If you are not experiencing stress in your life, you are dead. In fact, stress can even be a good thing. It can help us in dangerous situations (think of those stories of mothers suddenly imbued with enough strength to lift cars off of their children) or when we are working on a big project and need that extra boost of energy to propel us through to the finish line. A rush of stress hormones can aid us immeasurably in moments such as those.
The reality, however, is that the occasions during which we need to be able to save small children are few and far between and that not every moment of our lives is spent on deadline. Yet somehow, many—if not most— of us have come to accept acute stress as a regular feature of our daily lives. A Deloitte study of 23,000 working adults revealed that 57% percent of respondents were stressed “sometimes” and a whopping 28% percent said they were stressed “often” or “almost always.” Not only is it destroying our health (the American Psychological Association has declared “the nation is on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis”), but it is also impacting every facet of our lives, from our productivity to our overall happiness.
There are valid times when we can expect to be stressed, and there are many techniques—from taking a walk to mindfulness and meditation to psychotherapy—to cope with that stress. However, an often-overlooked technique for stress management is avoiding stress in the first place, and one of the most straightforward ways of doing that is to closely evaluate the people in your life who are causing that stress.
Think about it: If you had an employee who was disengaged, came in late all the time, delivered sub-par work, and generally caused nothing but stress for you, your plan of action would be fairly clear. You would fire him or her. If you view yourself as the CEO of your own life and well-being, you can manage stressful figures in your workplace similarly.
Every office has its share of stressful people. They are stress vampires who suck our time and energy with their neediness, inefficiency, or productivity-sapping personality quirks. Granted, you may not be in a position of power and able to fire them from the company (as much as you would love to sometimes give your boss the boot), but you do have control over your own behavior and attitude. You can manage how you deal with them by promoting, demoting, or terminating them in your own life as necessary.
Here are tips for identifying and dealing with seven of the most common stress vampires in the workplace:
The Office Gossip
Identification: This vampire has the skinny on everyone in the office—from who is having trouble at home to who is up for a big promotion—and wants to share it with you. You, however, have neither the time nor the interest to keep up on every mini-scandal. Furthermore, you are stressed out about watching your tongue to make sure you do not say something that becomes grist for the rumor mill. You work so hard to avoid this person that you are practically dehydrated from constantly steering clear of the water cooler.
Action: Terminate. In no uncertain terms, let the blabbermouth know you have no interest in being either a source or a consumer of their gossip. From that point on, a polite nod in passing will more than suffice.
The Personal Disaster
Identification: This is your colleague who may be going through a difficult divorce or some other kind of problem at home. You are happy to be a shoulder to lean on, but daily crying sessions are becoming more than you can handle. Plus, you were never that close, so you are not quite sure how you became this person’s number one confidante.
Action: Demote. There is a fine line between being a good friend and being a therapist, and your colleague may need the latter. Gently suggest that they might need more support than you alone can give them, and help them to either identify other friends to lean on and/or a source for professional help. Do make sure that you check in to be sure they are getting the support they need.
THE STRESS MESS
Identification: This person is always running late and constantly up against deadlines and, more often than not, they come to you for help at the eleventh hour. You did not mind helping out the first few times—and you want to be seen as a team player—but now it has become such a regular occurrence that you are having trouble getting your own work done.
Action: Demote. Limit-setting is crucial here. Once you have made sure that you have completed your own work, let them know you can help them with a piece of the project, but that you have a hard stop at 6:30 for a family engagement. Do not let their stress start to stress you out in turn. At the end of the day, whether you help or not, it is their problem, not yours.
Identification: This person is also known as a narcissist or a know-it-all, and good luck ever convincing them that anyone else’s contributions or ideas are better than theirs. The Egomaniac can be a roadblock to productivity, as they are resistant to accept the ideas of others. That reluctance can cause major headaches for anyone on a team with them.
Action: Promote. It may seem counter-intuitive, but often the best way to deal with The Egomaniac is to work with them instead of against them. A little flattery can go a long way in terms of making your life easier. When they have a genuinely good idea (and they likely will, or else no one would keep them around), praise them in person or in a public forum like an email chain. That will get them on your side and provide some goodwill for the future. The Egomaniac is generally accepting of a criticism sandwich: give them any negative feedback couched in two slices of praise.
THE HIGH-MAINTENANCE CUSTOMER
Identification: The customer may always be right, but trying to please a high-maintenance customer can be enough to drive you up the wall. Sometimes nothing is fast enough or good enough. Other times, they either fail to give any clear directives or they change their mind mid-stream. It can be impossible to please someone who is not entirely sure what they themselves want.
Action: Promote. There is no business without customers, so service—and with a smile—is of the utmost importance. Rise to the challenge in order to deal with a demanding customer or client by listening, showing empathy, being a real problem solver, and following up to be sure they feel they are being taken care of and their needs are being met.
THE DISENGAGED DIRECT REPORT
Identification: Their body reports to work every day, but their mind is checked out. The Disengaged Direct Report does not seem remotely interested in their work or their colleagues. Their work is good when you can get it out of them, but sometimes getting them to do anything can feel like pulling teeth.
Action: Demote or Terminate. It is worth giving this employee a review period. Start by letting them know that you notice their lack of interest. Establish weekly check-in meetings and ask them how you can support them at work and with their life goals. Offer them consistent feedback. Document their behavior and set clear objectives in order to assess over time whether or not they are making progress. If not, they may not be a good fit for their current role.
Identification: If you have trouble identifying this stress vampire, you have larger issues at your job. This is either your direct boss or your boss’s boss. There are plenty of nightmare bosses out there, but even a mostly good boss can be a stress vampire because of the sheer amount of control they have over your livelihood.
Action: Promote. Your success at work is reliant upon this person, so you either need to learn how to deal with them or be prepared to find a new job. This is a case where you need to really focus on your own behavior. Learn how to manage up by delivering news in a way that bodes well with their communication style. And if you have issues with your boss, approach any interaction with a very level head. Even just a few minutes in your own office meditating before a tense meeting can do wonders.
Of course there will be people you cannot avoid: demanding investors, difficult customers, a frustrating colleague added to your team. In cases like these, do your best to turn them into teaching moments. Think of them as high-value educators, teaching you patience and compassion. If we cannot avoid stressful people and situations, at least we can choose to learn from them. For the rest of your stress vampires, however, vanquish them as necessary. It is only once you stop allowing them to suck your energy that you will be able to have a more productive, efficient workplace. The result will be a happier, healthier environment for you and all of your colleagues—no garlands of garlic or wooden stakes required.