By Anja van den Berg
The Coronavirus pandemic is causing a peak in workers’ stress levels, with an astonishing number of people describing this time as the most stressful time of their careers.
Although some of that stress is due to health and existential concerns, much of it is associated with work, says Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor of organisational behaviour and the author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work.
Additionally, the pressure of juggling work, parenting and household responsibilities adds up to a heavy burden of stress that can easily affect our close relationships at home. For many people living with a significant other, the abrupt move from office working to working from home doesn’t just affect them; it also impacts their partners.
“You cannot make your partner’s stress go away all by yourself,” says Enoch Li, author of Stress in the City. “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 additional pressure on your partner’s shoulders. Even if our intentions are noble, that additional pressure will only create more stress.”
While we cannot rescue our partner, it is distressing to see the person we love consumed by stress. We can, however, acknowledge our partner’s work stress in a way that bolsters his or her emotional well-being — and our own. Here’s how:
- Support comes in many forms; ask them which kind they need.
The kind of stress we are currently experiencing is unlike the stress that most of us may have encountered before. In response, says Li, the type of support people are yearning for has also shifted. “Those of us who used to prefer emotional support, for example, may now value a practical hand the most,” Petriglieri explains. Ask your partner what he or she needs and invest your energy in such a way that it has the maximum relationship return. Letting him or her know what you can offer – and, what you need! – will help the relationship avoid neglect and resentment.
- Invest time to listen, but also take a break from each other.
Couples can help each other, and their relationship, by giving each other 15 minutes of undivided attention at the end of each day. Agree to simply listen openly and attentively — no suggestions, no advice, unless your partner specifically asks for guidance. That said, you also need time away from each other to recharge and get some distance from your partner’s work stress. Otherwise, Petriglieri says, you might both be disabled by it. Seeking time apart from your partner may feel strange in a time of isolation. Still, 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.
- Activate (virtual) support networks.
None of us can get all the support we need from a single person. Discuss what other sources of support you have available 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,” Petriglieri continues. Explain to them why you are reaching out for help and schedule regular check-in times. That way, you always know that you have a psychological safety net ready.
It may feel counterintuitive, says Petriglieri, but fencing out your partner’s stress is the best way to support him or her, and yourself, in the long term. “It’s the necessary complement to regular undivided attention and focused support. The combination will allow you to remain close and caring without being pulled into that stress yourself, and it will ultimately help both your careers and your relationship.”
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/06/dont-let-your-partners-work-stress-become-your-own
Human Resource Executive: https://hrexecutive.com/hres-number-of-the-day-coronavirus-stress/
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/01/if-your-spouses-work-life-is-stressful-design-a-healthier-home-life
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/08/how-to-help-your-spouse-cope-with-work-stress