my coworkers’ constant talk about stress is stressing me out

A reader writes:

My team, like everyone else, is experiencing a high amount of stress right now.

Recently I’ve noticed that when team members are announcing they’re taking a break, they will add something along the theme of “I’m incredibly stressed out and need a mental break.” Multiple people have reported having panic attacks. While it’s the truth, I think it’s an overshare that is starting to create a toxic environment where everyone is stressed out individually and about each other. We’re not fighting, but I do think we’re dragging each other down.

Our manager is painfully aware and we’ve had conversations as a team to acknowledge this is a very difficult time to be busier than ever with projects, while dealing with social unrest and a pandemic. I want to talk to my manager about this but I don’t know what to say, I don’t have a solution here. I guess I wish people would stop circling around the same message of “I’m so stressed out” because I think we all know we’re all stressed out and it’s tipped to a point where repeating it over and over just adds to the guilt we feel about feeling stressed. At the same time, I feel strongly that acknowledging mental health is important and don’t want to make it seem like no one should be speaking up.

Do you have advice for how I can talk to my manager? Advice for my manager or team?

I wrote back and asked, “What is going on in your office? Does this reflect a management/workload/staffing problem, where it’s understandable that your coworkers are breaking, and it’s a flag that the company needs to change something? Or is it more like hyperbole — the venting people do when they’re stressed but not as dire as they’re making it sound?” The reply:

I think it’s a little of both! I don’t want to discount anyone’s experience of being overwhelmed, but I definitely think that the level of venting and oversharing does have an impact on the general mood of the team.

Staffing-wise we were at an appropriate level going into the pandemic. Workload-wise we’re busier than ever, the amount of projects incoming has increased and that fact is acknowledged by our leadership team. Our director managing the workload/assignments can only do so much without being overridden or pressured by upper management pushing to get new projects quickly assigned to a manager.

Ooof, this is tough — because while it’s true that people shouldn’t vent their stress in ways that make other people more stressed, it sounds like the core problem here is workload and unrealistic expectations. And you definitely don’t want to tell people who are stressed by legitimate workload challenges to just be quiet and not complain.

The real problem is people are in a situation that’s creating this much stress in the first place. The discussion of it is a natural consequence of that.

So instead of trying to solve the stress talk, I’d use it as supporting evidence in speaking to your manager about the broader situation. In fact, with multiple people having panic attacks (!), all of you should talk to your management as a group, explain the situation is unsustainable, cite the level of stress and panic, and ask for help — whether it’s additional staff, reprioritizing work, pushing back and/or canceling some projects altogether, or so forth.

That’s not to say that it’s not legitimately stressful to hear so much talk about other people’s stress. It is. It’s just not the core problem here, and trying to address it without first addressing the other will do more harm than good.

And to be clear, it’s possible that people are venting more than is really needed. Venting has a way of encouraging more venting, and people might be doing it partly as an act of camaraderie, or because it feels like it releases some of the pressure, or simply because it’s become reflexive. But with the bigger problems behind it, it’s just the wrong thing to focus on.

If the situation were different and the workload were reasonable and the venting seemed hyperbolic, I’d encourage your manager to sit down with the venters and take their complaints seriously — dig into their workload and what was causing that intense stress. Framing it as “I wouldn’t have expected your workload to produce this level of stress so let’s figure out where the disconnect is” can shut down hyperbole if it is in fact hyperbole, or it can provide useful new info if the manager’s assessment is wrong. But that’s not the situation you’re in.

Until and unless your employer solves the workload problem, I think you’re going to keep hearing about people’s stress. Pushing on the workload itself is likely the only way to really solve it.

{ 95 comments… read them below }

  1. anony*

    Stress and panic attacks are the new normal, even for folks who aren’t working right now, and from the letter it doesn’t actually sound like the coworkers are oversharing or talking excessively about it.

    1. WellRed*

      I think if every time you want to take a break you say, “I’m stressed, I need a break” that’s a bit excessive. Just take the break. I’m also not sure panic attacks are the “new normal” for everyone.
      If this all is a huge change for this workplace, then there’s something that needs to change, probably the workload or the way managers are handling it, as Alison suggests.

      1. Watry*

        I wonder what OP is defining as a break. If we’re talking 15 minutes in the break room, then that is definitely overkill. But it’s also so bizarre that I wonder if we’re not talking about half-days or more.

        1. Raea*

          This was my thought as well. Putting aside the nature of the comments, just the idea of always announcing when taking a quick break seems unusual. That being said, I could absolutely see myself saying something along the lines of ‘I’m so stressed, I need a break’ and assuming I’m not saying it repeatedly throughout the day, I would not respond well to being chastised. Even if it is annoying to some, it would be making a mountain out of a molehill in my opinion.

          There’s nothing wrong with expressing that you are stressed out (especially in such a concise manner, it’s literally only three words – come on now), however there is something wrong with repeatedly interrupting your coworkers to announce your breaks.

