether or not the project will turn out ok, and you’ll spend a half hour worrying about it AT me. The fact is, you’re competent, our systems and structures work, and every single one of those projects has turned out just fine. Given that things turn out fine, do you see how that constant stream of anxiety could be stressful to others in the office? You’re doing the right things, and you don’t need to check in with me to make sure you are, because I trust that you are.”

          I think going a little meta with stuff like this can be a pattern-breaker in itself — not least because next time you can kindly say, “Hey, Jane, you’re doing the Worrying-At-Me thing again, so I’m going to stop you there! I trust you to get on with it on your own.”

          1. Dragoning

            Hah, this sounds a little like a manager talking to her, but I’m one of the most junior people in the department and she is well above me.

            1. Parenthetically

              Ha! Oh man, yeah, that does change things. I still think you can point out the “worrying-at-people” pattern if you have otherwise good rapport with her, just tweaking the language. I don’t think you have to just put up with it. Best of luck, though!

            2. RUKiddingMe

              I think that @Parenthetically is on to something though. Just tweak the language because…hierarchy, but still you could do somehing like this.

        4. RUKiddingMe

          Oh wow. Just reading that wore me out. You don’t need to put in this much emotional labor for her. It will eventually affect you, negatively.

        5. Hey Karma, Over Here

          Don’t get burned out. Try saying no, when no isn’t necessary for you so that when the situation arises that you don’t have time to do this for her, you will both be prepared.
          Honestly, I read a letter in the Slate Care and Feeding column today about a woman whose two year old requires a half hour tantrum calm down cycle to get in the care and thought, “I know how this turns out.”

    2. Grapey

      “worried preemptively about things that aren’t an issue, or aren’t going to be an issue”

      I’ve been in systems work for about 10 years and I WISH more people thought upfront about what effects there might be. Too many people go “look how easy it is to add a handle here to hold the teapot on its center of gravity! omg this is awesome” without thinking about stuff that doesn’t affect them like “but if you add it there, you can’t remove the lid to add water” until months down the line. Then the original team comes up with something like “just add it to the spout, it takes longer but who cares, the new design is the optimal solution for MY team”.

      That’s obviously an extreme example but in my experience, people that are stressed about what-if’s have usually been burned by ignoring them in the past.

        1. Dragoning

          I totally understand why she’s always so anxious, and she frequently has good points, but the panic is just so much. And belaboring the point once I’ve given her the answers she needs is…gah….

    3. TechEditor

      Ugh, do you work with my coworker? As soon as someone even MENTIONS upcoming work, she immediately goes into panic mode. And I know I can count on a worried phone call or email. We both work from home, so Iʼm sure it would be even worse in an office. I like to assess things day by day and generally keep an eye on where our deadlines stand and what the priorities are. We have never gotten behind or been so overwhelmed with work to the point where her panic seems justified, so Iʼm having trouble understanding where she is coming from. I mean, I show a sense of urgency with my work, but itʼs like… Do you actually want to BE competent or just broadcast your stress so you SEEM competent? I think it all comes from a place of insecurity or uncertainty. She doesnʼt seem very confident in her role.

    4. Aggretsuko

      I am that coworker, but in my experience, things may not be okay and just fine. Reassuring me of such doesn’t really work. I would just recommend ignoring her and me, honestly. I’m going to be stressed no matter what at this point.

      1. Dragoning

        I actually don’t reassure her needlessly–if I think something’s going to be an issue, I say so…but it’s just so rarely the case.

    5. Meg Danger

      This very much sounds like a woman I work closely with. We work for a non-profit that directly serves a very vulnerable population in our community. Said co-worker cares deeply for our clients and front-line employees… but is also a hopeless mess when stressed – unable to do some basic parts of her job, and snaps at co-workers. She says her stress levels gets so high because she cares a lot. She sort of uses caring as an excuse to not maintain appropriate levels of professionalism and pleasantness with co-workers when things get hectic. Our manager has bought into the myth that caring = good employee and excuses bad behavior. I guess the main difference is that even on her very best days my co-worker is not a high performer. End vent.

  3. Liz

    I actually did this performative anxiety thing at a previous job, but that wss because the workload and expectations were unmanageable and the higher-ups expected us to just deal with it by pulling 14-hour days. I knew I couldn’t push back verbally so on some level I was thinking “this is the only way I can get away with expressing this.” Not the best way of dealing, but that job was driving me mental and I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

    It doesn’t sound like your workplace is like that- but I wonder if one of coworker’s previous jobs was, and she hasn’t shaken the habit.

    1. Dragoning

      Ooh, I’ve done this a couple of times. I felt terrible about it afterward—wholly unprofessional to be so visibly upset and stressed and angry about something, even though it wasn’t fair to me and shouldn’t have happened with better management.

    2. WellRed

      I think this happens to the best of us and is often indicative of unreasonable workloads, etc., as you say. On the other hand, there are some people that just are constantly stressed and letting it spill over and it’s exhausting to be around. even when I am screaming inside, I pride myself on looking calm, cool and collected on the outside most of the time.

      1. HigherEd on Toast

        Yeah, to me there’s a big difference between getting stressed on occasion and showing off your stress all the time. I have colleagues who do get stressed when it’s a big deal, and I help them if I can. I also have one who, every single day, slams doors and curses and screams things like, “Why can’t ONE thing go right today?” and makes a big production of talking about all the people who are depending on her to do [thing] and how stressful it is to be popular and busy. I’ve long since reached the point of going, “Uh-huh” at her, or if she’s in another room when she starts making her “Notice me!” noises, not responding at all.

        1. RUKiddingMe

          How do they get away with cursing, screaming, and slamming? Does management not say anything, ever, at all? Or…are they tenured?

    3. Letter writer

      It’s actually her first job since graduating – which makes some wrong approaches to things like stress more understandable.

      1. LondonBridges

        Oh goodness, that seems right. I’m currently in college, and it seems a lot of times with some of my friends it’s a competition to see who’s more stressed and has the worst workload, and being visibly overworked and tired and breaking down can sometimes play into that. It’s the “I’m so stressed look at how much work I am bravely soldiering though, I’m so strong for making it through all this and still keeping my grades okay” Olympics. (I personally have given up trying to compete, as I’m friends with a lot of STEM majors with literal bookloads to do each night, and I value my sleep too much to play the “oh, I only got four hours of sleep last night” game.)

    4. designbot

      This is so related to what I was venturing down here to say. If someone is performing stress, it’s usually because at some point in their lives that got them results. It got someone to not bother them when they were already overwhelmed, it got someone to help them out, it got someone to lower their expectations… somehow, in some way, they get (or have previously gotten) something out of this. It may not be working anymore, it may not work for you, but it’s worked for them. I think when you see this, I’d try doing some serious thinking about the environment you’re in—do normal, appropriate expressions of being overloaded/overstressed get people the help/time/resources they need? If not, there’s your reason right there. If they do, maybe this is a leftover from a previous environment and the discussion can be about, you don’t need to do this here, we can help you if you bring something to our attention in a much less disruptive way.

  4. Rebecca1

    This worked for George Costanza, but I don’t think people should take Seinfeld episodes as work advice.

    1. Liane

      Nope. Just like you shouldn’t take the scripts/lyrics of “Gotta win ’em [back] no matter what” rom-coms & pop songs as relationship advice.

    2. Foxy Hedgehog

      I was coming here to mention that! For the uninitiated:

      ELAINE: Yeah, what do you do all day?
      GEORGE: Not that much.
      ELAINE: Uh huh.
      JERRY: I thought that new promotion was supposed to be more work?
      GEORGE: When the season starts. Right now, I sit around pretending I’m busy.
      JERRY: How do you pull that off?
      GEORGE: I always look annoyed. Yeah. When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy. Think about it. [He pretends to be annoyed by something]
      ELAINE: Yeah, you do!
      JERRY: He looks busy!
      ELAINE: He looks very busy.
      GEORGE: I know what I’m doing.

    3. I heart Paul Buchman

      Hang on… many Seinfeld episodes contain excellent advice for work and life. For example Opposite George has served me well. Take your first instinct… then do the opposite. You’ll look like a genius. :)
      And on a stressful day – who doesn’t find shaking their fists at the sky and shouting Serenity Now helpful? My husband and I often do this during those petty household arguments and it never fails to end in a giggle.

  5. Seeking Second Childhood

    This feels particularly relevant to me today. An in-house SOP is in conflict with a requirement from our international listing agency and I’m caught in the middle. I spent much of the morning trying to explain why not bending our procedure will cause listings problems. I’ve already gotten up and walked around twice, and I’m trying hard not to vent to anyone else. Thanks for listening LOL.
    (Worst part? If this goes through I have to do the task per our in-house SOP — AND then rework other projects in other groups that are already in review at the listings agency…and explain it to them.)

  6. AdAgencyChick

    Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a tendency at some agencies I’ve worked at, including the one I’m at now, for people to use stress as a badge of honor and a proof of how much they’re doing. Doubly unfortunately, sometimes it works to get you perceived as a super-dedicated employee, even if you are accomplishing the same as or less than someone who works fewer hours, is more efficient, and doesn’t go around announcing what a martyr they are.

    I try to combat this for my own direct reports by talking up to others how much they were able to accomplish in a certain amount of time, especially if their efficient work meant NOT having to work late or on a weekend. I wish more people would do this, as I think “check me out, I’m so stressed and I work all the time, aren’t I great?” is a totally toxic attitude.

