Too Much to Do? Take on More

I know how to handle stress. I know that each day I need to get seven or eight hours of sleep and an hour or so of exercise. I know I need to meditate for a few minutes and eat normal sized, well-balanced meals. I know I need to take deep, calming breaths throughout the day.

I know all this and, for the most part — disregarding the second bowl of chocolate chips mixed with peanut butter and Rice Krispies I just devoured — I do those things.

And yet, even knowing — and doing — the right things to manage stress effectively, I’m still stressed. Almost overwhelmingly.

The work-related things that are stressing me this week are on top of the normal demands of life — raising three children, each with their unique set of blessings and challenges; making time for an amazing wife who has stresses of her own; and growing my own business. These are all good stresses to have. I’m healthy, my family is healthy, my business is healthy, and our finances are healthy.

But stress doesn’t discriminate between good and bad. It comes, unbidden, anytime we are in a situation in which we are worried about an outcome we feel is beyond our control. So we complain. We gossip. We get snarky. Which quickly infects those around us. And then they complain, gossip, and snark. Pretty soon we’re competing for who’s most stressed. Who’s got the most work. Who’s got the most ungrateful, unreasonable boss. Which, of course, just makes us all more stressed. What is the best way to cope with feeling overwhelmed while also managing the complaining, gossiping, snarky colleague? How should we respond without becoming that person ourselves?

Offer to do some of their work for them.

I know it sounds crazy because you’re already so busy. Probably busier than they are. Even if you did have the time and energy to help them, you might not be feeling so generous towards them because all of their complaining is annoying. On top of that, if you’re competing for who’s the busiest, how will it look to offer to do their work? You’ll lose that battle for sure. But you’ll win the war on stress.

We complain because we feel alone and disconnected in our stress. So we gossip to create camaraderie with our fellow gossiper. We get snarky about our boss to align ourselves with our colleague.

But complaining and gossiping are like my chocolate chip peanut butter Rice Krispies mixture — they make us feel good while we’re doing it, but we feel worse immediately afterward. Complaining breeds distrust with our colleagues, it infuses the office with negativity, it wastes time, and it solidifies our sense of isolation. Offering to take some of their work, on the other hand, achieves the opposite; it creates connection, which, ultimately, is what we’re after.

If someone were really in serious trouble — think of the people in Japan after the tsunami — we wouldn’t hesitate to reach out and help. Think of this as that same, generous, human response only on a much smaller, less critical scale.

The unexpected offer will immediately change the dynamic. Who would continue to complain in the face of an offer to share the burden? It builds trust, creates a positive work atmosphere, and gets things done.

It also helps you get your own work done. Reaching out in an act of generosity makes you feel better and moves you away from your stress and toward your productivity. By acting as if you have the capacity to help someone out, you actually gain that capacity.

So how should you do it?

1. Listen without contributing or competing. Empathize with the other person’s challenge. Resist the temptation to join in, add your own juicy piece of gossip, or talk about how much work you have and how hard it is for you, too. Just listen.

2. Acknowledge the challenge she is facing. In one or two short sentences, let them know that you understand they’re in a tough, stressful spot. Don’t patronize; don’t add on. This might be hard if you feel like you’re in a tough spot, too, but you don’t need to agree with what they’re saying. You just need to convey that you hear what they’re saying.

3. Offer to help in a specific way. Maybe they’re dreading a conversation with someone and you can offer to intervene on their behalf. Maybe you can help them out in a personal way like grabbing lunch for them when you get your own, saving them the trip. Don’t worry that they might become dependent on your doing their work for them. Sure there’s a risk they might take you for granted. But, more likely, they’ll be appreciative, stop complaining, and you’ll both get to work with renewed energy. Next time, they might even do the same for you. Which is how a great, productive team operates.

The other night I fell into the trap of complaining to my wife Eleanor about how busy and stressed I was, even though I knew how busy and stressed she was. She didn’t compete. She listened, told me she could see how stressed I was, and then, even though the next day was my morning with the kids, she offered to wake up with them at 6 a.m. while I slept a little later.

It completely changed the dynamic. I stopped complaining and immediately realized how fortunate I am. Later that next day when she needed time to do some work, I offered to cover for her. Which made me feel even better than sleeping late.

Now you may be thinking, this is your wife, of course she should help you. You two are partners in life. The way we manage workloads with our colleagues is different. But does it need to be? Why can’t we take small steps at work to share an individual’s load in the interest of the well-being of the team?

I’m still super busy. I still have all these obligations that are hanging over me. Nothing material has changed. And yet everything has changed. Because even though I’m singularly responsible for achieving my obligations, somehow, I don’t feel alone in them.