          1. Canary*

            I think it depends on the job/working environment. In one of my jobs, I was on-call the entire time I was on the property. In other words, even when I was “on break” I was expected to be available to respond to calls. After a particularly grueling three months of working twelve to sixteen hour shifts a day and with one day off every ten, I finally did have to say, “I’m stressed. I need a break. Hold all calls that aren’t safety-related for the next half hour.”

          2. alanna of trebond*

            Just a guess, but I think this might be remote work related. My workplace started doing a lot more “taking a quick walk, back in 20” type messages when we were no longer in an office together. We work on pretty short deadlines and some of us get a lot of incoming messages, and there was initially some anxiety about making sure we were communicating because we could no longer just look over and see if someone was at their desk (and pick up visual cues like, oh, she’s not there but her laptop is, she’s probably grabbing lunch, or oh, her computer is also gone, she must be at a meeting).

            This has fallen away as we got more used to WFH, and I think it’s for the best that it did. It was really easy to slide into a sort of one-upmanship where people felt like they had to justify getting up from their desks (even though our bosses really don’t care), and the next thing you know there’s a constant undercurrent of talking about how stressed you are, how long you went without eating lunch, that you have to take a walk because Don from accounting made you cry, etc.

      2. weasel007*

        At my workplace (banking) the stress is normally high but now with Covid19, everyone working from home with no way to separate work from home, panic attacks are the new normal. I’m in a team of 30 people. From my conversations with my teammates, the stress level IS really bad and impacting everyone’s health in a big way. Management keeps saying they know but they keep pushing, which was finally pushed back several weeks because everyone was so exhausted. I’m having to go to the doctor and a therapist weekly because of this stress. It is real.

      1. Archaeopteryx*

        Yeah, stress – yes. Panic attacks- not normal, though of course more prevalent than in the Before Times.

  2. Amber Rose*

    This sounds like a cry for help. Its not enough to acknowledge that things are tough, management has to actually do something about it. I think people feel, and rightfully so, that if they stop saying anything about it then management will think doing nothing has solved the problem and nothing will improve.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

      Sadly I think you are right.

      > if they stop saying anything about it then management will think doing nothing has solved the problem and nothing will improve.
      Management response: oh good, grumbling seems to have ceased, so we don’t need to do anything about it. Mustn’t grumble(!)

      > a cry for help

      I agree, but I don’t expect the structures of an employer to respond in an “acute” way, sadly.

      I once made a similar cry for help at an employer and was given a Final Written Warning for “my behaviour”, and as such, any repetition and I could be summarily dismissed (with no notice period or unemployment etc). You can bet I walked on egg shells after that… for 5 more years which is how long it took for me to feel able to apply anywhere else!

  3. Detective Amy Santiago*

    No one should feel guilty about being stressed. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic! It’s perfectly natural that people are stressed.

    Sounds like OP’s job can do more to help mitigate that stress among employees, but any hint that saying you’re stressed or struggling with mental health is wrong is going to do more harm to people. It’s okay to say to someone one-on-one something like “I understand you’re stressed. I am too and I’m sorry, but I don’t have the bandwidth to be a good support system for you right now”. But please don’t ever ever insinuate that people shouldn’t share those thoughts.

    1. Cedarcat*

      This was my first thought. It didn’t sound to me like more than what most of us who are working are experiencing now. It’s a stressful time! It’s not really fair to expect coworkers to check that at the door. I personally find it nice that I can say “I’m taking a mental health day” now without worrying I sound weird.

  4. Flair Pen*

    I wouldn’t bring this up to management unless you have a viable solution. Asking people not to say their stressed during a pandemic and working for a company that is adding its own undue stress is really going to label you in a way you may not recover from. Life is hard right now, censoring your co-workers isn’t helpful.

    1. Observer*

      Nope. The idea that you cannot bring up a problem unless you already know the solution is not valid nor viable.

      On the other hand, the OP needs to identify the problem correctly. Even if people are venting more than they need to, if people are having panic attacks, and it’s not just one person but a not uncommon problem, venting is not the issue.

      The issue is that the stress level is untenable, and clearly part of the is that management has allowed workload to ramp up without corresponding ramp up in staffing. And at a time where people are under a lot more stress and it is also harder to get a lot of things done.

      1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

        the stress level is untenable, and clearly part of the is that management has allowed workload to ramp up without corresponding ramp up in staffing

        … but what’s the alternative?

        Clearly one option is that the stress level could be alleviated by not meeting deadlines and as such losing contracts, and that would be a pretty short-term win! On the plus side, stress level managed (somewhat) but on the negative side, loss of customer confidence.

        More realistically… this is the workload, there is no room in the budget to hire anyone else, but we need to meet these deadlines in order to secure the future of the company, no matter what that takes.

        So what could be suggested, in a case where there is no budget for additional staff (or overtime) but the deadlines have to be met anyway.

        I can only see two possibilities, “working off the books” (if they are hourly) or “working all the hours God sends” (if salaried) to try to get through this at least in the short term.

        I’ve been there!! And “forgot” who knows how many hours of overtime that technically I could be paid for, because I was mostly concerned about meeting the deadline, I didn’t care at that point if “overtime was approved”, if it wasn’t approved I’d just “forget” those hours because I was so focused on completing the deadline because otherwise there wouldn’t have been any future deadlines to agonise about!

