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Lady stressed at work after dealing with difficult workmates
How to deal with difficult workmates

Work is often stressful enough without having to deal with difficult workmates. You know the ones – colleagues who turn up to meetings unprepared, leave food to go mouldy in the fridge, or those who only seem to come to work to chat.

What can you do to fix it? Dr Arlene Walker, Associate Head of School at Deakin’s School of Psychology, has seen it all as an employee support psychologist. She offers practical tips to nip those workplace irks in the bud.

The incivilities 

Whether it’s someone who talks over you in meetings, or always leaves their dirty dishes in the communal sink, most problems with colleagues can be grouped under the heading: ‘a little bit rude’, Dr Walker says. ‘It’s those sort of incivility-type behaviours that people have difficulty with and the reason is that they’re not severe enough to make a report to go to a manager about, but they are annoying enough to cause you stress.’

The way to deal with most incivility issues is the same – let the person know there’s a problem. ‘Most people, when you talk to them about an issue, regardless of what the issue is, respond quite positively because they don’t realise that their behaviour is an issue,’ Dr Walker says, and the worst thing you can do is ignore it. ‘You’re actually facilitating the behaviour by not addressing the issue.’

Put off having that chat and you could be putting yourself at risk. Dr Walker warns that these annoyances can add up to serious stress. ‘What the research says is that it’s like a daily hassle. And the stress literature talks about daily hassles that actually become more stressful and overwhelming than major life stressful events. It’s because it’s cumulative.’

The chatterbox

It’s been 20 minutes of politely looking at photos of Sue-from-finance’s niece’s wedding, and you’re no closer to meeting that deadline. You know she’ll be back tomorrow. What do you do?

Rather than avoid them, have a strategy for what to say next time, Dr Walker says. She suggests:

  • take a minute to say hello first
  • be honest and say you can’t talk right now
  • offer another time to chat. Try saying ‘Do you think we could catch up at lunch time instead?’ or ‘I’ll come have a quick chat when I’ve finished this.’
'Most people, when you talk to them about an issue, regardless of what the issue is, respond quite positively because they don't realise that their behaviour is an issue.'

Dr Arlene Walker,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

The procrastinator

Every time you glance over, you can blatantly see he’s on Facebook. Yet at the meeting later, he won’t have those numbers you asked for, saying he’s flat out. What can you do instead of screaming on the inside?

Try suggesting a small working group. Dr Walker says slacking off is most common in large groups as it’s easy to hide. ‘Set up an environment that minimises the behaviour. If you’ve got a small group of three and one person isn’t pulling their weight, it’s very obvious.’

Failing that, raise the issue in an informal setting and speak from your perspective, Dr Walker says.

She suggests you can try saying:

  • ‘I’m struggling on this project because I feel that X isn’t happening. What are your thoughts?’
  • ‘That’s different from my perspective, why do you think there’s a disparity here?’
  • ‘We’re not on the same page here. I wonder why?’

The boss

Your boss only seems to notice what you haven’t finished, rather than the targets you’re hitting. Every time she sees you, it’s to give you more work. How do you tell your boss to back off?

When it comes to managers, you need to just put it on the table, Dr Walker advises. ‘You need to try to have an informal interview with your manager.’ She suggests you could try saying:

  • ‘Sometimes I feel X.’
  • ‘Sometimes I have difficulty with the way you speak to me.’
  • ‘Sometimes I have difficulty because I feel like you’re making me accountable for X, Y and Z and not taking into account X, Y and Z.’

‘The best thing to do is to sit down and talk to the person one on one,’ Dr Walker says. ‘It’s a very unusual occurrence that the person you’re chatting to is going to fly off the handle.’

Dr Walker says that no matter what the issue, try to hear the other person’s side. ‘It’s actually really important that the other person gives their perspective. You never know what people have going on in their personal lives.’

So, next time a colleague starts pushing your buttons, don’t suffer in silence. Your wellbeing at work is important! Give your workmate the benefit of the doubt and face up to the issue with a quick chat.

Now that you’ve dealt with any difficult colleagues, learn more ways to thrive at work.

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Dr Arlene Walker
Dr Arlene Walker

Associate Head of School, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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