How to Describe a Stressful Situation You Handled In an Interview

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated November 23, 2022

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Stressful situations are a normal part of any job, regardless of the field. Your hiring manager can ask you to describe a stressful situation and how you handled it in a past position to see if you're a good fit for their company. Having a well-prepared answer can help communicate confidence and capability. In this article, we discuss why employers ask questions about stress, how to answer them, their different categories, and tips to answer stress-related questions properly.

What employers want to know when they ask about stress

Encountering stress on the job is common, and how you react to it can affect productivity, customer service, and the overall reputation of an organization. Your employer wants to be sure you can handle stress while maintaining workplace productivity. Showing that you can navigate stressful situations can help distinguish you among candidates.

In your answer, show that you have a system that helps you avoid unnecessary stress, and that you understand common stressors and the ways to establish healthy work boundaries. Also, highlight that you can communicate displeasure professionally with both clients and coworkers.


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How to describe a stressful situation and how you handled it during an interview

Answering these questions properly can help set you apart from others and improve your chances of securing the job. You can follow these steps to answer interview questions about stress effectively:

1. Think about how you usually handle stress

This can help you understand yourself better as an employee and form the foundation of presenting your answer. Think about previous stressful work situations you've encountered and how they made you feel. Pay attention to what caused the stress and the most common causes of stress for you. Review your immediate response and approach to the situation and consider whether it escalated. Finally, reflect on situations where you handled stress poorly and how you can do better in the future.

The benefit of this process is that it gives you an accurate picture of the employee that you are. You can note areas where you need to make necessary improvements. Including this in your answer can show your employer you're honest and teachable. This can help you stand out amongst other candidates.

2. Use a story or specific examples

When answering the question, remember to describe the situation that caused you stress. Using stories or specific examples from your work experience can help the hiring manager relate better to your answer. It also makes your answer more memorable and stands you out from generic or vague answers.

Example: "When I worked as a dispatch rider for an Indian restaurant, a customer gave me a wrong address. After getting to the wrong location, I informed the customer, and they got upset. They denied giving me a wrong address and insisted I was at fault, threatening to report me to my manager. I used my communication skills to calm the customer down, telling them I'll be at the right location in a few minutes. I apologized again while making the delivery and offered the customer some of our coupons."

3. Focus on how you overcame the challenge

While people consider perfection impossible, hiring managers need candidates that show an in-depth understanding of the role. After giving your example, ensure the focus is on how you handled the stressful situation properly. This shows that you didn't remove yourself from the stressful situation, but that you have the skills to persevere and deliver quality work.

Example: "During my time as a backend developer, my company had a massive increase in clients, and we all had to take on more work. The many deadlines had caused me stress and anxiety. I immediately planned a system to manage my projects. This helped me sort them based on their urgency and assign each task a timeline I could handle. I focused on completing each task, I met my deadlines, and reduced my stress levels."

4. Talk about the results of your approach

Highlighting the positive results of your approach can help further impress the hiring manager. It always helps to highlight how well your skills helped you navigate the situation. This shows that you thrived in the stressful situation and maintained the same level of quality delivery. Mentioning figures and percentages help communicate results more effectively.

Example: "At fast-food restaurants, we always had to deal with long lines, which usually led to customers leaving before buying anything. One particular day, the line was very long and customers were getting impatient. I came up with a plan to tell customers an estimate of how long they'd wait while we played some music. Knowing the time they'd have to wait for had a positive effect and we reduced the amount of walk-away customers by 80%."

5. Be prepared for additional questions

Hiring managers may ask additional questions to learn more about the situation. This can confirm the truth of your story or help them gain more insight into your skills. Preparing for additional questions ensures you can remain impressive and convincing. The additional questions can be about how you handled stress in other situations or a hypothetical question about a situation you already described.

Categories of questions about stress

Different categories of situations can cause stress in the workplace and require different approaches and skills to overcome. Here are some common ways stressful situations can present themselves:

When the stress is because of a deadline

Deadlines can be a source of stress for employees who experience a sudden increase in workload or have issues with time management. When answering such questions, emphasize your organization and time-management skills.

Example: "When I have multiple or intense deadlines, I use a strict schedule to break tasks down into manageable parts and approach them individually. For example, at my last job, a coworker got sick, and I had to deliver a project plan in a week. I sat down and broke down my tasks, scheduling each segment. As a result, I could complete the project a day ahead of the deadline and get back to my other commitments."


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When the stress is because of a coworker

Working with other people can lead to difficult situations that can cause stress. Coworkers can have different perspectives, values, or ways of doing work that we consider less effective. When answering this question, ensure you highlight your teamwork and interpersonal skills.

Example: "During my last team project, the team lead was opinionated and overly assertive. They would become frustrated at any comment or suggestion I put forward, creating tension. I called the team lead aside and requested a one-on-one conversation to calm things down. I assured the team lead I just wanted the project to succeed, which would benefit both of us, and I was respectful of the leadership structure. After our conversation, the team lead warmed up and became more receptive, which helped us move forward."

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When the stress is because of a customer or client

Clients can occasionally be confrontational. The hiring manager wants to know that you can handle difficult customers while protecting the company's interests. When responding, demonstrate your customer service and communication skills.

Example: "I have discovered that upset clients need someone to listen to their complaints and address them. At my last job, a client was yelling at my coworker, and I noticed the situation was getting worse. I called the client aside, calmly asked them to tell me the issue, and assured them we were all on the same side. After that, I worked with my coworker to resolve the issue."


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Extra tips for answering questions about stress

Follow these tips to help you produce more effective answers:

  • Use the STAR method: this stands for Situation, Task, Approach and Result. This helps you provide a compelling and relatable answer to the hiring manager.

  • Incorporate your skills into your answer: expressly mentioning the skills you used to navigate stressful situations can improve your answer. These skills can be communication, conflict management, organization, or time management.

  • Choose your answer well: use examples that involved you in a minor way to avoid putting blame on yourself. Always provide answers to these questions since everyone encounters stress and stressful situations.

  • Prepare ahead: preparing ensures you're confident and articulate. Practice by rehearsing with friends or family.

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