    1. Anon 9

      Yes, this! It’s a slippery slope from ‘look at me stressed out and working nights and weekends’ to it becoming a company culture where it’s expected, and suddenly you have high levels of burn out and frustration as people realize the expectations have shifted to something unreasonable – all started by people who make being stressed/overwhelmed their norm.

    2. Hey Karma, Over here.

      So much of this. I am working hard! Let me show you: see, I am shaking I’m so hungry and I’m running back and forth and I’m on my chat and email and and and.
      OK, where are you in the process? Can you identify what’s been done and what can be delegated?
      No? You have it all in bits and pieces? OK.
      Is there something you need from someone else? I can check with them, expedite things? No, you have everything you need? OK
      Yeah, I’m not sticking around for this movie. It runs every week.

      1. I See Real People

        Ha ha! It’s hilarious to actually see it in words. My office as well. All.Day.Every.Day.

    3. Anonybus

      I am currently in a workplace culture like this, and to my horror, I have realized that it has infected my own behavior: in other contexts, I am now more prone to stress or have overreactions to little problems where I was never like that before I had spent time in a workplace where it was normal.

      I think that’s another good argument for talking to the coworker about this. There can be consequences that no one wants if this becomes normalized.

      1. Bostonian

        This is part of the problem in environments which people are acting stressed all the time to show how “busy” they are: it affects others, too.

        Particularly for the junior staff, as OP was talking about: I want to emphasize that even though OP didn’t want to mention this to the histrionic coworker, it’s actually really important. If a junior employee sees how stressed she is all the time, the junior employee may think it’s normal for that position and say to themselves, “wow, I don’t know if I want to get promoted to that spot, maybe I should consider other options”.

        1. CMart

          “wow, I don’t know if I want to get promoted to that spot, maybe I should consider other options”

          Maybe that’s part of the performance – job security. If you’re so stressed out/”valuable” all the time no one will come for your job.

          But I can vouch as a junior employee looking around and trying to decide my career path that the level of chill of the people in high positions absolutely impacts my decision making. It’s why, when I worked in restaurants, I was happy to keep bartending 30 hours a week, making $40,000 a year and would laugh in my poor managers’ faces when they encouraged me to move into management for a 100% increase in hours and responsibility and a 25% pay raise. They were always exhausted and miserable. No thanks.

        2. Crumbledore

          Seconding re: impact on junior staff. When I was starting my career, I had a martyr colleague who used to loudly proclaim how stressed she was and how she was in the office at all hours. It was so hard as a junior staff member not to compare myself negatively to her. I didn’t realize how much I had internalized those false messages about what makes a good colleague and worker until many years later, when I approached burnout myself. It has taken years to extract those from my psyche, and they STILL rear their heads now and then. Of course, she wasn’t responsible for my choices, nor was she the only source of that messaging, but OP is right to be concerned for her junior colleagues.

      2. Zoe Karvoupsina

        Yeah, in the office I just left, one of my colleagues would get incredibly stressed over everything, and I would feel my shoulders rise. And then I would get snappy with them, especially when I was all ‘how can I help?’ and they just needed to vent, or just wanted to be panicky.

    4. BookishMiss

      LastJob was like this. Pretty evenly split between constant Chicken Little types and those of us who looked at our equivalent workload and went to it without the squawking. The boss would do anything to make the constant panic stop except say “stop panicking,” so tasks got transferred, etc, etc, etc, and then I left. It’s a great way to lose people who work without panicking.

      1. designbot

        or to teach people to panic, because they’re rewarded with lighter workloads when they do.

    5. Kelly L.

      Yep. I have definitely worked places where “sense of urgency” was conflated with “behave as if hair is on fire at all times.” Sometimes to the detriment of the job–for example, this was a big thing at a sandwich shop I worked at, and it was faster to calmly make the sandwich correctly than it was to flail around, slapdash it, get the order wrong, and have to do it over again, but the latter was what got rewarded.

      1. That Girl From Quinn's House

        I worked places where being so disorganized so that every issue that arose was “hair is on fire all the time!” and when I’d either a) handle something calmly, people would yell at me, BUT THIS IS AN EMERGENCY YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW SERIOUS THIS IS because it wasn’t, or b) get frazzled because something really was a crazy ask they’d be like WHY CAN’T YOU DO THIS FOR ME STOP SAYING NO.

        You just screamed at me that I need to fire my best llama trainer because he was 15 minutes late to work one time in three years, and then told me nonchalantly I need to buy 30 more llamas and have them trained by Saturday, no big deal don’t stress just buy, when the barn is at maximum fire capacity and we didn’t budget for more llamas, barn expansions, or extra llama food/care.

      1. hbc

        If I had a nickel for everyone I’ve met who admittedly can’t function without coffee but slams addicts of other substances without any sense of their hypocrisy….

        1. B

          Nooooooo, coffee is very different than just about every other commonly addictive substance i can think of. Is there some reason you think the coffee is determental to their life?

      2. That Girl From Quinn's House

        I heard somewhere that the amount of caffeine in decaf is rarely zero and often closer to half-caf than anything, which is probably part of the reason it’s not catching on. For people who medically need zero it’s too risky, and for people who don’t medically need zero, it’s only a little less than regular so there’s no added value in ordering it.

        1. Natalie

          There can be small amounts of caffeine in decaffeinated coffee but it’s not remotely close to half-caf – it’s going to be somewhere between 1% and 10%.

      3. B

        Meh, for me I just prefer an herbal tea if I want a hot drink but no caffeine. Rarely I will do decaff if maybe i want a slight amount of caffeine.

    6. Not in US

      I used to work for ad agencies – I found this was common. In my experience they loaded up the work until you hit that point – whatever it was for you. I was good at my job, good at anticipating issues and the project management as well as handling the client, so I kept getting more until I was run off my feet and visibly stressed more often than not. By the time I got done handling the client politics I didn’t have anything left for internal politics or a lot of political niceties (really in hindsight political requirements). I was widely seen as great at my job but not promote-able both because they would have needed 2 people to replace me and because I did emote a lot of stress on others and because I had no patience left for internal politics. I burned out and changed industries.

    7. Parenthetically

      It’s freakin’ hustle culture! Hustle is fine, but hustle CULTURE is so toxic. Burnout, exhaustion, not having time for normal things like eating or sleeping: not a badge of honor, not a sign of superiority, not an indicator of excellence.

    8. Mel

      Yes, I’ve encountered this too. A couple jobs ago the people who always talked about their stress level were perceived as doing massive amounts of extra work. In reality, we were all doing roughly the same amount of work, but those stressed out people got a lot of accolades for it.

    9. BRR

      That was my thought on reading the title. My employer also tends to reward these people because they’re dedicated, busy, and contributing so much. I’ve been having some… issues… in regard to getting recognition for my accomplishments and I’ve honestly considered acting more stressed out. It feels like giving attention to a toddler every time they throw a temper tantrum.

      I think this is the cousin, maybe even the sibling, of people playing the busy game. Oh look how busy I am!

    10. NW Mossy

      Oh, geez, this is the “never start a land war in Asia” classic trap of the workplace – thinking that hard work and results are synonymous. That Venn diagram overlaps, but it sure isn’t a circle.

      I sometimes will tell an employee to think about what it would be like if they spent their entire day making baskets. Beautiful, hand-crafted, lovingly designed baskets that are the result of tireless hours. But it doesn’t mean a thing when our customers don’t want or need baskets from us.

    11. Letter writer

      AdAgencyChick, that was something I feared when I wrote the letter yes: that by not showing stress I am missing a trick. I like Alison’s point that if it works, it’s a sign of a toxic workplace rather than something to replicate.

    12. overeducated

      Yeah, it’s a part of some workplace cultures. One of the reasons academia wasn’t a great fit for me, even as a grad student.

  7. Anon 9

    As a manager, I would be very concerned if someone I managed was constantly and publicly stressed by their job! It’s fine and normal for people to experience and express stress during particular periods of time (when things are time sensitive and there are short-term but high demands being placed on them) but I would think they couldn’t handle the work being assigned to them if they were constantly trying to ‘make sure people knew’ how stressed they were. This would also make me wonder about their time management skills if they are taking the time to complain about being stressed rather than actively addressing the issues causing the stress and going to their manager to help alleviate the issues (ie I have too much on my plate to get it all done due to X, what can we push to the back burner for a week?).

    1. Sara without an H

      This. I’ve managed a couple of Chicken Littles and the problems often stemmed from their own inability to prioritize, plus poor time management skills. It’s difficult to untrain this kind of behavior.

    2. NotAnotherManager!

      I agree – I work in a high-stress, deadline-driven environment, and we screen for it in interviews – can you handle having to rejuggle your day on a moment’s notice? What would you do if it’s not humanly possible to get something done on time? Many of our deadlines are set by courts, agencies, and outside parties, and some (usually the worst ones) are entirely immovable – so you have to shift your resources and scope, since the time is outside your control. People who are going to walk into that an become snippy with coworkers, behave unprofessionally with a client or representative of a court/agency, or have outbursts are not going to make for good teammates or last very long.

