Stress is our body’s response when we feel threatened. Our heart beats faster, breathing quickens, muscles gird for action and blood pressure rises. Your body is ready to protect itself.
We all feel stress at some point. Sometimes it’s in response to something in our physical environment. But usually it’s in response to issues arising with the workplace, finances, aging parents, children or any number of other sources. The issues are personal, and so are our responses. Some of us, or our clients, seem to be wired for full-out “fight or flight” mode, while others take a low-key “this, too, shall pass” approach.
Problems start when stress becomes debilitating. It can disrupt sleep patterns, affect food intake (some people can’t eat when they’re stressed, while others overindulge to find comfort), cause problems with drugs or alcohol, negatively impact work and personal relationships, and bring on mental health issues. While our bodies are designed to handle moderate stress, such as when you slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, we’re not built to handle long-term, chronic stress without ill effects.
So that’s a primer on stress. The questions for you are: How do you recognize if a client or colleague is in trouble from stress? Should you intervene? If so, what actions are appropriate? Let’s take them one at a time.
Recognizing the effects of stress
Just as people react to stress differently, there’s no one way to recognize it in others. Reactions to long-term or chronic stress show up in changes with behavior patterns. For example, a client or colleague may come to meetings or join phone calls late — or not at all. Now, some folks are just disorganized; but if this is a new behavior, take note of it.
Other signs are canceling appointments or taking more time away from the office; seeming to be tired, anxious or nervous; reacting more emotionally to criticism with tears or aggression; exhibiting mood swings; or apparently losing confidence or motivation. You may also notice physical changes, such as a lack of energy and gaining or losing weight.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and one incident like those described above doesn’t mean someone is in trouble from stress. Rather, look for changes in patterns of behavior over a period of time.
Should you intervene?
The answer to this question is, “It depends.”
If it’s a colleague or employee, I would say yes. After all, their behavior may have material consequences for your business, such as alienating customers or clients. And, to be a good colleague or employer, you want to be seen as someone who cares about the well-being of those you work with.
If it’s a client, I think you have to evaluate your relationship with the person and determine whether intervention would be welcome or come as an insult.
For example, how long have you known this person? Do you get into personal matters during conversations? Have their behaviors resulted in any financial setbacks, such as unwise purchases or taking chances in the stock market? If you can’t approach these questions directly with a client, perhaps you can take a different direction, such as speaking with a spouse about your concerns.
What actions are appropriate?
Even if the person’s actions have negatively impacted your business, express concern rather than anger. You can be direct and kind at the same time, letting them know you’ve noticed changes in their behavior or other signs of stress. If you talk to them with a caring attitude, they may be more open to sharing what’s going on.
Or they may shut you down. In that case, all you can do is express concern again and suggest they consider talking to their doctor.
But if a conversation does ensue, the most important thing you can do is listen, quietly and empathetically. Don’t try to “fix” them — only they can do that. Perhaps all you can do is help them identify the sources of stress and, if it’s within your power, change or remove a stressor. As an employer, you may be able to refer a colleague to a professional for counseling.
Basically, keep three things in mind in situations like this: Be cognizant, be careful and be kind.
Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30-plus years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates. She can be reached at (847) 612-6684.