        1. Observer*

          I don’t know what the solution is, but telling someone that they are not allowed to bring up the problem unless they have a solution is just not acceptable nor is is reasonable or realistic.

          It’s quite possible that there is room in the budget for SOME help, or that management could slow be more realistic in terms of timelines and work they accept. There is no way for the OP to know the answer to that question. You simply cannot put the onus of providing solutions to someone who does not have all of the information needed to actually come up with realistic solutions. And it’s ridiculous to tell someone who DOES see and experience the problem that they are not allowed to bring it up because they don’t have access to the information they need to suggest solutions.

          On the other hand, you could be right – there is really no way for the company to alleviate the problem and they don’s have a plan or time line for any improvement. If that’s the case, then the OP and the rest of the staff need to know that. Because what they are describing is NOT tenable, and they need to start looking for a new job. Either the company is going to go under or people’s health IS going to be negatively affected.

          1. Archaeopteryx*

            Agree. It’s management’s job to figure out solutions, not the people experiencing this crunch. The higher-ups get paid the big(ger) bucks, and have a broader perspective and more resources.

        2. Black Horse Dancing*

          Solution is hire more–if you have that much new work, you have more income. Hire people.

        3. allathian*

          I’m so fortunate in that in my organization working for free wouldn’t fly. I have worked long enough hours to take two weeks off in comp hours after a big project finished (and I was nearly burned out). The system we have is a bit different in the sense that I’m salaried and can set my working hours pretty freely within some limits, but they’re still tracked to ensure appropriate resources.

          It is not the responsibility of individual workers to keep a business afloat by working for free. If you’re hourly in the US, it’s also illegal, and responsible employers wouldn’t allow it. If I’ve understood things correctly from reading this blog, the employer could be liable for back wages if the DOL ever finds out about unpaid hourly work. Of course, it’s impossible to prove if it’s not properly tracked, but if you work in an office, most places keep some track of when people are on site. So if you’ve logged 8 hours of work and building logs show you were on the premises for 11 hours… No doubt some sort of IT logging could be used to show when someone’s working at their computer, even WFH. Could DOL subpoena such logs? Maybe someone in HR in the US has some info on this?

          In any case, such a business is badly managed and needs to stop accepting further projects from customers. Or maybe the excecs need to take a temporary pay cut to ensure there’s a budget to hire a few more employees. The solution is not to work existing employees to death.

        4. NotAnotherManager!*

          Working for free and “forgetting” to submit OT is not a solution and may be illegal, depending on OP’s location. I tell nonexempt staff from Day 1 that they’re not doing me a favor working off the clock, they’re subjecting is to labor law violations/fines. Reporting your hours worked accurately is policy at my office, and you’d be fired if you were caught doing this.

          This is management’s problem to solve, and, if the can’t hire more help, they need to roll up their sleeves and pitch in on the day to day.

        5. Karia*

          So your solution to a workforce beset by panic attacks is to force them to work extra unpaid hours?

        6. Koala dreams*

          If the business doesn’t have money to pay the employees for their work, the business is not viable and the responsible solution would be to close down the business in a controlled way. Do layoffs, tell customers that you won’t be able to finish their work so they can find other solutions as soon as possible, don’t take on new orders, sell any assets and so on. If you expect to recover and solve the cash flow issues, the usual solution is to take a loan to cover the immediate costs. A loan can be in many shapes: a loan from the business owners (or their family and friends), from the bank, from the vendors (for example a bit longer credit). Now with the pandemic many countries also offer special benefits or loans aimed at business that are hit hard by corona but expect to recover.

          “Loaning” by underpaying and overworking employees shouldn’t be on the table. I’m sorry you were in that situation, but it’s still not right.

        7. TardyTardis*

          Working free overtime just means that the management will expect it. And add more work, since there is obviously capacity.

      2. Raea*

        These are unprecedented times, and holding employers to the expectation of being able to afford to onboard new employees in correspondence to increased workloads is not realistic. Pre-COVID, I would agree that this falls solely on the employer as they clearly are not staffed appropriately for the workload. However, it’s not that simple anymore.

        I’m in a project based role and have also seen a sharp increase – it’s incredibly rough, and certainly not “fair”, but my employer barely made it through and we are slowly clawing our way out of a hole. And we were in good financial health prior to the pandemic, so I can only imagine how challenging it is for employers that were already struggling.

        1. Karia*

          It’s also unrealistic to expect your employees to work so hard that it damages their mental health. Panic attacks are a big deal. A really, really big deal. If multiple employees are having them, the solution is not to chant “I will work harder”, a la Animal Farm. Remember that guy’s reward?

  5. Ms. Cellophane*

    People on my team do this. Our work was already high stress and now with Covid it is doubly so. I’ve been encouraging people to take time office, even if it just a staycation. That mental break is so important and necessary. Also, I know lack of pay or raises and threats of layoffs loom in some industries are looming, but little treats go a long way. Snacks, little gift cards, flowers, lunch every once in a while will buoy low morale.

