Don’t let your stressed out boss stress you out

Stress is an epidemic among managers and leaders today, and burnout is catching up fast.

We all know the reasons: the rapidly changing economic landscape; fast-moving technologies; 24/7 work with little to no downtime. It all adds up to far too much pressure.

What happens next is where the real problems crop up: You become stressed, too! You literally catch your boss’s destructive emotions.

It’s stunning how quickly your stressed-out boss can turn you into a stressed-out team member. This is partly because of the contagious nature of emotions. They spread like wildfire among people — and even faster if one of those people has some control over our fate, as bosses do.

So, if stress is epidemic and bosses are spreading it to us, what can we do?

Let’s start by what you can’t do: You can’t change your boss or fix his response to stress. Learning how to deal with pressure is a very individual journey. If indeed your boss has tipped over the edge, no amount of perfection on your part, early-delivery of projects or compliments will help. Sure, do your job and do it well, but don’t expect miracles.

What you can do is work on yourself. First, you need to do your best to understand why your boss is burned out, then dig deep to find empathy — that unique human ability to understand another’s reality. It’s important to take some time to consciously try to recognize and understand the emotional state your boss is feeling. Engage in perspective taking by deliberately trying to see the world, events — and yourself — through your boss’s eyes.

Empathy also makes it easier to create appropriate emotional distance from your boss. This is a bit tricky, as you can’t shut down or have no relationship at all with him. Rather, you need to constantly monitor your own reactions and make a conscious effort to control your emotional response. Take stock and find that impermeable psychological boundary that separates you from your boss. What part of the stress and negativity belongs to him, and what belongs to you?

Then and most importantly, you need to take a good hard look at your own stress — at work and at home. How are you doing, really? Look at your relationships at home and at work. Are you testy? Irritable? Impatient?

If you see that you are heading for problems, or have entered into pre-burnout conditions, you need to do something now. Free up some time for renewal. And don’t be fooled: Renewal doesn’t happen as a result of a vacation. Remember that summer break? Seems like a long time ago, right? To deal with the kind of stress we all have at work today, renewal must become a continuous way of life, not an event.

You also want to engage a sense of hope by imagining how you’d like things to be at work, with your boss and probably at home. It sounds so simple, and in a way it is. Hope is natural for human beings, and it really helps with the day-to-day burden of stress. Try paying some attention to what you would like to be feeling — and why. This will help you to be optimistic and more mindful about your reactions.

(Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate