Pressure cooker: Avoiding meltdowns at work

Stress can get to the best of us but it's better to keep it in check before coming to the point of meltdown



13 October 2008

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Everyone is under additional pressure at the moment. Add this to the fact that at some point, all of us have had a bad day at work. Even if you like your job, chances are you have experienced a day where something or someone at work was wearing you down. You may also have been overwhelmed or preoccupied by things happening at home or outside of work. On occasion these factors, by themselves or combined with those commonplace stressful moments, just keep building until a meltdown happens – a massive, off-the-tracks-train-wreck meltdown! And it can happen to even the most professional employee.

Losing control
A number of stories come to mind from candidates we have met over the years. One candidate relayed a story to me where her boss was pressuring her to stay for a meeting, but she had made a commitment to attend her son’s school play. A verbal conflict with the boss ensued, escalating until she reached her snapping point, screamed “I quit” and drove away in tears. The candidate ended up returning to work after another employee mediated, but the environment remained unfavourable, and she resigned a few months later.
Having a meltdown at work can be embarrassing, but witnessing it can be even scarier. I remember store openings during my retail career and seeing colleagues on the cusp of a meltdown, and some just losing it. Colleagues in tears over mundane, solvable problems; driving people to the brink just because of stress or tension. Or managers lashing out verbally left, right and centre at anyone that moves or each other. It is a situation that can mostly be avoided.

Keeping balance

Any of this sound familiar? If you, a co-worker or a manager are nearing a breakdown, this may be a sign that things at work are out of balance. You and your work mates should consider these preventative measures:

  1. Encourage communication at work. Discussing workplace stress and blowing off a little steam is important. Nobody wants to create a negative atmosphere with non-stop ranting about work, but talking about your frustrations or challenges is healthy. If those frustrations are impacting on your ability to get your job done or are impacting on a number of people on your team, be sure to escalate that discussion to include your supervisor or upper management.
  2. Assess your workload. Meltdowns are also more likely to happen if a larger portion of the workload is resting on one set of shoulders. If the balance or work in your department is off-kilter, talk to your supervisor or manager. He may not be aware of the issue. Even if you are incredibly busy, take the time to cross-train other employees whenever you can. The investment of time pays off handsomely when those co-workers are able to take on a bigger workload.
  3. Take a break. With redundancies and reduced staffing levels, many workers have been pushed to the brink simply because they feel overwhelmed. It may be tempting to forgo taking a break or a lunch when you have a backlog of work. Make sure you get away from your desk at least a few times a day. If you can, go outside and walk around the block or around the building. If the weather is not cooperating, try finding a quiet place indoors, like an unoccupied conference room. If all else fails, close your eyes and take 10 long, deep breaths at your desk.
  4. Offer a helping hand. Your co-worker or manager may have personal issues that are wreaking havoc at work. Though you clearly want to respect everyone’s privacy, ask your co-worker if everything is okay. If he discloses a problem, encourage him to find solutions. Many employers offer an assistance programme to employees, with resources that will help with issues like child care, elder care and drug and alcohol dependency.

It is important to address any issue that triggers a meltdown before it happens. Your co-workers, managers and companies may be compassionate when you experience stress, especially if you are apologetic about it afterwards, but there is a risk of crossing the line. A meltdown could result in probation, suspension and ultimately termination. If the issue is important enough to trigger a meltdown, it should be a priority to address the issue and resolve it.


Barry Whelan is managing director of Excel Recruitment Ltd;



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