      Also, I get calls about the visibly stressed. It’s not confidence-inducing, and usually, someone’s asking for me to step in and take over something for them, for me to assign someone else to the project, or to not work with that person again in the future. If not one wants to work with you, you don’t make your hours. You don’t make your hours, that’s a performance issue for evaluation time. In the face of external stress, having someone internal amp it up makes the Powers that Be very, very nervous about whether or they can do a good job under pressure.

    3. Letter writer

      Thanks, Anon 9. As well as writing to Alison I did ask a couple of friends in senior managerial roles about this and one said something similar to you.

      The way he put it is that if he sees someone on his team visibly stressed he takes that as an indicator that they are at the limits of their capacity to cope. He would be very unlikely to give a £1.5 million project to someone who seems barely able to cope with a £1 million project.

  8. Havarti

    Do people also spend time trying to reassure stressed coworker throughout the process? Cuz that gets old fast.

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.

        You try to reassure coworkers? Or you need reassurance?
        If it’s the former, I’m going to say, ask specifically what you can do. Stressed people have a list of things and there’s usually something that can be delegated. Drama llamas pull the martyr card and have some many pots on the stove that nobody could possibly understand, pick up, share.
        If you need reassurance, make a list and see what you can pass on. If there’s nobody to pass on to and no work that cannot be put off, your job sucks.

        1. Amber Rose

          I try to reassure others. I always ask what I can do but 99% of the time the answer is nothing. Nothing can be done.

          But that’s because the disasters around here are infrastructure related. I can’t help fix what’s dying.

          1. Havarti

            It’s kind of you but yes, most times there’s nothing you can do. And, like Dragoning above, you get stuck in this weird, Groundhog Day-esque loop of repeating yourself that does nothing to make the other person stop talking.

      2. fposte

        I’m obviously not your manager, but as a manager, I would say in general don’t. The occasional “I know you can do it, and of course I’ll help you with the [part of it that’s my job]” is fine, but genuinely spending time talking a coworker down from a spiral isn’t something I would want one of my staff to do. That’s not how my staff time is supposed to be spent, and it’s also not likely to be long-term great for the co-worker, either.

        (I know your workplace is not the most functional, so expectations there may obviously differ; I’m just saying that this isn’t best practice.)

        1. Amber Rose

          It’s my boss I’m usually talking down though. =P

          Everyone else is usually pretty chill.

        2. Aggretsuko

          As a naturally panicky person, I would tell you not to waste your time trying to talk me down. Just ignore me. Seriously.

          1. Mockingdragon

            Same. It all passes so much faster when I don’t ALSO have to worry that I’m bothering everyone else (which I know I am, but if I can pretend I’m not…)

    1. BRR

      If they’re always stressed, no. If they’re usually good and are stressed because they have ten things that came up today and are all due tomorrow, I’ll try. I think that I treat it more like dealing with their work than dealing with their stress as a personal feeling.

    2. NotAnotherManager!

      Not directly, but taking a few minutes to talk through a plan or help resolve a problem or see if there is something productive that can be done to get them moving in a less frantic way can help. If it’s someone that repeatedly needs to be talked down off a wall, that’s not going to work out long term.

    3. Carbovore

      Sometimes I get the opposite effect because I’ve been told I’m such a harmonious, “get it done with as little fuss as possible” type person–what I mean is, I’ll often hear from the panicky “I’M ON FIRE” people that they want to dump more projects or work on me and I’m like, no? I’m swamped? But because I’m not running around like a flailing muppet throwing a tantrum, I MUST not have enough to do. (In particular, my dept head is in a constant cyclone of drama and panic–she’s said to me on a number of occasions, “Well, things are just EASIER for you, Carbovore.”)

      Meanwhile I’m sitting there like, no? It’s not EASIER–I just focus more of my time on working instead of panicking? I have forethought that allows me to look ahead and anticipate issues? But no, I’m not magically better at doing the work than other human beings!

      I often feel very organized, proactive people almost get “punished” for these good traits by being overburdened with work. Least…. that’s been my experience. I’ve become a much less helpful coworker and I no longer suggest new ideas that will lead to work I don’t want put on my plate.

      1. Sleepless

        I’m a calm, organized person and a great multitasker. You would think these were positives, but at my previous job I made it look too easy. My boss was a sucker for flashy, show-off personalities, so she loved my drama queen coworker and sort of dismissed me. They had to assign part of my work to another person after I left because my replacement couldn’t keep up. So there.

      2. TardyTardis

        Yeah, this sounds familiar, and everyone is always so surprised I have to be replaced by two and a half people…

    4. I See Real People

      The venting every day, even if you hear it from the next office, is exhausting.

  9. Megan

    I love that a “healthy” work environment was called out in the answer here. I’ve received feedback before about not having a “sense of urgency,” and the examples cited were essentially, “You weren’t stressed enough about this and went home at 5pm on Monday when this completely low-effort project was going to be due on Friday morning.” Those were not healthy environments.

    I’ve started using this in interviews now, especially as an answer to “greatest weakness” questions or as a follow-up question at the end of an interview. “I’ve been told in previous performance reviews that I don’t outwardly express my passion or stress in the same way that a lot of my fellow coworkers did. I’m not really a panic-prone person, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean I don’t absolutely understand deadlines, important client projects, etc. I’m just really good at keeping calm and getting it done right by the deadline, and sometimes this can be mis-interpreted as not caring. I care about my work, and my coworkers, and I show it by getting the work done, staying positive, and keeping my stress levels to a minimum. How much of an issue do you think this would be with this position?”

    Most of the time, they say it’s not an issue, it’s an asset, and it sets expectations for them about me. And sometimes they don’t take it to well and just keep repeating, “This is a VERY fast-paced role, and requires someone to be VERY on top of it and VERY passionate about it.” That’s a good sign that it wouldn’t be a great fit.

    1. Beckie

      Oh my goodness, you would thrive in my current department. I mean that as a compliment. Everyone is on the ball and plans ahead so that there’s no need for panic. And then when there are fires, we’re in a better place to put them out because we’re not already stressed and panicked by the normal workload.

      1. Megan

        I would LOVE that. One of my go-to stories is that I once got a stern talking-to from a stressboss for suggesting we all huddle in a conference room for a bit to take a breath and wrap our heads around the situation (for 10 minutes, that’s all!) before fixing it. “JUST FIX IT NOW” is a recipe for having to “just fix it again” 10 times.

      2. Ama

        I specifically went looking for this in my last job hunt because the environment I was in at a time was an everything-is-an-emergency place (except, ironically, for things that were actually emergencies, like the time a coworker casually strolled up to get a cash advance for his business trip to China at 4:45 on a Friday when he was leaving on Sunday, and then didn’t understand what all the fuss was about).

        I knew I found it when in the interview I said that I was looking for a job where I could do a lot more advance planning for my projects and the hiring manager’s face lit up. (And it’s true, I’ve been here six years and the number of true drop everything emergencies I’ve encountered can be counted on one hand.)

    2. Lily Rowan

      I also get that “sense of urgency” feedback, and in reasonably healthy working environments! It’s just a style thing, and I sort of work on it, but ultimately it’s not my way to run around freaking out (although being more proactive is a good thing for me to do…)

      1. Megan

        I hope you do! The more people push back on the idea that stress = productivity, the better. I love that my “damn the man/punk” phase is leaving at 5pm and not replying to non-urgent emails until the next day.

    3. Parenthetically

      My mother is a veteran public educator who has been criminally underpaid for well over half her life teaching in overcrowded classrooms full of crabby middle schoolers — she’s the definition of passionate and committed… and she’s also the coolest cucumber when sh*t hits the fan. It makes me BONKERS that so many managers equate passion with frenzy.

      Your interview description is excellent! I’ll have to keep that one in mind.

      1. Megan

        Nobody knows how to harness a deep meditative state in the midst of chaos quite like a public middle school teacher. Props.

    4. JustPassingThrough

      Megan – May I borrow this as well? I’m doing interview prep now and I find this true of myself too.

      1. Megan

        Of course! I wish more candidates felt comfortable talking about their optimal work styles and personalities up front. The interview goes both ways!

    5. NotAnotherManager!

      Oh, boy. Being in a frenzy is NOT a sign you take your job seriously. Hitting your deadlines, doing good work, and being a reliable team member are far more indicative of that.

      I work with very amped-up Type As, and they respond best to a quick recitation of what needs to be done, what the deliverable will be, and a confirmation of the deadline (and, for the more nervous, a short status to let them know we’re in great shape to have this on their desk by first thing Friday morning). It takes less than five minutes and it’s far more effective than freak-out mode.

      1. Decima Dewey

        What drove me crazy with one manager was when I’d remind her at 10 am that timesheets had to be faxxed to payroll by 1 pm, she’d say she’s got it, and when I went across the street to get lunch I’d find her at 1:20 frantically signing timesheets and ranting that she’s doing the best she can and what do they want from her.

        Mind you, if somebody doesn’t have enough cash for a print job and the bypass key for the printer isn’t in the spot it always is, and we’re closing in 6 minutes, I do much the same thing.

    6. Letter writer

      Thanks, Megan. I may adapt your question for future job interviews myself if I may!

      1. Megan

        Please do! I often append it with something like “Eh, I was a theater kid for so long, so it really trained me to know my stuff, stay calm, and roll with the punches when hiccups happen.”

