Having to work under pressure is a natural part of life.
Pressure drives us to achieve great things for causes we care about. It brings out the best in our abilities and pushes us to the next level of our potential.
It can also be a pretty unpleasant condition to be in.
If you don't know how to cope with it, moments of pressure can leave you frozen, unfocused, and overwhelmed. And too much pressure over time can be unhealthy, distracting, and even dangerous.
And yes, dealing with work pressure is a skill you can learn. While some people relish the challenge of deadlines and love juggling multiple projects, others prefer to plan ahead and diligently work through things to prevent themselves from getting overwhelmed.
Below, we'll cover some general strategies for dealing with pressure, whatever your preferences and work style.
It's useful to learn about for two reasons. Firstly, because you'll encounter pressure at some point in your life (whether that's personal or professional) and you'll need to rely on yourself to get through it. We'll go through strategies for coping under pressure below.
Secondly, there's a good chance that you'll be asked "how do you work under pressure?" in a job interview, and you'll need to have an answer ready to go. We'll then look at signs you're under too much pressure at work, and what you can do about it.
"How do you work under pressure?" is a classic interview question that most people get asked at some point in their careers.
To answer it well, you have to think about why the interviewer is asking it.
The question is a useful way to figure out how responsive you are when a lot is asked of you and you're under strain. Interviewers want to know whether or not you can be relied upon to think for yourself and take the initiative, and if you're good at time management or not. They want to be assured you won't freak out and freeze up when faced with a bunch of different demands.
So, what should you say when they ask how you work under pressure?
A good answer is split into two parts.
Firstly, tell them what your approach is to pressure. Then, give an example of how you applied this thinking in a previous high pressure situation.
You might say "I love it!" and explain how you thrive when you're under pressure and get motivated to perform at your highest level. Then tell them about a time when you powered through a difficult situation when things got tense and ended up achieving something great.
Or you could explain how you like to pause, take stock of your priorities, and get everything written down into a clear plan before proceeding to systematically work through them. Then tell them about a time you calmly prioritized your tasks and succeeded despite multiple demands on your attention.
The important thing is to show yourself in a positive light. So don't mention how you like to leave things to the last minute, but do say that you're not afraid of a tight deadline and work best when things have a defined due date.
Giving a good answer isn't about canned lines or blatantly rehearsed answers. But it's worth looking at a few examples for inspiration for your own version.
Here's an example of a student who likes to collaborate and 'crowdsource' her problem-solving during a stressful situation.
"I prefer to deal with issues proactively and get as much help as possible rather than tackling things myself.
Back when I was a student, I was in charge of organizing a group presentation for my biology class. We only had a week to do it and there were five people on our team. Two dropped out due to illness so we had to take over some extra tasks while they were away. After a few moments of feeling overwhelmed, I decided to take the lead and redistributed tasks around the team to make sure everything got done on time. I made sure to get everyone else's agreement on what was most important to deal with first. We finished later than we would have liked, but it still got done, and we got an A grade, which was great."
Here's a sample answer from a professional who likes to take ownership under pressure and do things themselves.
"I prefer to give my full attention to the biggest problem and solve it first, before moving on to other things.
When I was an operations manager for a retail chain selling toys & games, we had huge problems with our supply chain leading up to Christmas one year. We were faced with empty shelves for popular products leading up to the busiest shopping season of the year. I didn't need to be told how devastating this would be for the business and our customers, so I made it my priority to prevent it. I delegated my usual tasks, blocked off my calendar for two days, and spent them calling every supplier in the area making new stock deals. While my usual work suffered a little, we got about 80% of the stock we wanted, and it turned out to be one of our most successful festive retail periods ever."
Interviewers might ask further questions about the specifics of the situations, so make sure you're being honest and truthful, and expect a follow-up question.
It's actually a little self-referential: answering this question puts you under pressure. Thankfully, with a little forethought, you'll be able to answer it with a natural, reassuring, calm demeanor.
One way to gain an advantage in answering the "under pressure" question is to show your capabilities while answering it. So while you're telling them about your coping skills, you're also showing them by being a relaxed, calm, and positive person who's thoughtful without being too hesitant.
Self-care is paramount when you're preparing for an interview where the question might be asked. You'll want to reduce stress as much as possible, which means getting yourself on a healthy sleep schedule a couple of days in advance and avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and junk food in the run-up to it. Shake off those nerves by doing some exercise on the morning before, and talk to someone you trust about your worries, so they're not rattling around in your head too much.
By taking good care of yourself, you'll be in the right frame and your body will support your mind when the pressure's on and it's time to talk.
You face different kinds of pressure every day, whether you're aware of it or not, and if you can learn to work well when things get heated up a little - when the stakes are high - then your life will be easier for it.
How do you handle pressure? Here are the five best strategies for dealing with it.
1) Prioritize. When things are getting overwhelming, it's easy for your plans to go out the window, but they're the most important part of your toolkit. Halfway through a big project, you might realize that things have changed, so you need to reshuffle your priorities.
If you work on the biggest, most important problem first - and then work your way down from there - it's easier to stay sane. Without the big issue looming over you, you'll have a clear mind that's better equipped to deal with the rest of your work.
