Tough times add to stress in workplace

I think everybody has noticed it. That extra tension, those snide remarks, the one-upmanship.

It’s rampant in today’s workplace and it’s getting worse. I’ve concluded it’s definitely tied to the economy.

All the short temper and bad behavior is a byproduct of stressed-out workers, people worried about paying the bills, losing their jobs, having their pay cut. At home, you’re worried about making ends meet and when you go to work you’re faced with talk of unpaid furloughs and layoffs.

When you can’t seem to find an escape from the stress, it manifests itself in behavior like curt remarks, less than courteous actions and outright verbal fights.

Christina Mayhall, labor exchange officer with the Suncoast Workforce Board, has seen these stressed out workers coming in to search for jobs after being laid off. The jobs agency has taken preemptive steps by coaching its workers in how to defuse verbal assaults and pent up anger.

“Our employees are trained to validate the person’s issues, repeat back to them what they said to make sure they understand what the person is saying,” Mayhall said. It isn’t always easy in a confrontational situation to keep your cool.

Barbara Pachter, author of The Power of Positive Confrontation, agrees with Mayhall that not reacting negatively is the way to go. Pachter is a trainer and coach for many high profile companies such as Microsoft and Chrysler.

Pachter’s advice for dealing with overstressed employees and coworkers: Cut them some slack.

“You do it with your spouse, so do it with those you work with as long as it’s not their typical behavior,” she says. “We all say stupid things sometimes.”

Pachter says although it may feel good to say, “What do you know, you idiot?,” it is easier to retain your composure, respond calmly and not attack back.

She has developed six guidelines for what to say when you are faced with a stressful situation.

1. Let it go. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to do or say anything, just listen. Many times people will come back and apologize. We can hope anyway.

2. Agree with the comment. A good defense is the best offense. Something like, “You’re right. I know you had to work extra on that project but we had to get the work done for our customers on time.” Pachter says women use this technique on their husbands a lot.

3. Ask for clarification. “Why are you saying that? Help me to understand what you mean.” It buys you time to calm down and collect your thoughts.

4. Acknowledge what you’ve heard. “I understand you are upset but I need some time to check into that” or “there may be some truth in what you say and we are looking at it.”

5. Respectfully disagree. Be polite but firm, saying “I disagree and here’s why ...”

6. Postpone the discussion. Sometimes it is best to wait until emotions die down. Acknowledge the concern and set a time to talk about it in private.

With these verbal techniques in your “bag of resources,” Pachter thinks people can defuse hostile situations and create a better working environment.

She acknowledges it is the most stressful work environment she has seen in her years of working first in the newspaper industry and then as a consultant to businesses.

Of course other stress reducers such as daily exercise, yoga and breathing techniques are always helpful.

I’d add “giving back” to that list. I find taking an hour or two each week to volunteer is a way to lift your spirits and pull yourself out of thinking about your problems.

And it might even reap job benefits. Like the attorney who decided to volunteer at a woman’s shelter and ended up switching professions and became the director of the center.

So relax, take a deep breath, and hang in there, you’re not alone.