  10. londonedit

    Some people really do work on the principle that the only way everyone can see how Busy And Important they are is if they spend all their time loudly demonstrating the fact. ‘I’m so busy. Look how busy I am! I’m so stressed. I’ve got so much to do. Look at everything I have to do!’ Often, if they spent less time doing the whole performative dance about how Very Stressed and Very Busy they are, they’d have more time and space to actually get the work done, but maybe they feel like they’ll be overlooked if they’re not shouting about everything they’re doing, or maybe they’re trying to prove to themselves how busy and important they are. It is really tiring for everyone involved, and it creates a really stressful working environment.

    I think Alison’s script is a great way of trying to deal with this sort of behaviour, but I think it’s also often one of those things that people don’t really realise they’re doing, and it’s really difficult to get someone to take that step back and examine what’s behind their need to demonstrate their stress and worry to everyone else.

    1. Michaela Westen

      I think this can also be from being treated like they were invisible, maybe growing up or later, so they had to make a big song and dance to get acknowledged.
      Also they may have been in a job where they got in trouble or fired for not making the song and dance and the boss thought they weren’t doing the work. :p

      1. londonedit

        Oh yes, good point. There are definitely bosses who take a lack of stress/panic to mean that people ‘don’t care’ or they’re ‘not invested enough’. Also I guess there’s the phrase ‘the squeaky wheel gets the most grease’ – I’m sure there are people who have found that the only way to get any help is to shout loudly about their problems.

      2. Arts Akimbo

        Yes, agreed. I’ve done it in the past to please certain relatives, who were up-before-dawn types and always saw me as lazy because I was a night person who needs 9+ hours sleep to be functional. No matter what I did in a day, it was never enough, but if I ran around in a panic over how busy I was, well then I was really doing a lot! “Look at me!!! I am so very not lazy!!!”

        I still find that toxic mindset cropping up. I tend to make work for myself to fill any available downtime.

        1. Michaela Westen

          My grandmother called me lazy for sitting around – what was really going on was I was sick all the time from unmanaged allergies. I wasn’t lazy, I was tired and had a headache.
          I was actually very frustrated because I wanted to be up and doing, but wasn’t able to. After I started learning to manage my allergies as an adult I kept finding more and more to do, until I was pushing myself past the point of health, then I had to learn to dial it back.

    2. Marni

      I am unfortunately a person who needs to feel stressed and on the edge of panic in order to do my best work. I’m not doing it to show off, I promise you. I’m just wired that way, since childhood. I make a conscious effort to keep it covered up at work, and to conceal from my colleagues if I’m feeling that spiral. But I have some personal friends I’m very grateful to, and my shrink, who are willing to hear me out until I calm down enough to be productive.

      Not saying this is a great system. Just saying that the people acting this way aren’t necessarily doing it as a performance.

    3. Damn it, Hardison!

      I see you have met my coworker. I generally respond to her monologues (many a day) with some variation of “that sounds frustrating for you” and then put my headphones back on. I see (and hear) her going to other colleagues to complain about her issue of the day (or hour). Her reputation is not great, and people don’t want to work with her. It’s exhausting, and there is a black cloud of suck constantly in my work area. The upside is that I seem much more chill (I’m generally screaming internally) and am the go-to person for our department of 2.

  11. Res Admin

    Some people seem to thrive on working in “panic mode”. It makes them difficult to deal with (as demonstrated in the letter), tends to provide counter-productive results, and is just generally exhausting for everyone around. I have never seen it work to the person’s advantage long-term.

    Suggestions: Do not “feed” the drama. Remain calm, cool, and collected. This also means not trying to calm the person down. Ignore the stressed behavior as much as possible; when impossible to ignore, express brief surprise that they would act that way and move on (seriously, cursing about a client–or even talking negatively about client behind their back–is extremely unprofessional and should be treated that way). And, yes, I have raised an eyebrow, said “Really?”, and walked away shaking my head when a senior person decided to have a toddler tantrum about something stupid.

    Realize that you may not be able to completely change someone like that. Esp. since they rarely see their behavior as anything less than appropriate.

    1. Sloan Kittering

      I see some of myself here and I realized this is probably due to my work style, where I find I need the urgency/panic mode to kick in a little so that I can really get down to work. I think this is probably my own ADHD talking. Regardless, it’s certainly not my coworker’s fault or something they need to manage for me, and I would be horrified to hear it’s affecting the rest of the office!

    2. Letter writer

      Thanks, I agree with you. I like and respect this colleague but I don’t see it as my life’s mission to change her mind. I like Alison’s script. Given our relative levels of seniority it would be difficult for me to raise this issue proactively but I think there’s every chance I can use the wording above when the basic topic itself next comes up (and knowing her, it will).

  12. Snarkus Aurelius

    I hate people like this. I really do because it turns work into a performative task rather than a substantive one — yes even if she’s still good at her job!

    Aside from extreme and negative circumstances, I don’t like including feelings as part of the job. If you do your job and you do it well, then it really shouldn’t matter *how* you feel about it. Just do it!

    I worked for someone who had high levels of anxiety and stress. It was all over her face all the time even with the simplest tasks. AAM was right. Her attitude transferred to everyone else, and, worse for me, that’s the lens she used to evaluate me.

    Writing a press release or sending a memo or planning a monthly meeting sent my ex-boss into a tizzy. She made me paranoid because I thought I was missing something big. Yes, she dinged me on my evaluation, much like your coworker, because she thought I didn’t care enough. Keep in mind she never criticized the final result because there was nothing wrong with that. Looking back, I think it really fueled her insecurities that I, a 20-something, could easily crank out a press release in an hour while she, a 50-something with 30+ years of experience, could not.

    The end result is exactly what AAM described. That boss stopped getting work and was eventually let go. The organization president had enough of her.

    1. Sloan Kittering

      There’s always two separate art forms involved in success at work: being competent, and being SEEN to be competent. These are not always the same thing. It suucccks but I’ve always found it to be true.

  13. Mrs Mary Smiling

    I’ve sometimes come across the case where people don’t realize that you’re struggling until you express it emotionally, by being stressed. The phenomenon where people who get stuff done with less bother get more to do as a reward (and are often less praised for it?). I spent my early career getting dumped on by various colleagues either with more new tasks to add or lots of extra custom requests or (once only!) someone just coming in and yelling about decisions I had made that didn’t suit her. It wasn’t until I emotionally demonstrated that I was stressed (griping, getting flustered, or in the case of the yeller, crying), that people seemed to take the load seriously. I got many many variations on “Mary, you always seem so calm, I never knew you were overwhelmed about that.” (or, still makes me mad for my 23 year old self: “I didn’t know you would be like this; you’re always so helpful!” Because, yes, what a compliment: thinking she’s nice is the perfect reason for an assistant director in her 50s to yell at the 23 year old secretary.)

    In my current workplace, I wear my over-workedness on my sleeve, as do all of my colleagues. I wonder if I’m doing myself a disservice but I just don’t have the poker face for that any more.

    Which does not excuse her passing on the misery to everyone, I just wonder if she has found that in the other extreme, it works for her to project a lot of discomfort so that people won’t project their stress onto her.

    1. Lance

      That’s… actually a rather interesting point to me: bosses that don’t believe an employee might have too much on their plate until they outwardly start to show it in the form of visible stress. To be frank, especially if it’s a good employee, they should be taken at their word, and a plan should be worked out to deal with it… but what might be a good solution, besides the visible stress, for one that doesn’t believe their employee has too much? Or is there in fact one?

    2. Jules the 3rd

      I think the key part is the ‘healthy work environment’. Your AD was not part of a healthy work environment, and the dumping – well, a good manager will hear when you say ‘that’s a lot of additional workload, do you want me to delay X or Y to get it done?’

    3. Sloan Kittering

      I think it’s a fine line. Like OP says, I’ve worked with colleagues who seemed to have *too much chill* and it did end up doing them a disservice. A little bit of stress – even if somewhat performative – can be valuable IMO. I do find the workplace is still a little bit of a game sometimes.

      1. EmKay

        Ugh, this happened to me at a previous job. Even if I felt flustered, overwhelmed or stressed, apparently it never showed, and my boss nicknamed me Teflon Face (because nothing sticks, get it?). That was frustrating.

      2. Où est la bibliothèque?

        I’m a too much chill person, and it makes the times I *express* stress (rather than demonstrating it) maybe ring a little false?

        Somebody once asked how I was doing after a very long, difficult, all-hands-on-deck week, and I said, calmly, “well, I didn’t start smoking again, so that’s a win.” I was sincere–and it takes a lot of stress to make me feel at risk of picking up the habit again–but that was not how it came across and it definitely didn’t get me any sympathy.

    4. smoke tree

      Yeah, in an unhealthy work environment, people can definitely get held to different standards about this kind of thing. Particularly when management is really hands-off and colleagues are in charge of distributing tasks among themselves. I’ve had some colleagues who always complained really vocally regardless of their workload, and then others actually who had more work to do would feel bad and offer to take over some of their projects. Gets frustrating if you are one of the non-complainers.

