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Relieving the emotional pressure of someone who is stressed

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees looking for advice about managing others.

I work in HR and am supporting someone who is currently off with work-related stress. This stress is rubbing off on me as the employee is saying I haven't supported them enough when I have gone above and beyond. How can I not take this personally or let it impact the way I am feeling?

Our first therapist suggests...

Talk to someone

It is not uncommon when we are under emotional pressure to look around in an effort to find someone to blame.

It’s horrible to feel unmanageable levels of stress and in the workplace especially people can hold their employer and anyone they associate with the company responsible for a situation that is always complex.

So, one of the ways you can help yourself to avoid taking these criticisms personally is to remind yourself that you are an easy target as an HR professional and that it is not at all uncommon for someone in your position to attract such criticism.

When we are stressed we tend to behave irrationally.

Nevertheless, just telling yourself that you don’t need to take it personally is unlikely to suddenly remove the feelings, so you need to deal with your stress to ensure it doesn’t worsen.

The first thing I suggest is that you talk to someone about how you’re feeling because it’s not easy, when you carry something like this alone, to break free from your own negative thoughts.

Talk to your boss, or a colleague, or, if you don’t want to do either of those, consider booking a session with a therapist. Just having the opportunity to unburden yourself from carrying all the emotions alone will probably do you a lot of good and help you to feel more resilient.

Make sure that you maintain your own boundaries when it comes to supporting this employee so, when you say you have “gone above and beyond”, make sure that this doesn’t mean that you have given more than you can afford to give because putting your own wellbeing at risk in the service of someone esle is never acceptable.

Consider your own boundaries and pull back a little if you recognise you have been too accommodating and make sure you stick to your own policies and procedures because that too will give you comfort that you are and have been doing everything you can.

Therapy is shown to help people cope with underlying feelings of anxiety, fear and stress in the workplace.
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Our second therapist suggests...

Take a break

Sounds like it’s been a hard time for both of you. In a nutshell, if you feel like you have gone above and beyond to help this person, then hold that close to your heart and know it to be the truth. If someone is off with stress, their version of the world may be slightly skewed. This is because, when we are stressed we are in a survival state which changes how we experience the world. When our nervous system is activated (stressed), we feel under threat and the biggest threat to us is other people. Our evolution, therefore, naturally starts to doubt and feel threatened by others. We can move from feeling supported to feeling unsupported because our nervous system has shifted, even if nothing has actually changed in our support.

Let me reassure you, this is not personal to you. It’s not personal to anyone except the person experiencing the world this way. That is their version and, until they are well or calm, they may struggle to feel connected or supported by others even when that support is in place. Our connection system is one of the most important parts of our survival so is often the first to get disrupted.  We humans are very complex and some of us may have more complicated connection systems due to our DNA, childhood experiences, trauma, etc, and therefore different responses to the world around us.

You can’t control how the other person responds, but you can control how you look after you. If you feel impacted by their behaviour at the moment, it may be time to take a break from them. You may need to minimise or pause your interaction with them for a while, or delegate this to someone else who has more capacity. Check in on what you can and can’t handle. Set boundaries for your energy (how much you can give) and stick to these boundaries. Also make sure you are replenishing and recharging yourself where possible, from deep breaths, hugs and walks at work, to longer energising activities at home and at weekends. Your health is important too.

Setting boundaries of how you work with this person will not only keep you safer and healthier, it will also role model to the other person the importance of self-care. Work out what is OK and what is not OK for you to work with or do at the moment and, with consideration and compassion,  stick to these boundaries.

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Our third therapist suggests...


Thanks for your question. You’ve been doing your best to support someone who is off work with work-related stress. This person has expressed dissatisfaction about the support you provided, and you are taking this personally. You would like to know how to manage your feelings. It is important to acknowledge what your feelings are here. Possibly you feel sadness, anger, confusion, or shame. I would encourage you to try to label the feelings and it may help to write them down or talk to a therapist at Spill if you need help with this. Our feelings can help us to understand ourselves and what we need.

When someone criticises us, it is normal to get defensive and to feel hurt. People tend to respond better when they are told which behaviours would be more helpful or asked for specific changes. It can be hard for someone who is upset or struggling with their mental health to acknowledge what they need though so it will help to learn responding skills for these kinds of situations. It is best to avoid responding when feeling defensive or upset as this is only likely to lead to further difficulties. When someone criticises us, we need to take time to self-soothe. If you need space to self-soothe and reflect on feedback, you could say, ‘Thank you for your comments. I am thinking about what you have said, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.’

Self-soothing strategies may be things like journaling, exercise, talking to a loved one, self-massage, deep-breathing, or meditation. When you feel calmer, re-enter the conversation and ask the person if they know what would be more helpful for them. They may ask for something reasonable or something that is not possible, and you can let them know what is realistic. They may not like the limits of what you can offer, and you may need to reassure yourself that you have worked within the boundaries of your role and done your best. Considering what you would say to a friend in the same situation may help you to have self-compassion.

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