  6. The Magic Rat*

    Not to discount the reality that some of these coworkers are truly stressed and having panic attacks, but one of the side effects of there being a general, accurate perception of “arggh we’re so busy right now!” is that people will feel the need to validate their choice to take a day or week off by saying that they “need” it in more and more dramatic terms, because they don’t want to be seen as half-assing it or not being a team player.

    1. hbc*

      100% agree. This kind of thing can really build on itself, where I can’t take a “normal” break when it means more work for Swamped Susan until I’m actually underwater, and Fergus can’t justify a break and put more work on me until there’s actually water in his lungs. And we’re probably not *trying* to out-suffer each other so much as pushing ourselves to the point of breaking.

      I seriously might announce a ban on explaining breaks. “Everyone is entitled to breaks, I trust that no one is milking the system, and you need to see your manager if it goes beyond normal break-needing into physical or mental health issues. We need to break the habit of justifying time off as if you need a ‘good enough’ reason for taking it.”

    2. sofar*

      Yep. Since we started WFH, it became team/company policy to alert your team via Slack that you were taking a break, anytime you needed to step away for more than 30 minutes. I find this ridiculous, as, when we were all the office, it was totally fine to go to the break room, leave for lunch, run errands, go to the building’s gym, etc. for upwards of an HOUR and say nothing. So now, we too have all these annoying little qualifiers popping up in our team Slack all day like, “Need a mental health break!” “Going for a run to clear my head!” “Stressed out! Going to be outside for a bit!” “Doing some yoga for a longer lunch to get myself back on track.” “Taking some unplugged time to stretch and meditate.”

      I simply say, “Offline for a bit.” But I still wonder if people think I have a “good reason” to be away.

      1. KayDeeAye*

        We got a little talking to from our manager in which she said that while she encourages us to take breaks when we need them, before we “disappear” for part of the day, we need to tell her.

        OK, fine, but what did she mean by “part of the day”? One hour? Two? A half day? And if someone “disappeared” for a longish period, why not just talk to that person? Why make it into a bigger deal by chastising the entire team? Why cause us all the wonder who and what she’s talking about? So annoying.

        1. Free Meerkats*

          So did you ask? That’s the best alternative to guessing.

          Good Gods, People, if something isn’t clear to you, ASK!

          1. starsaphire*

            TBH, that can be really hard to do if someone has a habit of jumping down your throat for asking questions.

            Not trying to “not all sandwich” at you, by any means, but it’s not super unusual to have a manager who doesn’t like/can’t handle/won’t accept questions like that.

      2. The Magic Rat*

        There are two or three people on my time who, apropos of nothing, decided they needed to start announcing it on Slack every time they were going to be away from their computer, which seemed wildly excessive. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to have spread beyond them.

      3. alanna of trebond*

        I realize you might not be in a position to solve this problem, but in case anyone reading this is, Slack’s emoji statuses can help here — designate one on your team to mean “Taking a break, but back in under 90 minutes” (or whatever the norm is for how long you would normally need to be gone from an IRL office before saying something to your manager). That way whoever is stressed out about not being able to reach people knows how long to wait before trying you again, and at least you’re not getting constant “taking a break, i’m soooooo stressed!” pings from colleagues all day.

    3. Joielle*

      Yeah, this is what I was thinking too. If everyone is busy and stressed, then nobody wants to seem like they’re the LEAST busy and stressed, because then it looks like they’re not contributing as much as they could. I’ve experienced this in a couple of different workplaces, where the person who is calmest in the face of stress ends up doing a lot more work because if you have a task to delegate, you’re going to give it to the person who’s not already losing their shit.

    4. A Social Worker*

      Yes! I manage a team in a high stress, high workload environment and when I first came onboard they would send time off requests with a note “justifying” what it was for – doctor’s appointment, mental health day, etc. It took a while for me to get the message across that you are entitled to time off and it’s none of my business what you do with it, as long as you aren’t using it excessively then I don’t care!

  7. ZB*

    It’s not really a normal situation right now too, as others have pointed out – a workload that would normally be stressful but manageable in normal times could be completely overwhelming now, because we only have so much bandwidth and most of it is being taken up by the fear and uncertainty of the world around us right now. They may really need the reassurance that they’re not the only ones feeling this way; I know at similar times for me it has been incredibly comforting to know that others felt the same way and it wasn’t me just being lazy or bad at my job.

    1. WorkerBee*

      Oh, thank you for saying that – I thought I was the only one. I’ve had far, far busier times at work than this, and yet just going to work for the day overwhelms me, even if the actual tasks are straightforward.

    2. TardyTardis*

      Also, more people have children home with them, and must work till midnight once the little darlings are asleep. This is also stressful and adds to sleep deprivation.

  8. anon for this*

    Good advice, except that I don’t think the OP (or Alison) can make any judgment whatsoever as to whether expressions of stress and anxiety are hyperbolic. I’m sorry, but you have absolutely no idea what;s going on with people

    For instnce, I’m don’t share stress and anxiety from my personal life at work. Everyone thinks I’m calm and efficient and productive. And yet, in the past two months, I have gone to the hospital in an ambulance, have had two spinal procedures, been in ridiculous physical pain until just a week ago, my son is back on chemo after five years off, we had to fight to get insurance to cover his meds, even so his meds are TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR THE YEAR, that doesn’t include all the other medical expenses, my son wants to go back to chicago for his junior year of college, my husband keeps saying “we have plenty of money” (we can pay for my son’s medical stuff but we need to cut back on other stuff which my husband is not doing), my parents are in their 80s and live in california and I fear I will not ever see them again.

    Not asking for sympathy. Just making the point that you DO NOT KNOW if it’s hyperbole, so please, stop saying that.

    1. WellRed*

      But we’re also supposed to take letter writers’ at their word that they know their workplace and we don’t. If this is a complete 360 for the entire staff, it seems likely some of it is venting.
      I’m sorry for what you are dealing with.

      1. Observer*

        Actually, based on what the OP says, it sounds like the extreme change is due to the fact that they really ARE being pushed to, and possibly past, the breaking point.

        The OP explicitly states that multiple people have had panic attacks. That is NOT “venting”. They also say that workload has increased and yet management is still pushing for quick turnaround and imply that management is also pushing for people get work assigned to them even while they already have full plates.

    2. A*

      I’m sorry for what you are going through, but I do think you are projecting here. This is an over reaction, and I hope that some of the contributing factors get better for you soon. Hang in there.

      1. Karia*

        She is not projecting or overreacting.

        The point is that not everything is about the company or its bottom line. The pandemic is having a significant impact on people’s emotional and mental health. People who have never previously had mental health issues are seeing psychiatrists.

        Also – who do you think is overreacting? The poster with a son in chemo during a pandemic or the staff whose workloads keep increasing along with personal stressors?

  9. Ann O'Nemity*

    Stress can be contagious, and I can understand why the repeated stress talk is upsetting the OP. It may not be possible to stop this kind of talk until workload and other stressors lighten, but the OP can take steps to distance themselves from it. Exit conversations, change the subject, take breaks. Emotionally distance, don’t take it personally. If you think it will help, share stress relieving techniques with your coworkers. And it may help the OP to repeat a mantra – I’m okay, I got this, it’s not me it’s them, etc.

    1. Amy Sly*

      One of the steps can be to treat the folks making the comments like you would anyone who can’t get off one subject. It’s not that you’re shaming them for their problems or comments; you just don’t want to join the gripe sessions.

      “I’m so stressed out.”
      “Aren’t we all.”
      “I know, right?”
      “Yeah. The more I think about how stressed I am, the more stressed I feel.”
      “Yep. Heard you yesterday/an hour ago/in the break room.” (For when you feel really snarky.)

      Then add “So what’s going on with X project?” if you need to talk to them or return your focus back to work if you don’t. Yes, there’s a chance that people will think you’re a non-empathetic jerk who doesn’t want to hear about their problems, but you don’t want to hear about their problems. It’s okay not to — it’s not like you could do anything to help them anyway. Not wanting to listen to the same complaints on a loop doesn’t make you a jerk. Listening to other people vent when you can’t do anything about it *is* stressful — why do you think therapists have so much burnout? — and you aren’t there to be someone’s therapist.

      1. Amy Sly*

        I should clarify, this is if by “my team” LW means “the team I’m on.” If it’s a team LW has some authority over, then trying to rectify the issues causing stress is LW’s job, and she can’t just remove herself from the conversations.

    2. Nonprofit Nancy*

      Yeah, I think part of OP’s reaction is coming from a sense that she needs to do something to help people. I felt the same way when I was in a new age-y kind of office that was new to me. People were open about mental health challenges, often talking candidly about their depression, anxiety, panic attacks etc. I found this very upsetting! Partly because if I had said that out loud to people I didn’t know that well, it would have been some kind of cry for help. However in their case it was part of a philosophy of openness. OP may be having a natural and compassionate response, but a coworker relationship likely isn’t the right one to do more than be respectful, make sure know about EAPs and ensure you’re not pushing them unnecessarily.

  10. Eukomos*

    Yikes, the response to someone telling their workplace that their workload is causing panic attacks is not to blame them for oversharing! If your work were exposing people to asbestos and they got cancer you wouldn’t tell them to stop “oversharing” about the cancer, right? The toxic environment causes the health problems, rather than admitting to the health problems creating the toxic environment. And if we’ve learned anything form the current situation it’s that ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away.

  11. MissDisplaced*

    I mean, it is all real right now, but sometimes constant worrying about it and freely having a place to actively VENT about it at work is likely making it worse in this case. You’re all feeding off each other’s anxiety. That can get exhausting and be a drag.

    But your employer can still help! Hopefully they have an EAP program, or if not, maybe they can bring in a specialist to hold a stress management session which could, in turn, direct those who need additional support to the right places.

    Also, the company should encourage people to take their vacation time to relax and unplug. Even in a pandemic, people need that more than ever.

    1. Observer*

      I think you have it backwards. Yes, it’s true that the venting may be making things worse. But it’s not a matter of the employer “still” helping. It’s a matter of “employees can still help” by doing a bit less venting. But it’s only a bandaid and it’s not going to keep people from having having panic attacks.

