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Don’t Let Your Partner’s Work Stress Become Your Own

June 04, 2020
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The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a spike in , with more than two thirds saying that this is the of their careers. While some of that stress is due to health and existential concerns, much of it is associated with work. The fear of being laid off; the exhaustion of ; the concern about how to manage our careers; and the pressure of juggling work, parenting, and household responsibilities北京快3 add up to a heavy burden of stress that can easily affect workers’ close relationships at home.

北京快3In normal times, working and living in separate places provides some buffer between employees’ home and work lives. The distinction between personal and professional selves is common across cultures, and it has benefits. Although we always carry some of the impact of work home, we can physically leave toxic cultures, difficult meetings, and problematic colleagues at the office. No longer. Those forced to work from home now have no such hiding place, switching a potential sanctuary from work stress to the arena in which it plays out.

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北京快3Take David. The start-up where he is a senior engineer is struggling to retain clients, and he is working flat out to adapt their product to the new situation and calm the nerves of his team of developers. They sense the increasing risk that the venture will fold, and so does he. “I’ve never had such a stressful time at work,” he told me recently. “I’m working all hours, firefighting, and know that despite all my efforts I could still be unemployed at any moment.” His wife, Rachel, whose recent remote onboarding in a new job took place at their kitchen table, could sense his distress. “He’s like a wound-up spring. It’s hard to watch and, honestly, to live with. It makes me stressed just being in the same room as him.” (These aren’t their real names.)

北京快3Keen to help David, and to decrease the pressure in the house, Rachel decided to help him to scope out his options. Over their evening meals, she begun to suggest alternative firms that David could work for if he lost his job. She even took to trawling job postings on his behalf. Her well-meaning support  backfired, however. “I know her heart was in the right place, but it made me even more stressed,” explained David. “I dreaded dinner, I avoided talking to her, I felt like I couldn’t escape. No one needs that.”

北京快3For many workers who cohabit, like David and Rachel, the move to working from home in the middle of a global crisis doesn’t just affect them: It impacts their partners. While in normal times most couples witness their partner’s work stress, few have the experience of living with it so closely, day after day, week after week. It’s one thing to hear about your partner’s difficult boss; it is another to be able to see your loved one as they’re being berated over video conference. Living with our partner’s work in such close quarters is novel for most couples. And few of us have a reliable playbook for dealing with each other’s stress.

“You cannot make your partner’s stress go away all by yourself,” , author of Stress in the City and managing director of a workplace mental health consultancy, told me. “One of the biggest mistakes partners make is to try to solve each other’s problems. First, this is impossible to do. Second, it puts an additional pressure on partners’ shoulders.” Even if our intentions are noble, that additional pressure will only create more stress.

北京快3While we cannot rescue our partner, it is distressing to see the person we love consumed by stress. In my own research on working couples I found that most people, like Rachel, genuinely want to help their partners through tough times. They care, and they realize that how they react to and live with their partner’s stress influences their partner’s emotional well-being as well as their own — and their relationship, and both of their careers.

I asked Li what partners can practically do to help alleviate each other’s work stress and if there are any pitfalls that they should avoid. “Perhaps the worst thing people can do is to minimize that stress,” she explained. “People may think they’re being well meaning and helping their partner worry less when they say things like ‘it will be fine,’ ‘don’t worry.’ What actually happens is that their partner feels misunderstood and dismissed.”

北京快3So how can we acknowledge our partners’ work stress in a way that bolsters their emotional well-being — and our own — while recognizing that we cannot remove the root cause of the stress they are experiencing? This practical five-step plan combines Li’s advice on stress management with the findings of my own research on working couples:

Give the gift of regular undivided attention. Although many couples are now together all the time, I have found that a lot are feeling . By having to pack so much into each day — work, household chores and, for some, homeschooling — they end up neglecting each other. Yet having our loved ones’ undivided attention, a time in which we can openly share and vent our frustrations, is one of the best release valves for stress. Couples can help each other, and their relationship, by giving each other 15 minutes of undivided attention at the end of each day where they agree to simply listen openly and attentively — no suggestions, no advice.

Check how to best support your partner. 北京快3The stress that we are currently experiencing is unlike the stress that most of us may have encountered before. In her work, Li found that the type of support people crave has often shifted, too. Those of us who used to prefer emotional support, for example, may now value a practical hand the most. With this in mind it is important to ask your partner what they need, rather than assuming that what you did before will still be most useful. Figuring out what your partner needs will help you invest your energy in a way that has the maximum relationship return. Letting them know what you need and can offer will help you avoid neglect and resentment, as well.

Create boundaries between “work” and “home.” The office may no longer be miles away, but couples can still create some space between home and work. A good starting point is to cordon off physical spaces in the home where work is off limits — such as the bedroom, the yard, or the fire-escape — and times of day that are work-free, such as regular breaks during the day and a hard stop point in the evening. Having these mini sanctuaries helps to temporarily leave work and stress behind and be released from its toxic effects.

Find time apart. 北京快3Seeking time apart from your partner may feel strange in a time of isolation, but it is vital to care for yourself and your relationship. It might be a solitary walk around the block each day, an agreement to work in separate rooms, or evenings spent on different activities. Whatever it is, this time will help you recharge, and take some distance from your partner’s work stress, so that you are not both incapacitated by it. And, as absence makes the heart grow fonder, it will also do wonders for your relationship.

Activate virtual support networks. None of us can get all the support we need from our partners, even if they may be the only adults that we have meaningfully interacted with in person for months. To take the pressure off your couple, it’s useful to discuss what other sources of support you have to help manage work stress, and how you can draw on them. It might be colleagues or peers from your professional networks, friends or family members, or maybe a coach, counsellor, or therapist. Whoever they are, it helps to actively reach out to them, to increase our capacity and help ourselves and our partners manage work stress.

It may feel counterintuitive but stepping away from your partner’s stress, and creating boundaries to fence it out is the best way to support them, and yourself, in the long term. This is the necessary complement to regular undivided attention and focused support. The combination will allow you to remain close and caring without being caught into that stress yourself, and it will ultimately help both your careers and your relationship.

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Jennifer Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior at and the author of (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019). Her recent is a free online course to help working couples navigate the COVID crisis.


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