    5. NoTimeToNetflixAndChill

      I completely agree. I’ve had friends and myself experience in a unhealthy/toxic organization, level headed high performers, like myself, are given additional duties, projects, and asked to assist employees who are perceived to have too much work on their plate, whether they actually do or not. The high performing employee is then sometimes rewarded, promoted, etc. in the beginning. But this can often in the end lead to the high performing employee feeling like they are constantly being taken advantage of, or truly then being taking advantage of. More work is assigned and expected and future commensurate promotions in title and pay don’t happen. Why buy the cow? And an employee with less integrity either does shoddy work or claims credit for work not being done by them. And other employees resent the high performer . After a period of time the former high performer is doing so much work that they are no longer performing at a high level, are burnt out and looking for new employment, or are in panic mode and bringing everyone else down with them. Sometimes they are doing all of those things. In organizations that are not unhealthy (or unhealthy in different ways) this generally doesn’t happen. In some organizations employees can ask their manager “Which project is more important, x or y? There’s not time for both, were should I prioritize my time?” In toxic environments sometimes the panicking stressed martyr employee was once the favored employee, has no idea that it comes across as showboating when they state they’ve been working around the clock, and are crying for help, not realizing that the problem isn’t them, its the toxicity.

  14. tallteapot

    Alison, as usual, your script is just perfect! I’m dealing with an employee who is very negative and feels that her job has done her wrong and this script, with some slight modification, perfectly addresses what she’s doing and how it needs to change. I only hope that as time goes on, I can come up with these scripts on my own, instead of flailing about thinking “How do I say this??”

  15. Macedon

    I have to ask – you describe that this coworker has mismanaged her stress while dealing with a tough situation she resolved well in the end. My question is, did she do that against the odds? And if so, have management taken the necessary steps to avoid similar catastrophic situations?

    I am in no ways excusing making things difficult for the entire office, and this is self-acknowledged projecting to a certain extent, but: for a week of each month, I alone have to handle a task that our competitors assign to five-eight people on their side, along with significant resources we do not have. The expectation is to produce work to the same standard as our rivals in the same timeframe despite this. While I do my best not to take it put on others, I am not always successful and am very visibly stressed out — these days, I actually make a point of not hiding it, because while I have repeatedly made the case for why this task needs most resources, management has turned a blind eye. Finally, after noticing me flailing like an epileptic hamster for the past three months, they have kicked off talks about giving me more support in a distant future.

    So, while I don’t think that manifesting an excess of stress and letting that pour over other people is typically a good idea? I can see it as a half-way decent instrument in situations logical appeals haven’t worked out. Exhibiting stress forces people to acknowledge you, for good or for ill.

    (Yes, I am job searching.)

    1. Anonym

      It sounds like, in certain situations like yours where things are less than ideal, the strategic, self-aware performance of stress can be a valuable tool. Especially where emotional expression of distress registers with your audience/management better than well-reasoned, normal sharing of concerns. Organizational politics can be so weird.

      I think this is different from what OP’s colleague is doing, but it merits consideration.

      1. Macedon

        Agreed — I wouldn’t say there’s an ethical merit to displaying stress, but I also wouldn’t downplay it as a tool or a symptom and prioritise keeping up a stiff upper lip as heavily as the OP.

      2. Sloan Kittering

        Yeah we’ve often talked in the comments about sometimes how you have to let your bosses / managers feel the pain of various problems, versus just absorbing it all, untroubled, so that they get away with leaving your project understaffed or your tech/admin needs unmet.

    2. Letter writer

      Macedon, good question. I don’t want to narrow it down too much but basically we work in a consultancy role where clients often really need us but the people on the client teams we work with can be uncooperative or just see us as low priority. Unfortunately there isn’t much my firm’s management can do about preventing that – but they definitely DO recognise employees who are good at handling difficult clients and getting the job done regardless. That’s why I think my colleague’s stress at each difficult client is unwarranted: the partners have seen it all before hundreds of times and don’t blame us. If anything it would be tough to shine in our job unless you do have a challenging client every so often.

  16. Justin

    Yeah, unless you’re in a toxic place, visible/performative stress is not going to help. Sometimes it happens, but it’s not prized.

    I feel this way at school a lot in my doctoral program. My classmates are literally always freaking out, and sometimes I ask myself if I’m doing poorly if I’m not super anxious (and I have anxiety, and am in therapy). But I mostly realize that it means I’m treating myself well. (Not that they’re not, but it is the case for me).

    You’re treating yourself well. Keep up the good work, literally.

    1. College Career Counselor

      Just a heads-up, if you’re planning on becoming a professor after your doctoral program. In many universities, there is a very much a performative oh-my-god-I’m-so-busy aspect to the faculty. I suspect this is largely because in a largely self-regulated working environment, there is a lot of guilt/fear about not being productively engaged whenever possible. You should ALWAYS be thinking/writing/working if you want to get your dissertation done/get a job/get publications/get tenure & promotion.

      1. Justin

        Oh, I know that. I don’t want to go into academia anyway (for this and many other reasons, not the least of which is that it sounds like a good way to end up living far from where I want to be and with less money).

        But yes, that performative hair-on-fire thing is something I’ve noticed already.

        I AM always thinking, though, and I do all my assignments early.

      2. Birch

        But it doesn’t have to be that way! The next generation of academics have the power to change that toxic attitude.

      3. Letter writer

        If someone is being published all the time and never seems stressed how would they be viewed?

      4. smoke tree

        Sounds like the academic equivalent of the old “if you can lean, you can clean” policy.

  17. Autumnheart

    I think that being visibly agitated at work can be really disruptive in a work environment. A little bit of venting is normal. But when a person reacts negatively to every challenge, it just tires people out and undermines their morale. It can also make the reactive person look like they can’t handle challenges.

    I have a coworker who is highly competent, but who has a very negative reaction to changes in our tools or processes. OMG, more things to learn, this is such a pain, etc. etc. Not only was I sick of hearing it after multiple instances, but I realized how much it alienated people. Nobody wants to get an earful of doom and gloom when they’re just doing their job.

    At that point, I did some thinking. First, a response like, “Okay, I’ll take a look at it and follow up if I have questions” is way better than “Oh, MAN, now what? Another change? There goes my whole day!” And secondly, even though it’s tempting to panic when some huge thing comes screaming down the pipe, at least take 5 minutes to read through all the directives, get your head around it, and think of the first few steps that you would take to make the change.

    At my job, virtually none of the situations that we’ve ever dealt with have turned out to be insurmountable. And people in general feel better about their part when someone can say, “Cool, we’ll start with X, Y and Z. Let’s regroup at 1pm and see where we go next,” instead of contributing to the chaos. Save the “BLARGH” for instant message/coffee run/happy hour conversation.

    1. Autumnheart

      I also have other colleagues who appear to be masters of the “5 pounds of shit in a 10-pound bag” technique of making their work sound really complicated and a challenge for anyone below their level of mastery. They’re not anxious or stressed about it, but it definitely made me re-evaluate my own level of competency when I had to take over a task and it turned out to be far less complicated than they made it sound. Like I was expecting a good 2-3 full 8-hour days of work and instead it was, like, 3 hours’ worth of work.

      I don’t know whether to recommend this technique or not. I will say that their narrative is the accepted one, and they’re perceived as highly competent. By contrast, I suspect that there’s more than a little perception that if I make my work look easy, it must be because it is easy, and that all I can handle is the easy stuff and not the super-complicated, high-touch stuff like my colleagues.

  18. NW Mossy

    Alison, I so appreciate your response here, because I see shades of this sort of “stress performance” in a couple of folks on my team – I have a Worry Performer and a Frustration Performer, and it can be exhausting sometimes when they’re doing it in 1 on 1s and I end up in a quasi-therapist role while they emote. I’m absolutely stealing your framing of the issue for my coaching sessions with them, because it’s articulated a bit better than the phrasing I’ve been using.

    But to the original question, level-headed and calm in a tough situation is something that’s often highly valued, especially for senior leaders. I know it’s one of the traits I admire deeply in my grandboss, and I work pretty hard to emulate the way she can steady the ship in a crisis and help people move forward to action. Her counterparts in our organization don’t always display that skill, and the difference in how quickly and easily things get solved in her area vs. theirs is marked.

  19. Master Bean Counter

    Your colleague, let’s call her Jane, has issues.
    First off Jane has no idea how to handle her anxiety, so she’s unleashing it on others. She thinks this will make her feel better and get her sympathy. What really happens when you let anxiety out unsupervised it tends to act like a pair of bunnies and multiply. Before you know it you have a room full of bunnies and working around them is close to impossible. I used to be Jane. Then I eventually learned that my actions were not doing anyone any favors, especially myself.
    It may have taken more than a few classes and a lot of self reflection but I finally learned nobody, including me, wants my anxiety to run around the room.
    I can personally testify that my career took off once I learned to calmly deal with things. And it is a learned skill–for some of us anyway. Now I’m known as the person who will communicate and deal with things. Good most of the time. I don’t like it when I have to step in when the inner middle schoolers come out, but such is the course in management.
    So do Jane a favor and let her know that when she lets her stress out in the room it only creates more stress. If you really want to help her, ask her to take a walk around the building when she’s going full-steam stress ball.
    If you don’t want to help Jane, and you are under no obligation to do so, just remain your calm self that quietly kicks butt. But remember that you will have to toot your own horn once in a while.

  20. Lynca

    This is timely given I’m under a lot of stress myself. I do sometimes worry I come across as too stressed and panicky when I have a lot going on. It’s not a good look and I know that.

    I don’t take being visibly stressed at work as being a sign of commitment though. I take it as an indicator something is wrong. Either with how I am handling the role, the expectations of the role, etc. I can have some severe anxiety spikes/spirals but I don’t want to take that out on others/rope them into it. For the most part I seem to be doing good at that.

