How to Talk to Your Boss About Stress

For most of us, a majority of our days are spent in pursuit of a paycheck. Whether that entails manning a checkout counter, leading a corporation, driving a bus or caring for patients, work can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience—but it can also be a major source of stress.

In addition to the regular pressures of doing your job (and doing it well), there are the added potential stressors of conflicts with co-workers, aggressive deadlines, too heavy (or too light) of a workload, competition for positions and promotions, long hours, environmental conditions, bullying or harassment, stunted job growth, lack of work-life balance—well, you get the gist.

According to a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 40 percent of workers reported that their jobs were "very or extremely stressful." In fact, a quarter of those surveyed went so far as to say they perceived work to be the most stressful aspect of their lives. And another report entitled "Attitudes in the American Workplace VII" found that nearly half of the people experiencing workplace stress said they need help learning how to manage it.

Stress isn’t always a bad thing, notes psychotherapist Esther Goldstein, L.C.S.W., from Integrative Psychotherapy. "When channeled properly and in small doses, stress can boost your focus and keep you energized to meet your goals and achieve challenges," she says. "However, high levels of stress are important to be aware of, as they can leave you feeling worried and overwhelmed, affecting your ability to cope. When this happens, you'll notice a steep decline in your mood, mental health and job satisfaction."

Your supervisor or manager probably has the biggest hand in helping you manage and reduce your day-to-day stress level, as he or she has the most control over your workload and job conditions. If you haven’t already, consider sharing any concerns to your boss as the first step toward a more peaceful, productive work life.

"Stewing over the situation will only create more stress," says Kerry Wekelo of Actualize Consulting. "Many people feel more stress in the days, hours or moments leading up to making a decision. By taking action and setting up a time to meet with your supervisor, you will already be stepping into action, which will reduce stress."

To get the most out of the experience, the key is taking the right approach to communication.

Write before speaking.

When stress and anxiety is swirling around in your head and heart, it can be difficult to express how you're feeling verbally. A good way to ensure that nothing gets lost in translation is to first capture it in written format.

"If you're feeling burdened by things in your life or a work dynamic that overwhelms you, take a few moments and write it down," suggests Tracee Dunblazier, a spiritual empath and national award-winning author. She says to first write down what you feel, then what you want and, finally, any workplace changes that you feel will help. "Once you've done this and taken time to reflect on what you've written, you're ready to take a meeting with your boss."

Start with gratitude.

Instead of walking in with a laundry list of grumbles and gripes, start by pointing out some of the positives. Let your boss know what you appreciate about your job first before leading into the areas you’d like to change or improve.

"When speaking to someone who may be able to adjust things to help you, start off with a gracious, grateful stance," Goldstein suggests. "People are much more motivated to help when they feel empowered and appreciated."

Consider saying something like, "I am grateful to be working for this wonderful company, and at the same time, I'm aware that I've been given tasks that were not discussed in my job description and I'm not meeting deadlines in the way I'd like. Can we please set some time to discuss this?" Or, "I know you do your best to take care of your employees and I am grateful for that, which is why I wanted to discuss a recent incident that happened between myself and another employee that may need your assistance."

Keep it clear and concise.

Clarity is key, Goldstein says, and simple and direct communication will get the most out of the conversation. For example: "I would like to talk to you about the lack of input I have in the production of our product and how we can change that. I have experience, skills and expertise that have been unseen in the last project, and I'd like to discuss this with you." Or, "I am feeling overwhelmed by my recent promotion and need some help setting up a plan to acclimate to the new roles and responsibilities."

Your manager is likely even busier than you, so respect his or her schedule and keep the meeting brief. Fifteen to 20 minutes should be sufficient time to outline your concerns and potential solutions. Instead of bombarding him or her with trivial details or complaints, aim to stick to more general themes.

Choose the right time.

If your boss is preparing for a big meeting, has just returned from a work trip or seems overwhelmed with work, it’s probably not the best time to broach a conversation about your stress levels. Try to "read the room," so to speak, and choose a timeframe when she or he seems relatively receptive to your concerns.

When it seems like the time is right (or as right as it’s going to get), send your boss an "official" invitation, just as you would for any other meeting. By putting it on the calendar for a specific day and time, the discussion will automatically take on more significance and be taken more seriously than if you’d just casually popped into their office for an impromptu convo.

Make it personal.

The most effective form of communication is always an in-person discussion. If face-to-face meetings are impossible due to frequent travel or remote work, Wekelo suggests scheduling a video call or phone conversation. "That way, the conversation won’t get lost in the translation of emails or texts," she says. "Mistranslated correspondence can add even more stress to your situation."

Come prepared with solutions.

Simply cataloguing your complaints isn’t likely to lead to a productive session. For every source of stress, try to also come up with an idea for a potential solution. For example, if you don’t enjoy the nature of the work, philosopher Bart Wolbers from Nature Builds Health suggests talking with your boss about opportunities to grow into a more rewarding role within the company.

Or, if you do enjoy the job but find the demands are currently too high or your schedule isn’t conducive to your family’s needs, Wolbers recommends talking with your supervisor about realistic ways to achieve a better work-life balance.

Be open to ideas.

If your boss is receptive to your issues and comes up with his or her own ideas, give them the courtesy of thinking everything over. "Even if they are not what you were hoping for, take some time to digest the response before continuing the conversation," Goldstein suggests. "When you're flexible and convey an openness and willingness to make things work, your boss will be more motivated to come up with some sort of solution."

Know your limits.

In some workplaces or environments, Goldstein notes, even if you try your best to shift dynamics or responsibilities at work, the stress can simply become too toxic. At this point, you may need to assess whether the issues are resolvable or if it’s time to exit the situation as a means of protecting your emotional and physical well-being.

"You can always use a stressful environment as a lesson, to help you know what to watch out for at the next job or how to come up with ways of ensuring anchors of self-care in future roles," Goldstein says.

She also points out that stress is something everyone gets better at navigating and managing as they age, mature and acquire wisdom from each personal and professional encounter. "Be gentle with yourself as you navigate whatever stressor you're facing, and trust that this exact scenario is teaching you an invaluable lesson you'll take with you in life as you evolve," she adds.

And, of course, if you are experiencing severe stress or anxiety that impacts your ability to function, seek out a doctor who can provide treatments to help you cope.