Employers often ask interview questions like, “how do you handle stress?” or “how do you work under pressure?”
They ask for a few reasons (which I’ll explain in this article), and they won’t feel comfortable hiring you if you can’t give a good answer.
They may also ask a behavioral interview question like, “Tell me about a time you were under a lot of stress at work. What happened and how did you handle it?”
Don’t worry – I’m going to share exactly how to answer all of these questions… from my experience as a professional recruiter.
And I’m going to give you multiple example answers, so make sure you read until the end.
Let’s get started…
Interviewers ask “how do you handle stress and pressure?” because they want to know what to expect after they hire you. This is one of the most common interview questions you’ll hear.
Very few jobs go 100% according to plan, and they want to hire someone who can stay calm and think clearly to get through the situation. And ideally, they want someone who’s been “tested” in the past and experienced some work-related stress before.
(…Unless this is your first job. If you’re you’re a fresh graduate or entry-level candidate, you can talk about how you handled stress in an academic project. Ideally, talk about a group project, since most jobs involve working with others. There’s an example answer coming up, so keep reading).
When the interviewer asks about stressful situations and how you handle stress, the best approach is to demonstrate that you’ve encountered these situations in the past and aren’t phased by it. And then, describe the steps you follow to calmly get through the challenge.
It’s best if you can sound like you have a proven process/plan in place. Employers love to hear that you have a system or a series of steps that you follow that you know works for you.
Now that you know the right way to answer questions about how you deal with stress, let’s look at some word-for-word examples:
Example answer #1:
“I’ve found that stress at work often comes from having too many tasks to handle. So the first thing I do is step back and prioritize. I can’t do 10 things at once, but I can take time to identify which tasks are the highest priority and then take care of the most important things first. Also, I’ve found that communicating well with other team members is key. If I’m overwhelmed, I’ve learned to ask for help or to clarify my priorities with my boss to make sure I’m working on the most essential things first. I think stressful situations pop up in any job, but if you stay calm and level-headed and keep your team members informed, the stress doesn’t need to hurt your productivity.”
Example answer #2:
“I like to take ten minutes to write down everything that’s on my plate in terms of work, and determine why I’m feeling stressed. Then, I look at what actions I can take to move my work forward most effectively that day. This helps me look at the situation logically instead of getting overwhelmed. For example, in my last job, I had days where I couldn’t possibly complete every request from customers that I received. However, by identifying the most crucial tasks and doing them first, I was able to keep our customers happy and finish the secondary tasks a day or two later.”
Example answer #3 (For recent graduates and entry-level job seekers):
“While working on a team project, one of our four team members didn’t turn in their work and I ended up having to do a lot of last-minute, unexpected tasks. I was working on limited time and feeling the pressure, but I spoke to my professor, asked for advice, and he helped me through it. I also took the lead in delegating some of these tasks to my other team members, so we could all share the workload and make sure the project still got turned in on-time. I think communicating well is a key to making sure I don’t get stressed or overwhelmed. That was one of the big lessons I picked up from this experience. We ended up getting an A on the project, too.”
Overall, the job interview answers above show that you approach your work logically, stay calm, and don’t let stress break your focus. These are all important traits that employers want to hear.
Note that you can also use the sample answers above if they ask, “how do you work under pressure?” It’s essentially the same interview question.
Now let’s look at how to respond if they ask a behavioral question about a specific situation where you were feeling stressed at work.
If they ask for a specific time that you were under high amounts of stress, here’s a good sample answer:
“In my previous job, my manager resigned two weeks after I was hired. This was particularly difficult because I was still learning the basics of the job. I overcame the situation by reaching out to senior team members for help, asking the department head if he had any suggestions for how to succeed in learning the job, and taking a couple of hours at home each night to review the basics that I was learning. All of this helped me get up to speed quickly, and I became a top performer on the team within six months. Fortunately, a new manager was brought in a couple of months later, but I was in a much better position to succeed at that point because I had used my first few weeks to learn as much as possible instead of letting the stress of this unpredictable situation slow me down.”
For behavioral interview questions like this (questions starting with phrases like “tell me about a time where…”) you should break your answer down into four parts: Situation. Task. Action. Result.
First, what was the general scenario you were in? (Situation)
Then, what was the task or challenge to overcome? (Task)
Next, what action or strategy did you choose, and why? (Action)
Finally, what was the outcome and what did you learn from the experience? (Result)
The sample job interview answer above is effective because it breaks the story down step-by-step and shows that you stay calm under pressure, stay positive, and make the most of any situation.
The bottom line is: If you show you have handled stress effectively in the past, they’ll feel confident that you can handle stress in their job, too.
There isn’t one “perfect” answer for how you handle stress in the workplace, but your goal in the interview should be to show employers that you stay calm, think logically, and stay productive.
That way, they’ll feel confident that you can cope with stress in their job, too.
It’s also okay to say you ask for help. It’s okay to say you like step aside for 10 minutes and regroup. And it’s okay to say you’ve been in a stressful situation and felt pressure in past jobs! In fact, employers want to hear this because it shows them you’re “battle-tested.”
The key is to show that you still performed well in these situations.
By using the sample answers and steps above, you’ll be able to give a great response that will impress hiring managers and help you land the job.
Other common interview questions to practice:
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