    I don’t see it as a level-headed vs. panic mode thing as much as it is “making sure you’re not impacting others in a negative way while dealing with stress” thing.

  21. ThatGirl

    At my last job, people would panic every time a deadline was approaching or a fire needed to be put out or some other thing went wrong. I had a reputation for being calm and collected because I knew being visibly stressed out or panicky wouldn’t help – and it always amused me that so many of my coworkers thought I was the chill one. All this to say, I agree with Alison.

    1. ThatGirl

      I will say, though, as an afterthought: if you’re stressed because your workload is too high, or you need help – it’s important to ask for that. Managers should know if someone is overwhelmed. But that’s different than performative stress.

  22. KC

    I needed to see this letter and the comment by Amber Rose. I finally understand what I view as passion for a task, project, etc. is viewed by colleagues as me being stressed and not capable of handling the demands of the job by colleagues- somewhat depending on the office culture. At my most recent job I could tell that when I was working with two employees I supervised, an assistant manager and a coordinator, on projects I cared deeply about, I was often met with visible annoyance of me, what I viewed as a lack of initiative and motivation, and obvious stress. They often asked why I was stressed out and it was causing stress in them. This baffled me.
    In supervisory roles for a previous employer I didn’t have these issues-we were working for a cause most of us believed in strongly and had similar personalities such as being interested in studying policy type work and working independently to bring completed work to the group. More introverted, I guess.
    At the recent employer it was a service industry job where anticipating and meeting the needs of high profile demanding clients. And most of the management team were highly extroverted people who liked working in a collaborative manner. I get why I came off this way to them when passionate about a project. They saw me as someone who was th a team player and demanded that work be done my way. I have high expectations of myself and also sometimes forget that others don’t hold themselves to the ridiculously high standards I set myself, nor should they. This would definitely be perceived as stress by people who do t do the same thing. I’m glad to now have a better understanding of how I’m perceived by others depending on company culture and personality type. It was ya pleasant experience and I had been questioning myself ever since.

    customer service

    1. KC

      Oops typos galore. Realizing that you were “that employee”, you had never been perceived that way in the past, being grateful for the new knowledge yet trying to make sense of it comparing it to my entire career, is not easy on mobile phone.

    2. Letter writer

      I am so pleased if my letter has been helpful. But I can’t help but think you missed the point of Alison’s reply?*

      The point wasn’t, I think, that different people just perceive stress differently and a bit of mutual understanding of these perspectives will go a long way. It also probably wasn’t that constantly stressed people should reflect “I have high expectations of myself and also sometimes forget that others don’t hold themselves to the ridiculously high standards I set myself”. I don’t want to paraphrase anyone else but I think the point is that people can be just as passionate about their work as you – or more so – without much stress and all the negative consequences of that. That it’s a toxic working culture to think high standards require constant stress.

      * If you got the point and simply disagree with it, that is different – my mistake. But the way you wrote suggested to me you weren’t aware you were strongly contradicting the reply to my letter.

      1. KC

        I do realize that now after reading the comments that have come through and honestly thinking about this a lot today. Until today I’ve been trying to justify what I subconsciously knew was not good for me or anybody else, or productive for that matter. I’ve been too caught up since I left that employer of telling myself I wasn’t “that employee” and trying to rationalize why I wasn’t some horrible incapable person rather than seeing how my actions and behavior came off to others when the reasons don’t necessarily matter as much as the fact that it happened. I don’t necessarily need to say “yes but it was because of this”. I just need to internalize it didn’t serve anyone. I do wish though someone had taken the initiative, like you have, to say something like Alison suggested to me.

  23. V

    Humans and animals can sense emotional instability and instinctively respond with a lack of trust or confidence in that person. OP’s coworker is doing themselves a disservice for taking on future leadership roles, no one will want to follow someone who seems unhinged no matter which emotion is the output (i.e. stress, sadness, joy, etc.)

  24. Beckie

    I recently transferred to a highly-regarded department in my workplace, and I quickly learned that the secret is that they were never frantic. No matter the external last-minute changes, people were always able to adapt and move with the flow. And the reason people had the space and ability to be flexible was that they had their shit so together that last-minute changes weren’t a huge burden.

    It’s not that people never feel stressed or a little wrung out — our work is cyclical, so some stress at the high periods is inevitable. But there’s an atmosphere of confidence and competence, and I would take that any day of the week over an atmosphere of performative stress.

    1. DaffyDuck

      Oh yes! Your workplace is the type I like to work in!
      I realized in college that some of my friends loved to run around “stressing” about paper/test/whatever drama. They could get it all out, sit down and study, and do OK on the test. I, on the other hand, would internalize all their stress and spend HOURS not able to concentrate even though I really needed to (which only made it worse) and bomb. Over time I gravitated towards calmer friends, the ones who planned ahead and maintained a “we can do this” attitude. Not surprisingly, they were also better students in the long run, and are now very successful.
      I’m mature enough now not to pick up other’s stress as I know it will just mess me up. I work on being the rock that gets stuff done.

  25. MicroManagered

    I think being visibly stressed can be a sign of commitment, but also an unhealthy relationship to that commitment. Glen Close was showing attraction to Michael Douglas by boiling his daughter’s rabbit, but not healthy feelings around her attraction.

  26. MrsMurphy

    I really like the reference to a healthy work environment. Definitely worth mentioning!
    Of course everyone shows outward signs of stress sometimes, but OP‘s coworker sounds terribly exhausting to work with – and I wonder if it does affect the sort of jobs she‘ll be given in the future.
    The nicest feedback I ever got at my current job (I‘m in an assistant position so people are quite entitled to pile work on my desk) was this: „I never feel like I‘m a burden when I need you to do something. No matter how much there is to do, when I come over with a new task you smile and take it on without making me feel guilty and without complaint.“ That doesn‘t mean I‘m never stressed! But my managers tend to be, and I really don‘t need them adding to thst stress by hesitating before delegating things to me.

  27. Jennifer

    Ah, the good old, ‘if you aren’t miserable you aren’t really working’ defense. If I were a junior staffer, I’d run for the hills the second I got enough experience to find employment elsewhere to avoid ending up like her. She is giving people an impression of her job that isn’t really accurate. Most people there actually enjoy working with the clients and find them to be nice people. Maybe framing it that way will make it come off less offensive to her.

  28. Natalie

    At various points in my life I’ve worked with people who were very visible/dramatic/performative about their stress level. Independently of that tendency, none of them were actually that good at their jobs. When I interact with people like that these days my first thought is definitely *not* “oh, this person cares a lot”.

    1. serenity

      Very true, and similar to my experience. This tendency also, in my experience, seems to occur with people who are by nature somewhat self-dramatizing to begin with. It’s rarely correlated with “outstanding at their work” or at least hasn’t been in what I’ve seen.

    2. Où est la bibliothèque?

      The worst offender in my department goes into stress mode when things are changed. It’s really manipulative. If a plan for a presentation or event changes, and her duties are different from what she was expecting (not harder, just different) she acts like the sky is falling down.

      And people give in. So she’s always able to implement her changes, but everyone tiptoes around her when it comes to their own, so it’s feeding both the panic mode and her ego, because she feels validated that she’s always right about what should and shouldn’t be altered.

  29. Batgirl

    Ugh I’ve worked with this woman. Actively talking smack about me being ‘so laid back, she’s horizontal’; yeah you’re welcome for my covering your butt without breaking a sweat because you were so busy with your ongoing performance. Luckily no one paid her any mind because she looked so unprofessional running around like Chicken Little.

  30. Asenath

    Maybe I’m the only one – but my reaction to someone who was visibly and frequently stressed by their work would be to wonder if they were in the right field at all. But that’s based only on my personal experience – I spent far too long flailing about in a field I really shouldn’t have gone into in the first place before leaving it and looking for something else to do so I could keep a roof over my head. That was the most stressful period of my entire working life, and it had nothing to do with anything other than me being a very square peg in a very round hole.

    This is clearly not the response OP’s co-worker is going for, but it’s one she might get.

    A distant second in my list of possible reasons for a co-worker’s stress is what I suppose might be called “personality difference” – specifically, I’ve noticed that some people find a lot of drama in their lives, and others like a lot of calmness. The two groups often get on each others’ nerves, with the first thinking the second doesn’t really care about the issue and the second thinking the first is creating a tempest in a teapot because they like tempests however annoying they are for everyone else.

    1. Letter writer

      Asenath, her work is highly regarded for a reason. She is good at the technical side. She just needs to realise that the hurdles she sees as unusual and insurmountable at the time are actually very normal in our industry – and react accordingly.

  31. Coverage Associate

    As an employee, I do want some objective evidence my managers recognize that special situations (eg, being suddenly short staffed) are special. That doesn’t have to be performative stress from them. It could be taking 15 minutes and deciding to cut or delay a process. It could be working late. But I don’t want just “I know it’s tough because [name] is out. Let me know how I can help,” and then business as usual from management.

  32. JanetM

    Once upon a when, I had a boss who expected me to Perform Stress when urgent tasks came in. Actually getting things done in an appropriate time frame was less important than Looking Like I Was Really Busy.

    1. Serin

      And I once had a new boss tell me, after he’d been on the job a couple of months, “When I first started, I thought you had a pretty light workload, because I never saw you get upset.”