      Having the company direct people to an EAP and doing a seminar on stress management is not going to help, and could be actively damaging. Because the first rule of effective stress management is to reduce stress to a manageable level. Essentially telling people that the crushing stress is either their mental health being poor or their not fault because they are not managing well is likely to just add yet ANOTHER layer of stress.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      The EAP is most likely only going to have a bunch of people now seeking leave to remedy their overload, which is “take a break and remove yourself from the situation.”

      The employer can still help by figuring out how to reduce stress, not just saying “here, talk to this person over here about it and they’ll just make you feel so much better and you’ll be a-okay again.”

      That’s just not how mental health works, you don’t fix it by stuffing yourself in a therapist’s chair. It requires changes to your environment.

  12. Always Late to the Party*

    OP, in addition to Alison’s excellent advice, please make sure you are doing what *you* need to to take care of yourself and mitigate the impact others’ stress is having on you. It sounds like you’re starting to become resentful of the venting, but no one being upfront about their stress levels is doing it to intentionally stress you out more. If you’re able to emotionally disconnect from it at all while still responding appropriately, “oh, I’m so sorry” “we’re all just doing the best we can” “it’s a tough time” that may help you feel less like the venting is creating toxicity.

    Not sure if you’re in the situation where you are all now working remotely after working together in-person, but consider the lines are blurred for folks as we now have to work and interact with coworkers in an environment that would typically be a free-from-work space. Work/life boundaries are bound to be more blurry in that situation; since work has infringed on our homes, we’re more likely to let our home life (including emotional state) infringe on our work. And almost everyone’s home life is more complicated and anxiety-inducing now than it was 6 months ago.

  13. HelloHello*

    To be honest, from the letter at least it doesn’t sound like these coworkers are oversharing. It would be one thing if they were going on long rants, venting about stress and anxiety, and if they’re saying “I’m so stressed I need a break” multiple times every day then that’s probably too much. But if it’s just people tacking on a “ugh, everything is so stressful right now, I’m taking a break) when they occasionally have a long lunch or take a day off, that honestly seems like a pretty normal reaction to the current situation we all find ourselves in.

    1. Groove Bat*

      At my workplace is just the opposite. Nobody admits to being stressed, they just continually push themselves to do more and more and more. I wish more of us felt free to acknowledge that we’re all having a hard time, but we have a culture where that’s frowned upon.

  14. 789a*

    I’m confused by this response. The stress and panic attacks may be related to workload, but I assume the point of this letter is that people are stressed and having panic attacks because of pandemic stress. I don’t get addressing it through a workload lens. It doesn’t make sense to try to force things into normalcy when nothing is normal.
    If this pandemic ever ends, your coworkers will learn what those of us with mental illness pre-covid have always known: not only do people not feel sympathy for those with mental health challenges, but they find it actively irritating if not offensive. Like “You’re stressing me out. Next time I see you, you need to bring a Xanax… for me.” Real quote.

    1. fposte*

      I think it’s that stress is cumulative, and there are workplaces where people *aren’t* all having panic attacks, even though pandemic stress is, well, pandemic. It doesn’t necessarily mean the workplace sucks, but it could well mean there are ways it could help support its staff better in a time of heightened stress.

      1. Quill*

        I mean, I’m doing relatively well because I’m already on no-panic pills. But one more fork jammed into their life is going to tip most people over the edge right now, especially with the dawning societal realization that it isn’t going to be “just get to summer” or “just get through summer” because the US’s response has been minimal at best.

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          Just get through summer drives me up the wall. September will come and bring its own problems whether we admit it or not.

          1. Quill*

            It made far more sense in May but you know, we DIDN’T make it through summer. We didn’t make it through June without opening things back up and a new wave of risk and governmental irresponsibility.

            Meanwhile my colleagues overseas are always asking “how are things over there?” and I have to reply “still on fire, check back in December.”

            1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

              we DIDN’T make it through summer.

              I never realized it until I read your comment, but you’re so right!

          2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

            CDC director Robert Redfield said in an interview just recently, “Fall and winter may be ‘one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health.”

            We have some very dark times ahead, indeed.

            But on the optimistic side, this too shall pass, eventually.

    2. Willis*

      Yeah…it sounds like OP’s office legitimately has more work than usual so it makes sense to address that and hopefully lessen stress levels around workload. But, some level of elevated stress is probably going to remain for as long as the pandemic does, especially for people working and trying to care for other family members. There’s more options here than just workload/poor management or hyperbolic co-workers. (And for the more enduring type of stress, I think it would be helpful if management made clear people are entitled to breaks and don’t need to justify them, even when things are busy. But at the same time…some venting is probably needed for some people considering all everyone is dealing with.)

      1. Quill*

        Yeah, that’s probably the best immediate item for OP to push for: because it will both help on the generalized stress levels and remove a stressor for them.

    3. Koala dreams*

      I have mental health problems too, and a work culture where people vented about their health issues (mental health or physical health) all day long, would be unbearable for me too. It’s not like having mental health problems give you the mental bandwidth to deal with other people’s problems, actually the opposite in my experience.

