How to deal with stressful colleagues

Eric Ho
Table of Contents

In a rush? Skip straight to my three step framework to Name, Tame and Reframe your stressful colleagues and remain calm!

Does this sound familiar?

I’ve written about some of the ways to feel good at work and think unconventionally beyond mental health.

Or how you might deal with the stress of your commute (or your routines when you are working from home).

But what about stressful colleagues?!

Three simple steps to stay #calm when colleagues press your #stress buttons! #whereisyourmindat

We’ve all been there. The one colleague who walks up to you in the office, and before they’ve arrived at your desk, you’re filled with dread. 

Or when your phone rings and your finger is hovering over the “reject” button.

They somehow know exactly which buttons to press to annoy you, to make you seethe, to make you impatient and give you the sense they are wasting your time.

And before you know it, you’re in defensive-mode, your adrenalin and cortisol are soaring, and you’re feeling the stress of the moment.

And I know I have been – and no doubt still am – one of them!

Of course, it is unlikely your colleague is intentionally causing you this stress, but the problem with stressful colleagues is the low-grade stress they can foster in you.

When you add that to the other sources of stress that you’ll naturally encounter during a normal working day – like your tough targets and deadlines – , they conspire to increase your stress hormones.

And when your stress hormones are raised chronically, rather than occasionally as our evolutionary biology was designed, that has a detrimental impact on your health.

The impact of un-managed stress on you

Unmanaged stress increases your risk for:

  • heart disease 
  • diabetes 
  • hypothyroidism 
  • autoimmunity

It also:

  • affects you cognitive function and mental health 
  • affects blood sugar control 
  • promotes weight gain 
  • increases inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein 
  • affects the onset and severity of asthma and allergies 
  • triggers or worsens autoimmune diseases, like MS, Crohn’s, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis.

I know from my own experience of adopting a Functional Medicine and ancestral health approach to resolving my psoriasis, that my stress levels were a good predictor of a psoriasis flare up.

Short of taking drastic, retaliatory action, like “outplacing” your colleagues or obtaining a firearms licence to lower your stress – both of which I do not recommend – here is my unconventional way of handling stressful colleagues that targets the root cause of your stress – your brain’s response to your colleague.

It’s much more effective for you and your health in the long term.

Name, Tame and Reframe!

So, how do you avoid reacting to colleagues that have pressed your stress buttons?

The “Name, Tame and Reframe” approach below is easy to implement, but the challenge is mastering it.

It calls for a concerted effort to shift your mindset.

The objective behind “Name, Tame and Reframe” is to handle your stressful colleagues calmly. 

You can do that by giving the logical, decision-making, pre-frontal cortex part of your brain the time and space to decide how to respond to your colleague, as opposed to what usually happens in a triggering situation: your lizard brain reacting instinctively, resulting in your stress hormones rising uncontrollably.

With practice, discipline and determination, you can reap the benefits of lowering your stress levels for a long time to come.

The first few times you try this out, it may take several seconds, you may give up, it may feel clunky.

But like learning any new skill, practising, getting it wrong and using the insights you’ve gained to try again helps you perfect that skill.

With practice, my Name, Tame and Reframe now takes a split second.

1. “Name”: call out your feelings and emotions!

You can dampen down the negative emotional reactions you have by calling out the feeling or emotion that you are experiencing.

When you name your emotion or feeling (either silently, or in a quiet whisper to yourself), you dampen down the amplitude of the trigger.. 

Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that recognising and labelling feelings and emotions reduces activity in the emotionally reactive regions of our brain.

2. “Tame”: take a deep belly breath and remain calm!

Have you ever caught yourself feeling a surge of stress at work? It could be from a stressful colleague, or a tight deadline and not having enough time.

Have you noticed when that happens that your breathing gets shallower?

That’s nature’s way of preparing us for the tiger that’s about to chase us in the wild, even though we’re sitting in the safe confines of our work environment.

So how can you remain calm?

When you notice your stress triggers (like your shoulders tightening, your breathing becoming shallower, or your face and forehead scrunching up), breathe deeply into your belly.

Let your belly expand and contract rather than your chest and shoulders go up and down.

When relaxed, a baby breathes with deep belly breaths. It’s the same for adults: belly breathing, rather than breathing into your chest, helps you relax.

When you focus on your belly expanding and contracting, you relax your diaphragm and relax your vagus nerve. That in turn turns off your sympathetic nervous system – the one that’s designed you to handle threats to your existence – both perceived and real, and whether from a tiger or a colleague -, and it turns on your parasympathetic nervous system – the one that’s designed to help you rest, relax and digest.

3. “Reframe”: call out your and/or your colleague’s needs!

One of the most helpful ways to reduce the negative mental and physiological impact of your stressful colleagues and remain calm is to reframe your reaction to your colleague by identifying the basic human needs that are not being met. And you can identify those needs in yourself and/or your colleague. 

What do I mean, and why?

When our basic human needs are not being met, we express that through our feelings and emotions. 

For example:

  • I may feel angry towards a colleague because they are not appreciating the effort I put into meeting a tight deadline. 
    • [my feeling/emotion = anger]
    • [my basic human need not being met = appreciation]
  • If a colleague who has just joined the team is really slow in meetings with me, and I am irritated by it, that might be because my colleague feels anxious because they’re looking for some consideration and understanding because they are new to the job. 
    • [my feeling/emotion = irritation]
    • [my colleague’s feeling/emotion = anxiety]
    • [my colleague’s basic human needs not being met = consideration and understanding]

The intention is not to “fix” them, but to reduce your stress response they’re causing in you.

Reframing in this way reduces the activity in the emotionally reactive regions of our brain.

So, identify your and/or your colleague’s needs to dampen down your stress response and remain calm!

If identifying emotions and how they arise when someone’s needs are not met resonates with you, take a look at the work that’s been done by Marshall Rosenberg in establishing the field of non-violent communication (or compassionate / empathetic communication) here and here.

Over to you!

How will you choose to respond to stressful colleagues in the future?

What experiment will you try to lower your stress levels when you’re around your stressful colleagues (or family and friends)?

Share in the comments below how your experiments went for you!

Be wise, be healthy, and be well!


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