  33. AKchic

    I don’t like working with or for people who are performative in their stress. It brings out the antagonistic side of me that wants to call it out immediately to get it to stop so others don’t pick up on the stress and panic too. At work, I *try* to be nice… sometimes I fail, I admit, but I at least try.
    I think Alison is right in that this performative stress routine needs to stop. It hurts everyone when this colleague does it, and eventually, people are going to want to leave, and at some point, word will get back to a client or two about her behavior (or at the very least, her stress levels) and something may be mentioned to a boss, who might feel compelled to wonder if the colleague needs some time off. For the employees, the stress of such a performance has got to be getting to them in more ways than you are seeing.

  34. LadyByTheLake

    I did have this backfire on me once. I and another person routinely did a certain kind of transaction. They were mildly stressful, but no big deal. I set up a whole process, documents etc to make them pretty easy and just got them done. My colleague made a big frikken deal out of it every time that she had one of these. My colleagues would tell me how lucky I was that I didn’t have to deal with those kinds of transactions. I just rolled my eyes, but I was furious when in my review my boss made the same observation, when in fact I had fixed the entire process, documents etc and was doing 5 transactions to every 1 that my colleague was doing! When I pointed that out, he said “why didn’t you say anything about it? Cersei talks about these all the time.” Gee, I don’t know — I was just doing my job?

  35. Serin

    I once suffered a catastrophic hard drive crash at the worst possible moment, and I cried at work. Later, my boss said, “That was the first time I felt you were really engaged in your work.”

    Of course, that boss was a disaster.

    But I wanted to point out that the co-worker isn’t wrong in thinking that there are some people who will judge you as more committed, more passionate, more involved, if you show your emotions at work.

    I personally don’t want to work for any of those people, but they are out there.

  36. Geneva

    That reminds me of an old toxic boss. She LOVED employees who appeared frantic because to her, it meant that they were pushing themselves. Never mind, the reason they were panicking was because they filled up their days with meetings and didn’t have time to do actual work until 5 p.m. when I was calmly wrapping up. She didn’t love me so much lol.

  37. gbca

    When I was early in my career I sort of thought the same thing, that it was a good thing (or at least not a bad thing) to show your stress. At some point I realized that the managers who I admired most were those who kept their cool under pressure. Perhaps that’s something your coworker can think about – who are her professional role models? What behavior do they exhibit?

    1. Letter writer

      Thanks, gbca. I think that is a great way to make the point to her! We both most admire the same people in the office – and they are exactly as you describe: cool under pressure, pleasant to everyone but clearly getting a lot of work done.

  38. Dollis Hill

    In my first six months at my old job, I had a manager who marked me down in my first performance review for “having no sense of urgency”. When I asked him to explain what he meant by that, he stated that while I prioritised urgent tasks correctly, performed them quickly and well, and met deadlines with no issues, he was uncomfortable that I didn’t show any signs of being stressed out.

    He suggested I follow the example of my coworker Fergusina, who he felt had the right sense of urgency – Fergusina would panic at every approaching deadline by constantly muttering “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” under her breath, shuffling papers around and sighing loudly, frantically running around the office and berating everyone who came near her for interrupting her when she had urgent work to do. Not really an example I was happy to follow, and there were a ton of other red flags that both my manager and the whole office displayed. I was so glad to escape that office!

    1. Letter writer

      Oh, gosh, that would be so funny if it wasn’t people’s careers you are talking about!

    2. 653-CXK

      Your ExBoss was a total idiot for marking you down. Anyone who meets tight deadlines and urgent tasks quickly and with little stress should be a huge positive, as it shows grace under pressure.

      I learned the hard way that going full-tilt from the second you get in to the second you leave is a huge recipe for disaster. Excessive stress, mistakes…just not necessary. I’m glad you got out of there when you did.

  39. Allison

    I have a coworker like this – stomping around, slamming doors, yelling inside her office and angrily whispering outside her office. I can’t honestly know for sure if her job is legitimately super stressful (I doubt it is), or if she’s not good at managing her stress (possible), or if she’s putting on a show so people think she’s busy and important. I kinda think it’s the latter, but either way, her displays of stress make me wanna do the same, stomp around and slam doors – or, more accurately, just slam things around in my cube because I don’t have a door. I have a tendency to internalize people’s stress.

  40. Folklorist

    OMG, I used to think and act like this woman when I was younger. I thought I looked PASSIONATE and OUT-OF-THE-BOX, not UNHINGED (which was closer to the truth). When I did that, I was coming out of an extremely toxic workplace where screaming and cursing and bad-mouthing clients was common. I escaped that place, went to grad school, and then went to a dream apprenticeship where I exhibited those behaviors. Surprise, surprise, they didn’t keep me on! Granted, I was dealing with some toxic workplace PTSD, grad school stress, work stress, poverty stress, and general depression and anxiety–but that’s not an excuse, and acting that way only contributed to the mess.

    Now that I have more years of experience under my belt and have worked at some great places (not to mention years of therapy and some good meds), I cringe hard at my past behavior. I strive to be the quietly competent person who is a team player and calm and positive under pressure. It’s possible to change! I’m happy that my coworkers now have never seen that side of me and my reputation has gone up a million-fold. It’s definitely worth pointing out to your colleague. She might not listen to it now or think you’re right now, but it might plant a seed in her head for the future. :-)

    1. KC

      Wow! This post has given me so much to think about. Above I posted that at the most recent company I worked what I saw as “passion” was viewed as incapability and performative stress from the other employees who were fundamentally different in personality type from myself. I explained I didn’t have this issue at my prior employer because we were all “passionate” about the work and shared similar personalities and work styles. I realized that I was “that employee” that this post is about. I have experience in multiple positions and received promotions from the lowest level positions up the ranks to the highest level positions, each position preparing me for the next. My supervisors would all agree that I was capable and deserving of the promotions. All of that experience has only come from two different organizations over a 20 year period though. So while I am very familiar with those two organizations, I am lacking experience with different organizations. And something I didn’t take into account was both organizations were toxic, but in completely different ways. It took therapy, meds, etc. to navigate my “survival” working at each employer. At the first organization the boss was a tyrant who micromanaged, yelled at staff in front of the entire office, and was eventually was disciplined by State government for ethics violations. At the second organization managers were on-call 24/7, completely overworked, and treated as if we were responsible for making life and death decisions in a low-paying high turnover service industry which ended up causing animosity and unhealthy competition between people who could’ve been working more productivly as a team if only that had been valued rather than pitting people against each other in the name of loyalty to the company. This AAM post has humbled me immensely, challenged my notions of myself (learning that I have been “that employee”) even though the employer was toxic, and your your comments have challenged my justifications and rationalizations for the part I played.

      1. Folklorist

        Good on you for your introspection! It’s really hard to look inward that way. I know it took me a long time! I hope you manage to get away from toxic employers. It’s crazy how much they warp your sense of what’s normal. And yeah, using those experiences as an excuse for bad behavior and not changing is easy, and often understandable. But in the long run, even if you’ve had a really hard time and a good excuse to be cranky and frantic, the only thing that the people around you sees is the cranky and frantic person making their lives more stressful! Once I realized that, and realized that everyone has something painful going on in their lives but they don’t necessarily show up and put it on others, I strove to emulate the people I admired. And slowly, it just became habit and I became one of those people.

        It’s sort of like when you want to get into a sport or working out or any of the other things in life. I’ll sometimes say things like, “I wish I was the type of person who went out and played in/hiked in/enjoyed the snow,” and then sit in with hot cocoa all day when it snows. The only way to become one of those people is to go out and DO it–start slowly at first (go on a short walk when it’s snowy outside and take note of all the positive things going on; build a snowman in the backyard; etc.), then, after a while, you’re not LIKE one of those people–you ARE one of those people! That’s something I’ve been working on myself for the past couple of years. Anyway, again, congratulations on rethinking how you approach things! I’m glad that this whole post, and my words, were able to help a little!

  41. Lora

    For me it’s what exactly you are upset about, because while I don’t get upset (vs. annoyed or frustrated) about anything short of dead bodies, I understand that other people do. But I am in a field where “dead bodies” is an actual risk (pharma) so if someone is having a giant stressful fit about whether the paperwork for a project is filed on the 20th or the 22nd, I tend to be deeply suspicious of them. Are they in the right job? Do they have some ulterior, undisclosed motive that will screw up the politics of some project? Why is this person freaking out about a bunch of nothing? Do they not have enough experience in this field to understand where they fall in the grand scheme of things? Are they freaking out about this one little dumb thing but they will be blase’ about dead patients when I need them to care about such things a lot more than paper-pushing? It’s just not a good look in general. Even if there are dead patients, where panic would be an understandable reaction, I vastly prefer gravitas, sadness and a dedication to root cause analysis instead.

  42. TheRedCoat

    This reminds me frustratingly of co-students in college that would spend the entire time between finals and grades being posted doing everything short of openly weeping that they have failed. Honestly, you haven’t gotten a grade below a B- the entire semester, you’re fine.

  43. Roker Moose

    My last job— and only corporate position I’ve held— was big into the culture of stressed= committed. My colleagues would be encouraged to come into the office early, sometimes two hours before we ‘opened’ to get a head start on work. It was like being back in primary school, where we’d one-up each other about going to bed late, on this time it was about working the most possible hours in a day. Staff who worked ten or twelve hour days were routinely singled out for praise. I’m back in education now, and much happier for it, but in some offices I supposed being visibly stressed is encouraged.

