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How to avoid a major meltdown at work

  • Story Highlights
  • Nearing a breakdown could mean things at work are out of balance
  • Discussing workplace stress and blowing off a little steam is important
  • Take the time to cross-train employees so all the work doesn't rest on one person
  • Expert: Make sure to leave your desk for a few minutes several times a day
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By Patrick Erwin writer
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A meltdown at work could result in probation, suspension and ultimately termination, so work to resolve issues.

A meltdown at work could result in probation, suspension and ultimately termination, so work to resolve issues.

At some point, all of us have had a bad day at work. Even if you like your job, chances are you have experienced a day where something or someone at work was wearing you down.

You may also have been overwhelmed or preoccupied by things that happen at home or outside of work.

Sometimes, those commonplace stressful moments keep building until a meltdown happens -- a massive, off-the-tracks-train-wreck meltdown. And it can happen to even the most professional employee.

Debra Gordon, now a self-employed medical writer in Virginia, was working for a major metropolitan newspaper as a reporter when her meltdown occurred. Gordon's editor was pressuring her to stay for a meeting, but she had made a commitment to attend her son's school play.

A verbal conflict with the editor ensued, escalating until Gordon reached her snapping point, screamed "I quit!" and drove away in tears. Gordon ended up returning to work after another employee mediated, but the environment remained unfavorable, and she resigned a few months later.

Having a meltdown at work can be embarrassing, but witnessing it can be even scarier. Jamie*, a political strategist in Florida, recalls one such incident, when the procedure for handling absentee ballots was changed near Election Day.

Jamie watched his colleague panic, which turned into a full-fledged meltdown. "He was yelling, screaming and literally throwing ballots against the wall saying, 'These aren't worth the paper they're printed on! My career is over!'" Jamie recalls. He pulled his colleague aside and told him to take a deep breath and count to 10, while other volunteers picked up the ballots.

Even happy workplaces can spark meltdowns. Dennis Snow is a former employee of an well-known amusement park who has written a book about his 20 years as a staff member. Snow witnessed several meltdowns over the years. One of the most memorable occurred at a very popular attraction.

As he explains, when a ride is closed, a staff member will stand at the entrance of the ride to personally deliver the bad news to the eager patrons. One ride was closed for restoration, and Dennis, who was assuming his shift at the entrance to the ride, found his co-worker in full meltdown mode.

"She was not only in tears, she was inconsolable. Guests weren't even going near her because of her sobbing," he says.

"I asked what was wrong and she said, 'I just can't take it anymore! If one more person blames me for this stupid ride being closed, I'm going to just quit. One father pointed at me and said to his kids, 'Thank the lady for ruining our vacation!'"

Any of this sound familiar? If you, a co-worker or a manager are nearing a breakdown, this may be a sign that things at work are out of balance. You and your officemates should consider these preventative measures:

Encourage communication at work

Discussing workplace stress and blowing off a little steam is important. Nobody wants to create a negative atmosphere with nonstop ranting about work, but talking about your frustrations or challenges is healthy.

If those frustrations are impacting your ability to get your job done or are impacting a number of people on your team, be sure to escalate that discussion to include your supervisor or upper management.

Assess your workload

Meltdowns are also more likely to happen if a larger portion of the workload is resting on one set of shoulders. If the balance or work in your department is off-kilter, talk to your supervisor or manager.

They may not be aware of the issue. Even if you are incredibly busy, take the time to cross-train other employees whenever you can. The investment of time pays off handsomely when those co-workers are able to take on a bigger workload.

Take a break

With layoffs and reduced staffing levels, many workers have been pushed to the brink simply because they feel overwhelmed. It may be tempting to forego taking a break or a lunch when you have a backlog of work. Make sure you get away from your desk at least a few times a day.

If you can, go outside and walk around the block or around the building. If the weather is not cooperating, try finding a quiet place indoors, like an unoccupied conference room. If all else fails, close your eyes and take 10 long, deep breaths at your desk.

Offer a helping hand

Your co-worker or manager may have personal issues that are wreaking havoc at work. Though you clearly want to respect everyone's privacy, ask your co-worker if everything is OK. If he or she discloses a problem, encourage them to find solutions. Many employers offer an assistance program to employees with resources that will help with issues like child care, elder care and drug and alcohol dependency.

It is important to address any issue that triggers a meltdown before it happens. Your co-workers, managers and companies may be compassionate when you experience stress, especially if you are apologetic about it afterwards, but there is a risk of crossing the line.

A meltdown could result in probation, suspension and ultimately termination. If the issue is important enough to trigger a meltdown, it should be a priority to address the issue and resolve it.

*Name withheld to maintain privacy.

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority

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