      It’s true that the pandemic is making everything worse, but that’s no reason to avoid addressing workload problems. It’s still important to bring up with management, and deal with by pushing back and setting your own limits if management doesn’t care.

      I agree with you that the venting and the work issues might turn out to be two different things, though. People still get ill at great workplaces.

  15. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    talk to your management as a group, explain the situation is unsustainable, cite the level of stress and panic, and ask for help — whether it’s additional staff, reprioritizing work, pushing back and/or canceling some projects altogether, or so forth.

    I was in a comparable situation in the past and pushed back, individually at first but then as a group, explained that the demands were unsustainable (in our case, full-time workload X and full-time workload Y supporting our outsourcing colleagues in a time zone half way across the world while we carry out the workload in parallel to “prove it can be outsourced”(!)…) and it had no effect, and I’m sorry to say I don’t think it will have any effect in this situation either. …

    … because I feel like management are already aware of this, there are no more things that can be changed, the situation just “is what it is” in that there’s no more money, no more ability to recruit additional people, or to reprioritise work (because presumably all of the work that hasn’t already been dropped is mission-critical).

    As such … I don’t think this is “solvable” from the OPs perspective.

    OP, you didn’t say it, but I got a feeling (and correct me if I’m wrong) that I almost feel like you see being stressed out, even to the point you can’t cope any more, as something that people can still get over or push into the background if only they applied rational thought and didn’t allow themselves to be consumed by this self-intensifying stress about everything. And as such, they ‘ought’ to rein (reign?) it in because it just negatively influences others and so on…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Right, it’s not a magic potion or anything! But it’s still helpful to do because (a) sometimes it does work and (b) when it doesn’t, know you know nothing will change and can make decisions for yourself accordingly.

  16. Quill*

    Adding to Alison’s advice: Stress is cumulative. So what would, absent outside stress, be manageable becomes unmanageable with that addition, but also, the longer the stress goes on the lower the bar is for becoming overwhelmed. So even if you do find that your coworkers’ workload is what you think should be reasonable, do them the courtesy of not assuming that they are overreacting, considering that everyone’s stress tolerance is different and that we are all coming to the realization that this stress will continue, and probably increase, for at least the rest of the year.

  17. SheLooksFamiliar*

    Does anyone remember the mid-2000s when Monster Jobs hosted job seeker forums, a Vent forum included? I couldn’t handle even a quick check in to kill time. Venters were brutal, and the most minor complaints quickly escalated into insults and attacks, even threats. People didn’t commiserate about job searching, they declared war. Even some of the venters said venting didn’t help them and they needed a break.

    There are studies that claim venting can literally change the way the venter thinks, and it definitely changes the way they react or respond to stress. I don’t dismiss people’s concerns but I don’t let them vent away anymore, either.

    1. Mediamaven*

      I agree with you on these points. I think it’s negligent to point out that some people thrive on competing to see who is the most miserable. We had one of those at my company and it brought the whole team down. Covid is a different situation obviously but I think it’s important to not let things spiral to out of control.

  18. TPS reporter*

    Manager here. This could have been written by someone on my team. We have a huge increase in workload and just not enough staff to manage it. We can’t hire due to financial issues.

    I’ve been understanding, we have an open environment, we support each other. But that is just simply not enough. We have to push back on the work we’re expected to do in the timeframe we’re expected to do it in. We’re taking steps to do that right now.

    Mangers might not be able to do anything, or maybe that haven’t tried or think there’s no hope. Always bring it up and always tell them what’s going on. They could be like me who honestly didn’t understand the depth of the problem until after my team really made it clear.

  19. Free Meerkats*

    My response to this situation would depend entirely on who is making the statements. Most coworkers would get, “Let’s get coffee and talk about what’s going on.” But Lamentation Lawrence would get, “Yeah dude, life’s tough all over, STFU and get back to work.”

    But if the workload is truly that onerous, it’s time to get management to prioritize and communicate that to their employees. What can’t get done in a reasonable amount of time by reasonably productive people doesn’t get done. If your management won’t do that, do it yourself and send an email to your manager laying out what your priority list and how much will get done.

  20. RestResetRule*

    Just a potential solution here: If you’re one of those people who easily get anxious when you hear about other people talking about how stressed they are or have mostly negative things to say, I think it’s okay to think about how you can set boundaries.
    For example, during my zoom meetings, if my coworkers start talking about gloomy stuff and I’m at my wit’s end with hearing it, I just browse the internet until they change the subject. It’s a way for them to get things off their chest but I don’t have to emotionally process it. Obviously, this is more for COVID-related stress, not workload stress. That stuff should be taken to a manager, like Alison says.

  21. Coverage Associate*

    Could the employer get an EAP service for the rest of 2020?

    Some industries got busier with the pandemic, and it might be hard to cut back on projects or hire more staff. But increased work should mean increased revenue, so maybe some professional mental health help outside of insurance can be arranged.

