“How do you handle stress?”
This is an ironic question considering a job interview itself is a good example of a stressful situation.
Like most open-ended questions, however, it’s pretty easy to navigate if you’ve had to overcome stress before, which, let’s face it… we all have.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to structure the perfect answer to this question and what mistakes to avoid along the way.
Variations Of This Question
While this question can be phrased in a few different ways, they’re all very similar and easy to recognize.
These are the common variations:
- How do you deal with stress?
- How do you handle stressful situations?
- How well do you handle pressure?
- How do you keep calm under stress?
- How do you manage stress?
The Lead Up Questions
Behavioral questions like this one are often grouped together in an interview session, so if you hear any of the following, there’s a good chance the “stress question” isn’t far behind.
- How Would You Handle Confidential Information?
- What Do You Enjoy Doing In Your Free Time?
- Describe Your Working Relationship With Your Colleagues?
- How Would You Describe Your Personality?
- Describe A Challenge You Overcame?
- Give An Example Of Great Customer Service?
- Can You Describe Your Work Ethic?
What The Interviewer Really Wants to Know
Interviewers primarily ask this question to determine if you’re able to work through the inevitable stressors of a workplace environment.
It’s no secret that stress is bad for business, so understanding how you deal with life’s challenges will give them insight into how you will perform at work when faced with a difficult personal or professional challenge.
This question is particularly helpful for interviewers because it forces you to provide anecdotal evidence of a time you overcame stress, and real-life examples like this are often the most telling.
Aside from that, they also want to see if you can maintain a positive attitude when things go south.
This will give them an idea of what it would be like to work with you. Are you someone who always complains and finds fault in everything, or do you focus more on finding solutions and highlighting your strengths?
Again, the example you give in your answer will tell the interviewer a lot about your mindset during the event.
How to Answer: “How Do You Handle Stress?”
A well-rounded answer to the “how do you handle stress” interview question will typically go through these 5 stages:
1. Explain That Stress Is Unavoidable (And Often Helpful)
Before anything else, you need to address the fact that not only is stress unavoidable, but it can actually help motivate you under the right circumstances.
It’s something we all have to deal with from time to time, so it would be unrealistic and frankly untrue to say you never feel stressed.
This goes double for workplace environments.
If it’s not difficult customers, it’s difficult coworkers. If it’s not getting enough hours, it’s having to pull overtime. If it’s not a high workload, it’s having nothing stimulating to do for hours on end.
You get the point.
You could say something like:
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that dealing with stress is just part of any job description, and when it comes down to it, stress can actually be a healthy motivator when you learn to utilize it.”
2. Give an Example of a Stressful Situation You Faced
Here’s the hardest part, coming up with an example of a stressful situation you’ve experienced in the past.
This is essentially the problem you will need to solve in the next part of your answer, so keep that in mind.
I strongly recommend taking some time to brainstorm some examples before heading into your interview. A bad example will make the rest of your answer far more difficult than it needs to be.
Here are some ground rules:
- Give a work-related example. Ideally this should be similar to the field of work you’re stepping into. This helps them apply your answer to their own work environment, making it more relatable.
- Avoid any scenarios that were caused (or even partially caused) by you, even you were able to resolve the issue in the end. This just raises more questions than it answers from the interviewers perspective.
- Avoid any scenarios that didn’t ultimately come to a positive resolution, even if you feel it was a good representation of how you handle stress.
What does a stressful work scenario look like?
Here are some ideas to get you thinking:
- Being nervous for an important meeting
- Having a disagreement with a colleague
- Missing a deadline on an important project
- Trying to fix a technical issue
- Having to work during a personal crisis
- Not having all the information you need to complete a task
- Dealing with an angry customer
Remember, all you’re doing here is setting the stage by highlighting the problem (the source of the stress), and the potential consequences of that problem.
“When I was a working as a server, I recall a busy Friday evening where the ordering system suddenly stopped working. Nobody knew how to fix it, not even the manager on shift. It was a busy evening, we all had tables waiting, and you could feel the anxiety creeping in as things unraveled.”
3. Explain How You Dealt With the Situation
Next, you need to explain how you dealt with the situation.
You already set the stage with a problem scenario, now you need to explain the steps you took to resolve it.
Being able to “handle” stress is a little subjective, but many interviewers will expect a practical response that leads to a resolution. If you remove the thing that’s causing stress, you often eliminate the stress itself.
In most cases, a solution stems from having good critical thinking skills, as well as other soft skills like communication, teamwork, and time management — and this should be evident in your answer.
You should also talk through your thought process, why you made certain choices, and touch on your emotional state if possible. This is all part of “handling stress”, after all.
Assuming you chose wisely in the last step, all you really need to do is continue your story. This part should come naturally.
Following the previous example, you might say something like:
“I immediately went over to the manager to discuss a way forward, suggesting that we temporarily switch to pen and paper. She was hesitant at first but eventually gave the green light after explaining I had experience using a paper-based system in my previous role. We quickly huddled the font-of-house and kitchen staff together for a 60-second walkthrough of the system.”
4. Reach a Clear and Positive Resolution
Coming to the end of your answer, your example needs to end on a positive note; a result of the steps you took in dealing with the situation.