2) Write things down. Get your worries out of your head and onto paper (or your computer) because there's a limit to your brain capacity. You can't let a load of different projects bounce around your head demanding attention without impacting your ability to focus.
It's not just the technical aspects of your tasks that need noting down, but your feelings about them. What's blocking your progress? What aren't you enjoying? Even if you don't figure out the answers straight away, getting them out of your head will help you feel much better.
3) Don't go it alone. Ask for help if you need it. In a busy environment, it's not always easy for others to see that you're suffering, so you have to let them know. Colleagues, friends, or fellow students should all be willing to give you at least a little help if things aren't progressing as they should.
In the workplace, it's super important to let your manager know if you're getting snowed under. It's their job to get the best out of you, and if they want to keep you at your most productive, they'll have to offer you some support.
If you're under persistent extreme pressure that feels overwhelming all the time, you might need to make more significant changes to your responsibilities - we'll go over this in more detail below.
4) Break things down into small tasks. Pressure can feel unbearable if you're looking at the big picture. With a little change in perspective, your tasks can seem way more doable.
By breaking down your important tasks into small chunks, you can work out which part is causing you the most anxiety and tackle it head-on. You'll also benefit from the small 'wins' when you can cross something small off your to-do list. Each task completed - even if it's an easy one - is a reminder that you're capable of getting things done.
5) Stop procrastinating. Yes, before you say anything - it is easier said than done. But pressured environments make it even easier than usual to put certain things on the back burner. And putting things off 'til tomorrow is a sure-fire way to eventually drown in work overload.
So this strategy is about addressing your procrastination as much as anything - taking a few moments to really examine why you're avoiding a certain task. Is it too scary? Too much work? Too boring? Take some time to get your thoughts together and make a plan to tackle the unappetizing things first - once you stop procrastinating, you'll find yourself on a roll, and you'll soon be on your way to being in control.
If you're looking to develop your skills in dealing with pressure more effectively, why not try one of our Fingerprint For Success coaching programs? These 5-15 minute sessions help you upgrade your skills for coping with challenging situations at work and throughout your life. With just a couple of sessions per week, studying at your own pace, you can hugely improve your abilities over the course of an 8-week program.
For situations where you'd benefit from thinking on your feet, try the Start Fast program. If you'd like to develop your sense of calm in the middle of a storm, try Reflection & Patience. And if you'd like to be the one taking the reins during challenging times, Personal Power will help you develop the confidence to step up and be a leader.
Having a whole load of stuff to deal with is fairly common at some points during your career. Some jobs go through periods of quiet with periods of urgency and high stress (like firefighters or police officers), and some have a more even level of pressure (like marketing managers, accountants or dentists).
There's a difference between good stress and bad stress. Eustress is the kind of pressure that helps you grow and thrive - it's where your abilities are just tested enough to help you develop your skills. Distress, on the other hand, is a negative type of pressure, where you're overwhelmed, anxious, and unable to think clearly.
It's this second type of stress that's caused by an overload of pressure, and it's something many of us easily overlook until it's too late.
If work has become so stress-inducing that it's affecting you physically, either at work or outside of work (like having sleepless nights worrying about work), then you're probably under too much pressure. If this goes on for a long time, you're at a high risk of job burnout. This can cause all sorts of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, exhaustion, as well as a range of physical ailments that can be hard to recover from.
Here are the main signs to look out for when you think you might be under too much pressure at work:
- losing sleep worrying about work
- panic attacks at work, and feelings of dread when it's time to go in each day
- a change in your work performance; either much lower quality than usual, or a lack of productivity altogether
- forgetfulness or problems with your working memory
- irritability and frequent negative thoughts
- friends and family members noticing changes in your behavior
If any of the above issues start appearing, then something needs to be done as soon as possible. Remember: some pressure is good, but sustained, elevated levels of pressure can tip over into being unhealthy.
The step involves talking to your manager. Sometimes, all it takes to flip the switch into eustress is a little more appreciation. Working alone can make the pressure feel a lot more intense than it is. In fact, 33% of employees feel unappreciated at work, so you might simply need to ask for a bit more recognition to deal with things better.
But if that doesn't turn out to be the cause, it's time for some real talk. Explain your feelings and ask if there's a way your work can be redistributed in any way, or if you can get some temporary help to clear out a backlog.
If your schedule or work environment is a problem, you could ask to restructure your working life for better wellbeing. If you're part of the 69% of people who feel more comfortable and productive working from home, have you considered shifting to remote work if you've not already? Gaining back two hours of commute time each day could give you the opportunity for a much better self-care routine that helps you cope with the pressures of a busy job.
If your coworkers seem to be the cause of your problems, that's something to mention too. A massive 63% of surveyed workers lost productive time avoiding toxic coworkers; while it can be a sensitive issue that requires some diplomacy, if a colleague's behavior is causing you to be under more pressure than usual, your manager needs to address this.
You know yourself best, and your employer might not see what's happening with their employees that are under workplace stress - don't let them brush off your problems by telling you everything will get better once things settle down again.
There's a good chance that it won't unless serious, structural changes are made to your responsibilities, schedule, and work environment. If it doesn't look like this will happen, it might be time to consider moving on to another role.
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