  44. Eukomos

    Maybe this explains my boss. She gets so, so stressed about everything, but she won’t let any of us on her team take anything off her plate for her. It’s like she likes having too much work. She’s also fairly dramatic about how important our program is and how great and knowledgable she is at her job, though. I do think she’s genuinely panicked over things, but part of it is that she wants everything she’s involved in to appear perfect so she start panicking way too soon, sometimes when there isn’t even a real problem. I wouldn’t be surprised if on some level she’s trying to communicate to us the importance of the tasks she’s given us by showing how concerned she is about them, though. Unfortunately I find that it really drains me of the will to tackle the work. No matter how much I do, she will re-create the same level of stress for us all.

  45. Letter writer

    Thanks to Alison for a really helpful response – I love the list of other ways to look committed. Thanks also to everyone who has commented above. I am going through them now and responding. So many of the points are really interesting and I’ve tried to add context to the letter where relevant.

    I don’t have quite the relationship with my colleague to use Alison’s script unprompted, but I am confident I will get the prompting soon enough to raise it then.

    I just wanted to add that in addition to Alison’s excellent advice above, I did after writing to her also raise this question verbally with a friend in a senior management role and I think he made some great points.

    He takes stress in his staff as a sign they are at the limits of their capacity to cope with the work. So I suppose if you desperately want your workload reduced this might work with bosses like him. But the way he put it was this: he would be extremely unlikely to give a £1.5 million project to someone who is consistently stressed at doing a £1 million project. He also said that he would worry that promoting such a person would make everyone working under them feel guilty about not working unnecessary hours. Managers make those under them feel they have to emulate them without ever saying so.

    He also said that every top person he works with tends to give the impression of being calmly on top of things. Clients spend money on you partly for this perception that you are on top of things – not that you are nervously stressed by the work at hand. High levels of stress are going to leak out to the client.

  46. Micklak

    I think of the bosses I’ve respected the most and they are the ones that are calm and confident under pressure.
    If I saw a person broadcasting their stress I would think they were unprofessional or unqualified for what they were doing.

  47. I Work on a Hellmouth

    I am dealing with a [i]very[/i] similar situation with a worker under me, but my office is incredibly small–my boss, me, and then two other workers. The constantly stressed worker (who also swears about our clientele/prospects the second they are gone and sometime speaks negatively about them in front of other clientele/prospects in spite of me constantly trying to stop her) stomps, swears, freaks out, is always extremely panicky in the most showy of ways, and so forth. And it is draining the life out of both me and the other worker under me. Unfortunately, my boss refuses to directly address the behaviors with her and all of my attempts to get her to calm down/relax/at least stop stomping have been ineffective. We’re just kind of having to suck it up and deal with it. We’ve tried kindly addressing it in the moment, but that hasn’t helped. Right now we’re trying to ignore most of the behavior (unless there is someone who does not work in the office witnessing it, at which point one of us steps in and takes over/steers the interaction or pulls her to the back and tells her that she is expected to be calm in front of people who come into our office). Our hope is that if she isn’t getting attention or a reaction she may eventually stop the behaviors. Fingers crossed, I guess?

  48. Nobody Nowhere

    This is the culture at my office. There is a constant atmosphere of panic. People take on more work than a reasonable person can possibly do, then stress cry & commiserate with each other about how awful it is. The thing is, they are also really good at getting the work done and the higher-ups all praise them for being such “troopers” and caring so much about the work. Those of us who skip the drama but still get a lot done don’t get any recognition. Sigh.

  49. Not-So-Mean-Girl

    I worked in a factory as a teenager, and would sometimes act as a fill-in team lead. The foremen always thought I was slacking off because I would quietly and calmly complete my tasks and direct me team, while the other team leads were running around in circles and screaming all the time. I was much more productive than they were, and although I had the numbers to back it up, the foremen never me.

  50. Close Bracket

    she wouldn’t trust someone too laid back.

    She’s not alone in this. Whether she came up with this on her own or whether she absorbed the message that appearing laid back means you don’t care, it is a common belief. I’ve been burned by it at more than one company.

    Since people are being impacted negatively by her performance of concern, she should learn different ways to express that she is A Very Serious Person Who Takes Things Seriously. If her higher ups respond well to the cursing, etc, and think it reflects well on her, she should learn to code switch so that she presents the “correct” affect to those above her and a more constructive affect to those around and below her.

    She should also unlearn the belief that being laid back means you don’t take things seriously. Cussing can be very satisfying, but it doesn’t solve the problem faster.

    1. Close Bracket

      Oh, and:

      Am I getting judged harshly for being pretty level-headed—as less invested in the work?

      Yes. Aim for gravitas, and learn a little code switching yourself.

    2. Someone Else

      I wonder if she doesn’t understand the difference between “laid back” and “calm”? Because to me, those are different things. Some people are both. Or perhaps rather that a laid back calm is a different thing than a cool under pressure calm, and regardless of the her feelings about the former, she should absolutely trust the judgement of someone who is the latter.

  51. Mockingdragon

    Ooof…I was ready to be sympathetic on this one, but yikes. I have an anxiety disorder, and having to hide any and all expressions of that anxiety is one of the most enormous triggers for making an attack worse. So I can relate to not wanting to have to hide. The easiest and most painless way for me to get over an attack is to cry at my desk for a couple minutes and no one to ever bring it up again. (Another of many reasons I started freelancing and don’t intend to go back – totally unreasonable to ask people to ignore me like that in many cases.)

    But, BUT, there’s a huge difference between “not hiding” and “displaying” or “performing” (great term!). Having anxiety and being stressed does not make me better at my job. At best, it means my job is failing me in a significant enough way to produce stress. At worst, it means I’ve latched on to something insignificant and lost all sight of the big picture and final product. Even in retail, caring about my job to the point of anxiety meant I was way too involved and I had to dial back (and ultimately leave customer service – I can’t turn that part of my brain off).

  52. HigherEdAdmin

    Everyone loses their shit occasionally. People are not robots. However, as an executive leader with a large team, I have zero patience for drama and attention seeking behavior as a pattern. It shows a lack of self regulation and makes me want to ask if something serious is going on outside of work. I have to wonder if someone is showing so little respect for clients behind their backs, what are they saying about their boss and coworkers? What responsibility do they take for finding win win solutions?

  53. TexasThunder

    I have a colleague who is perpetually stressed. We have a job where it is necessary to think on one’s feet, but he gets discombobulated very easily and overreacts to every hiccup, to the point that we react in kind of bemused fascination to his outbursts rather than being impressed by his commitment.

  54. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss

    I think one of 2 things are happening here…either she’s a drama queen and looking for attention, thinking that playing up the “I’m stressed and I need to show everyone” will make her look better to her co-workers, or she’s one of those “works harder not smarter” people. Alison is spot on. I would also add that if her negativity is too much for you, speak up about it. Don’t bother arguing over who’s correct in their assessment of what makes a person dedicated to their job, but focus on the negativity and how it affects you. Being around constant negativity is draining.

  55. Queen_of_Comms

    This is an ongoing cultural issues with upper management at my organization. Conversation often hinges on “HOW BUSY” one is and how one is being forced to cancel a vacation day because of project load and basically how this job is sucking their soul from their bodies.

    The kicker? Most aren’t busy at all. They work 40-45 hours per week. They are given (and are encouraged to use) ample vacation time. They are compensated well. Our CEO begs them to turn their inbox notifications off while they are on vacation.

    I think a lot of the habits stem from both personal and professional insecurity. If someone says that they are busy and important, ultimately others will believe that they are busy and important. In their minds, displaying a healthy work/life balance is an indication that work doesn’t require enough of them. It’s a sick competition and I’m often not sure how to navigate it.

    I’ve found myself sucked into the trap and recognize that the negative conversation skews my stress perceptions. I try to reframe conversations, but when I’m the only one saying “I’m pretty on top of my project load right now,” while everyone else is saying, “I’ve been given so many important projects that I’ll never catch up,” it makes it seem as though I’m not being given the important projects (which is untrue). This would matter less if demographics weren’t at play, but I am the only 20-something female Director in a sea of 50-something male Directors in a male-dominated industry.

  56. CalminRoughSeas

    I have a question – I’m in a very demanding role with too much work on my plate. I’m pushing to have a new hire come in to do the majority of the simpler work so I can focus on what I came to do – more strategy, etc. – but because everyone in this company is always swamped their perception of what is reasonable is warped (I’m new to this company). I like to carry myself in a professional manner and have been in customer-service roles for a long time, so am good at hiding the stress. However, I’ve been finding that people then don’t believe I have a need for another hire. So I’ve been letting my stress show a bit more, but worry it’s damaging overall. Any advice?

  57. Jennifer Juniper

    OP, your coworker is being unreasonable and downright weird. As someone with several different diagnosed anxiety disorders, I can tell you that deliberately letting others know how stressed you are is not caused by anxiety. She is being a jerk.

  58. kimonawhim

    I’m very late to this post, but will say that I was expressly dinged on a performance review for appearing “too laid back” which apparently gave the impression that I didn’t take the work seriously enough. So, this is a real thing.

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