This shows the interviewer that not only were you able to deal with things internally, on an emotional level, but you were also able to architect a desirable from a less-than-desirable circumstance.
As before, assuming you chose a suitable example, this part should come naturally as you explain what ultimately happened.
The best outcomes are those that benefit everyone involved, so try to include different perspectives where relevant.
“Soon nough, we had orders flowing through the kitchen like any other shift. Customers were able to get their orders in, and the staff were able to perform their duties with minimal inconvenience. In fact, it worked so well that I was tasked with creating an offical standard operating procedure (SOP) for the paper-based system in case of a future system failure.”
5. Summarize Your Approach to Handling Stress
The story you just told is a clear example of your ability to cope under pressure, now you need to summarize the approach you took.
By now, you’ve indirectly shown that you can handle stress, but you still haven’t directly answered the question of how.
Don’t overthink this, you just need a sentence or two to wrap up your answer.
Did you take a step back and evaluate the situation before taking action, or did you take decisive and immediate action?
Did you seek help from your coworkers or superiors, or did you take the situation into your own hands?
If you’re still stuck for a summary, consider that there are only 4 types of problem-solvers; Inspirers, Reflectors, Innovators, and Influencers.
Knowing which type you are may help you articulate a better answer.
“To answer your question, I handle stress by taking a step back and applying rational thought. I’ve found that a measured approach to stress-inducing situation often leads to the best outcomes.”
Putting It All Together (Example Answers)
Telling you how to answer this question is one thing, but there’s nothing quite like seeing complete examples.
Here are 3 sample answers using the structure we laid out above:
Example #1: Work Out of Scope
“I like to think of stressful situations as opportunities to show my capabilities.
For example, my last job involved creating illustrations for clients to use on their websites. One day, one of our biggest clients sent us a project brief for some 3D modeling work that was way out of scope.
There was some debate in the team about how to approach the situation without upsetting the client, but then I remembered one of our oldest partners specialized in this type of work.
With permission from the higher-ups in the company, I gave them a call and negotiated a revenue-share deal for 3D modeling work. Our partners were very excited to take on the project.
In the end, the client got what they wanted, we were still able to generate a profit, and we even expanded our list of services to other clients.
So to answer your question, I handle stressful situations by taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Often times, there’s an easy solution within reach, you just have to know where to look.”
Example #2: Buggy Ordering System
“I think stress comes in many flavors, and sometimes it can even be a helpful motivator for necessary change.
For example, I once worked at a fulfillment center in [Location] and the ordering system we used was incredibly buggy. Sometimes entire stock entries would be deleted it often caused chaos on the shop floor. One guy even quit over it.
I decided to build a case for investing in a new system. I tallied up costs whenever an issue caused us to work additional hours, or when stock would be written off as a result of system malfuntions.
Eventually, I put all that data into a spreadsheet to determine how much the company was losing each month, and the numbers were astounding.
Needless to say, management wasted no time in contracting a developer to upgrade our ordering system. Employees were happy, and the company saved a small fortune in uncessary recurring costs.
So to answer your question, I would summarize my approach to stress as very analyical. I’m good at identifying the source of stress, but also proactive in figuring out how to elimate it.”
Example #3: Messy Divorce
“I believe stress is of the best ways to grow as a person because it forces you to overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges.
For example, in 2014, I went through a very messy, drawn-out divorce process. At the time, I was working as an Area Manager at [Company] and it was by far one of the most stressful periods in my life.
Being responsible for the revenue and performance of multiple stores meant I had to be laser-focused. I decided to go to therapy on weekends to get everything off my chest and ensure I wasn’t carrying all that emotion to work.
Looking back, those sessions were absolutely critical to me being able to perform my duties to a high level, so much so that I was even offered a promotion during this time.
So to answer your question, I handle stress through self-reflection and positive change. Sometimes that means seeking help in one area of my life in order to benefit another.”
How NOT to Answer
Whatever happens in that interview room, be sure to avoid these pitfalls:
Don’t Deny Ever Feeling Stressed
One of the most common mistakes people make in a job interview is denying that they have any faults.
This question is no different.
Everybody gets stressed. Claiming that you’re somehow immune to life’s challenges will only make you seem disingenuous — a huge red flag for any employer.
Don’t Say You Get Stressed Out Easily
While it’s important to avoid saying you never get stressed, this is equally true on the other end of the spectrum.
Saying that you’re easily stressed out paints you as someone who has trouble identifying and solving problems, who doesn’t have a handle on their emotions, and who will likely buckle under the pressures of a job.
A stressed employee is also a source of stress for those around them, making you a liability as opposed to an asset.
Don’t Focus Too Much on the State of Being Stress
The question is essentially about how you overcome stess.
It’s far less about what causes you stress or how stress affects you personally, so don’t treat your interview as a therapy session.
Instead, make the focal point of your answer about solutions and positive outcomes.
- Learn the variations of this question
- Familiarize yourself with the most likely lead-up questions
- Acknowledge that stress is both unavoidable and often useful
- Give an example of a stressful situation you’ve experienced
- Talk about how you decided to approach that situation
- Explain what happened as a result of your actions
- Finish on a strong affirmation of your ability to manage stress