When Co-Workers Go Bad

When you accepted the job, everyone seemed nice. But now that you’ve worked with them, day in and out, your co-workers are driving you crazy. It could be a chatterbox, a lazy slob, a neat freak, a bully, or a person who ignores you. Maybe, it’s too many personal telephone calls, too much time on break, or being late for work. And when you need help, you’re all alone.

What can you do?

Their Behavior, Your Stress
As a clinician, you’re used to working in stressful situations. You might even be proud of it. But are you any good at it? The following may help you decide if stress is controlling you or you it:1

When I feel agitated, do I know how to quickly calm and soothe myself?

  • Can I easily let go of my anger?
  • Can I turn to others at work to help me calm down and feel better?
  • When I come home at night, do I walk in the door feeling alert and relaxed?
  • Am I seldom distracted or moody?
  • Am I able to recognize upsets that others seem to be experiencing?
  • Do I easily turn to friends or family members for a calming influence?
  • When my energy is low, do I know how to boost it?

    The “fight or flight” stress response, intended to increase awareness and agility, is your body’s way of protecting you but can’t distinguish between physical and psychological stressors. The jerk at work isn’t a sabre-toothed cat chasing you up a tree, but your body reacts the same. If you answered “No” above, you may cope with stress poorly.

    Long-term stress exposure is linked to headaches, sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression. Those who cope poorly with stress can have suppressed immune systems, thus more frequent colds and slower wound healing. And stress can worsen symptoms of many diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.2

    Studies confirm that occupational stress has increased over the last several decades. According to a 2000 Gallup poll, 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job; 42 percent think coworkers need help coping with stress. In another survey, 29 percent of workers admitted to yelling at coworkers because of stress. With so much stress, it seems business as usual.3

    Is some or all of your stress caused by a co-worker? Probably. One 2006 online survey reports 93 percent of employees work with “nasty, unreliable, or eccentric” people. Only one in four confronted the person.4

    Am I a Difficult Coworker?
    The solution, suggests Stanford professor Robert Sutton, is to make it clear to those who hire that anyone showing signs of belittling or disrespecting others will not be hired regardless of skills. But if the problem is the boss, self-preservation can make you to go through the motions and not care. “We all face situations we must endure; none of us have complete power,” Sutton wrote.5

    Endure or not, consider these types:

    • The Forgetful Borrower–borrows all kind of things and doesn’t return them
    • The Slacker–more than content to let everyone else do the work and take the credit
    • The Martyr–“Doesn’t anyone else work around here?” is this person’s lament
    • The Passive-Aggressor–leaves vaguely threatening notes everywhere or comments about his or her “insane” level of work
    • The Drama Queen–overreacts to seemingly minor incidents
    • The Suck-Up–can’t wait to find a new way to be recognized
    • The Know-It-All–either points out every little detail or insists on helping you without being asked
    • The Gossiper–always has the dirt on colleagues and can’t resist rubbing some of it on you, no matter how busy you are
    • The Nose Offender–under-deodorized or over-perfumed, this person is difficult to approach
    • The Complainer–no matter how good things are, this person complains and is a drag to work with6

    A 2010 human resources survey identifies slackers, drama queens, and gossiper types as the top three, also adding whiners, megaphones, hijackers, gum chewers and swearers among the top 10.7

    Before pointing fingers ask, “Am I a difficult coworker?” If you recognize yourself in the above, you may be all or part of the problem. You can’t control another’s behavior, but you have a chance at controlling your own.

    Build Relationships
    The secret is to learn to emotionally detach and build professional relationships. This can seem difficult when confronted by irritating coworkers, but there’s plenty you can do, starting today:8

    • Take a break. It’s natural to be bothered by mannerisms when you spend forty hours a week around the same people. Walk outside, enjoy the fresh air, and remember that your quirks are just as annoying.
    • Disconnect emotionally. It can be difficult to disengage, especially when there is a romantic history or other emotional attachment. Acting professional at all times demands a mental toughness. It means ignoring the offending behavior and limiting interactions unless goal- or work-oriented.
    • Take the high road. Once you unhook emotionally, you need to communicate effectively, even if the news is bad. Telling someone they have a body odor problem, for example, is awkward unless you realize it isn’t about you. And many times, a coworker will be unaware that there is a problem.
    • Talk to your supervisor. A supervisor won’t notice toxic behavior if employees are constantly “on” around him or her; an effective supervisor will want to address the problem immediately.

    These guidelines apply even if the annoying person is a supervisor. One approach that helps remove personal agendas is to meet with the person and write down tangible goals. Says psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, co-author of Working With You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself From Emotional Traps at Work, “If you are hooked emotionally, you can’t hear a rational discussion.”9 Writing it down makes the rational tangible.

    We can laugh about it on The Office, but once coworkers go bad it isn’t funny. Rebuilding relationships can give you control over your behavior, lower your stress levels, make your job easier, and ultimately improve patient care.

    Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, ME.


    1. Helpguide. Understanding stress. Available at: http://helpguide.org/. Last accessed May 7, 2011.
    2. Stoppler M. Ask the experts: what are the long-term effects of stress on the body? Available at: http://www.medicinenet.com/. Last accessed May 7, 2011.
    3. The American Institute of Stress. Job stress. Available at: www.stress.org/job.htm. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    4. Belkin L. It’s not the job I despise, it’s you. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    5. Sutton R. Nasty people. Available at: http://www.cioinsight.com/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    6. Butcher D. 13 types of irritating coworkers. Available at: http://news.thomasnet.com/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    7. WFSB. Who irritates you at work? Available at: http://www.wfsb.com/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    8. Zupek R. Handling the irritating coworker. Available at: http://www.careerbuilder.ca/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.
    9. Herman C. Co-worker driving you crazy? Here’s what you do. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/. Last accessed May 8, 2011.

About The Author