  22. PlaidPolka*

    Only got to hear a few minutes of Brene Brown pod Unlocking Us- Anxiety, calm & over- underfunctioning …but she discusses how anxiety is contagious. Once one person breaches to unload, the whole group gets it.
    Absolutely happening in workplaces & homes- seeing some people trying to function, stay steady but others who aren’t managing anxiety are bleeding into other people. The best you can do is keep yourself level if not upbeat. And professional therapy helps too.

  23. Catherine*

    Is it possible that something about the workplace culture here makes people name their stress to “justify” their breaks? At my previous workplace, I wasn’t even able to stop working and leave my desk for lunch unless I could make the case that I was so overloaded that I needed to step away and decompress.

    (Workload preventing people taking lunch was a problem. Management responded by banning nearly all foods in the office. The result wasn’t that we took lunch elsewhere; it was that we skipped meals.)

  24. Anima*

    I HAVE to announce all my breaks to my colleagues, because I’m currently handling a whole department by myself and they need to know when I’m away. This sounds similar, with a caveat that the people take breaks because of stress. But maybe they announce their breaks because they are, in fact, a bit understaffed, stressed out and therefore need more breaks. So, from my point of view, Alisons advice is spot on.
    (Side note: I quit that job already, in my case the understaffing is a permanent problem and management won’t do anything.)

  25. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Stress about work: may have a solution, certainly try identifying the key causes and seeing what can be done. There’s likely no one underlying cause (I’ve never worked anywhere that’s only had ONE thing going wrong!) but don’t discount any tiny problems you may find, because allieveating a few of those might have a bigger effect than you think.

    Stress about pandemic/other: no solution available. It’s brutal, unfair but needs to be accommodated. With people losing loved ones, being isolated from each other, fearing for their own lives and jobs it’s probably the worst situation in living memory.

    In conclusion: I’d suggest looking for little improvements you can take to management to take the edge off some of this stress, and for the rest distance yourself from the conversation (headphones, deleting emails, having a library of cat memes to look at, whatever works). Saving your own sanity is VERY important in these times.

    (Speaking as one who hasn’t read the news since April. Can’t deal)

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Cat memes and gaming memes are my go-to for ‘if I hear anything more I’ll scream’

  26. Sacrificial Pharmacy Tech*

    “Pushing on the workload itself is likely the only way to really solve it.”

    Ha! If only it were so simple. My company has been one of the few allowed to be open during the pandemic and our workload doubled (and hasn’t stopped being doubled even though other things are open now) while corporate cut the budget. They’re still cutting the budget going into flu shot season, which is about to triple our workload.

    My store and pharmacy managers would love to push back on the workload, but district isn’t hearing it. In fact, they’re continuing to add EVEN MORE to our workload and putting in punitive measures if we can’t meet metrics. And whenever we actually meet a metric, the goalposts are shifted. We’re exhausted, we’re beyond stressed, we’re demoralized, and we’re well aware of the fact that corporate is not going to stop cutting the budget until the cost of paying lawsuits for errors that harm patients caused by an unsafe working environment exceeds the cost of the budget. Mind you, all of this is while we make barely over minimum wage despite being part of the healthcare team and having patients’ lives in our hands, which is a slap in the face on top of everything else.

    1. TardyTardis*

      Would there be any point in talking with a lawyer? This sounds like a) time for a union and b) class action suit. Just sayin’.

  27. Koala dreams*

    I’m feeling sympathy for you. Your situation would be very draining for me too. It’s very difficult for me to listen to health talk during normal times, and this pandemic doesn’t make it easier. Add in the comments over every little break and it sounds very stressful. I understand that people want to share if they need longer time off (several days or several weeks), but the pressure to share the reason for such a short time off (I’m guessing these breaks are less than a day and not longer time off). To be honest, I don’t like to tell people when I go to the doctor or the therapist, let alone describe my illness, so I’m just confused when I need to respond to that kind of comments. “I hope you feel better soon” is a good response the first few times, but for chronic or re-occuring health issues they seem inadequate. (Maybe you can use that phrase for situations where people announce their breaks? It’s not joining the venting, but you still show sympathy in a polite way.)

    With friends, I usually ask more questions and take the time to listen to their answers, but that’s because we’re friends. I also feel I can tell my friends when I don’t have the energy for these kinds of topics. And of course I see my friends in my free time, when I don’t need to work at the same time.

    I don’t have a lot of advice for you, I’ll be reading the comments for advice for myself.

  28. BettyBoop*

    At my job we tell everyone that we are taking a break/lunch/leaving for the day/etc. so the idea of announcing your breaks didn’t sound surprising to me. If part of the issue is that people are saying they are going on a break AND announcing why I can see that as something to bring up to the manager: “hearing the reasoning behind people’s breaks is stressing me out, can the chat room just be for work stuff?”. Though I think this would be the second prong approach to dealing with workload and would depend on the manager. If you have a good manager they should do what Alison said and approach those employees who are stressed so they are validated and then also remind everyone to use the chat room as just a work only zone. If you have a bad manager I probably wouldn’t ask that of them because they probably would just try to shut everyone done which would only make people feel worse which is not good. So use your judgment.

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