How to discuss concerns about stress with your boss

Are you feeling stressed? Very stressed?

Or are you bored, and frankly longing for a little more excitement in your work life?

One woman’s excitement is another woman’s stress.  I love giving presentations about my work, I enjoy sharing what I’ve learnt, and whether its 30 people or 3000 in the audience, that’s OK.  Other women might loathe presenting, and find having to do regular presentations enormously stressful.

Why does this matter?  Your boss may have no idea about what makes you stressed, because your stress points could be very different to theirs.   They may be inadvertently giving you more stress by allocating work that they would enjoy and you struggle with. 

Sometimes stress comes not from what you are doing, but the sheer volume and range of responsibilities and accountabilities you are carrying.  Feeling overwhelmed can drive stress levels high so you struggle to complete work that normally you would do easily.  Again, the point at which you feel overwhelmed may be very different to you boss.  Don’t think however that because your boss appears to cope with a particular workload that you should too.  If you are stressed to the point that the quality of your work is deteriorating, or you simply can’t keep up the relentless pace, you need to speak up.

Here’s a plan to help talk to your boss about stress:

What impact is the stress having on you, your work, your quality of life overall?  What’s changed from when work stress was manageable, and you felt you were thriving?  Is the change sudden? Has it built up over time, so you didn’t realise just how stressed you were?   Write out all the impacts, however small, however seemingly trivial (part of stress is that we lose perspective, leading us to trivialise some vitally important factors, while over-estimating others).

Think through what it is that is making you stressed.  Write a list, draw a picture, take  a screenshot of you work diary – whatever is the best route for you.

Reflect on your list – is there one major stress point, or are multiple factors coming together to drive your stress higher.  Ask yourself – ‘if this factor changed’ would that be a solution?   Even if you think the factor can’t be changed, still make a note of it.

 You should now have some clarity of thought about what is really causing you excess stress.  You’re ready for a conversation.

Ask your boss for some time – at least half an hour, maybe longer.  If you can meet face to face, then do so – it is easier for you to feel comfortable about how your conversation is landing. It’s also easier for your boss to respond – it’s hard to judge empathy correctly on a video call.

Go somewhere you feel comfortable.  Whether that’s a private meeting room, a coffee bar or a walk in the park.  

Your boss may ask in advance what you want to talk about.  Think about how much you want to say in advance – you might want to give full details such as ‘Project X isn’t going well, I’m losing two of  my team and I’m struggling with the client – it’s all feeling a bit much’.  Or you might simply want to say ‘I feel a bit overwhelmed, and would value your time to just talk things through’.   If your boss starts to respond straight away  it is fine to ask them to wait. You could say something like ‘That’s good of you to respond right now, but can we wait until we meet and have time to talk it all through properly’.   

When you meet, you might want to take some notes with you.  You almost certainly won’t refer to them, but just having prepared them will give you confidence.

The conversation will probably begin with a general version of ‘How are you?’   A response like ‘things aren’t great, that’s why I wanted to talk to you’ will signal clearly to your manager that you need time.  If you find it difficult to respond so clearly, then use a bridge statement like ‘I’m fine, though there are some challenges I’d like to discuss.’

Then share with your boss the sources of stress, as you have identified them, and the impact it is having on your and your work.   Once you have said your piece, allow your boss time to respond. 

Your boss may go on to offer some solutions or ideas.  Whatever is suggested, listen.  If you are very stressed it can be easy to dismiss other’s ideas out of hand.  Try and have a full discussion around what’s possible.

It maybe that even just sharing the burden helps you.  Or it maybe that there is very little your boss can do to help.  Whatever the outcome, you probably don’t need to agree to take any action immediately if you don’t want to.    Remember, your boss cannot work miracles, but if you have prepared properly before talking to them, you stand a much better of chance of finding a way forward that works for you.

Hedda BirdAbout the author

Hedda Bird, motivation & engagement expert, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of new book The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your people.

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