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It’s highly likely that at some point, a stressful situation will occur at work. A potential employer will want to know then, that you can handle these kinds of situations whilst remaining productive and professional.
So, alongside the more clear-cut job interview questions like ‘what are your hobbies and interests?’ and ‘where else are you interviewing?’, employers will often ask a question like ‘how do you handle stress?’ to gain insight into your behaviour, your personality, and how these would fit into their business.
Because it is so open-ended, this interview question can be a particularly difficult one to answer. So in order to work out the best approach, let’s look first of all why employers choose to ask it…
You might be surprised to know that employers don’t actually want to hear that you never feel stressed, or that you’ve never been involved in a stressful situation.
Aside from the fact that it will seem like you’re being dishonest, denying that you’ve ever been stressed will leave the employer wondering how you’d react if ever you were. Realistically, everyone has experienced stress at some point in their lives.
Likewise, all graduate jobs will be stressful at one time or another - so an employer will be looking for confirmation that you can handle the pressure, and have the experience to back up your statement.
Though stress is often seen as something negative, stress management is actually an incredibly valuable skill – and being able to demonstrate to an employer that you perform well under pressure will be highly impressive.
By asking this interview question, employers are looking to see if you understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and that you’re aware of the skills the graduate job will require (i.e. if it’s a role where deadlines are essential, they’ll want validation that you can work well under pressure, manage your time effectively and turn around exceptional work to even the tightest deadlines).
In a high-pressure interview, your initial reaction when asked how you handle stressful situations might be “…you mean, like this one?”
Well… you might be on to something. Employers often use this interview question to gauge how you actually handle a stressful or high-pressure situation - do you remain calm and collected, or do you become flustered and try to side-step the question completely?
Often, the best way for employers to find out how you act under pressure is by assessing your body language and the answer you give – so preparing your response to the question is the best thing you can do.
This may seem like an obvious statement – but drawing on past experiences is the most important thing to include in your answer.
Rather than being a straightforward ‘do you’ or a ‘can you’ question, ‘how do you handle stress?’ really requires you to explain the ways you do, and provide solid evidence to back up your reply.
Think of the interview question, then, as ‘how have you handled stress in the past?’ – and draw on your experiences (whether at school, university, through extra-curricular activities or in previous graduate jobs) to show the employer how you have dealt with a stressful situation.
You might like to use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to show them how you work in a productive and resilient way. Check out more information about the STAR technique.
When an employer asks you to describe a stressful situation and how you handled it, we recommend that you prepare your answer and practice in advance, to ensure your body language stays completely confident and relaxed during the high-pressure interview environment. Here are some examples to help you construct your answer…
“I actually believe that a little bit of stress can be a good thing. I work well in a fast-paced and healthy stressful situation, as I enjoy a challenge and I find that extra bit of pressure can spur me on to get tasks completed quicker, pushing me to work even harder! I think that’s why I enjoy working in sales so much, because I am able to work towards a target; in my current Sales Executive role I have exceeded my target every month, increasing this by around 10% each time.”
“When I am in a stressful situation, I often stop to take a step back and allow myself some time to think, plan and prioritise. For example, if I’ve got a lot of different University projects I’m working on all at once, I become more efficient with my time. I break the big tasks up into separate, individual activities, working out which take the longest, which I can complete quite quickly, and which have the nearest deadlines. It then becomes more manageable and far less stressful.”
“I think that communication is vital when handling situations that are stressful. In my previous job, I had multiple people that I was required to report back to, working across 3 different departments. This meant that it was down to me to manage my workload and liaise between each department to decide which tasks needed to be completed more urgently. I also learnt to be honest and advise my superiors when the workload got too much. This communication really helped in reducing stress and it meant that everyone was able to plan ahead, knowing which tasks were due to be completed first each week.”
“I find that I handle stress by ensuring that I am active at lunchtimes. I rarely eat lunch at my desk, every Tuesday I have yoga at lunchtime and on days that I am not doing a sport, I always try to get outside and go for a walk. I also encourage others in my team to come for a walk too, it really helps to let off some steam and get us ready and focused for the afternoon.”
“I often find that helping colleagues with their stressful situations or any problems they come across, enables me to put my problems into perspective. I can give advice on how to deal with certain circumstances and in return, my colleagues sometimes help me with my problems too. Sharing a problem often takes a great deal of weight off, as the saying goes - a problem shared is a problem halved!”
“To help deal with stress, I always look for the positives in every situation. Instead of concentrating too much on the things I didn’t manage to get done that day, I focus on how much progress I have made in other areas. For example, last month we had 2 weeks where multiple people were on annual leave, and two people were off sick. I was therefore left with a big workload which was very overwhelming to begin with, but I tried to think of the glass half full and would write down 3 things that went well at the end of each day, which really helped me to stay positive and keep going.”
When answering this interview question, saying that you don’t ever feel stressed will be a big red flag for any employer!
While it might be tempting to present yourself as someone who is always calm, realistically everyone feels stressed at some point in their lives – and denying it or avoiding the question will only lead them to assume you handle it in a bad way.
Though using a situational example is important, it is possible to choose one that will be detrimental to your interview.
Try to avoid anything where the stress was your fault, i.e. “I once forgot about a university deadline, and was left with one day to plan and write a 3000-word final year essay”, any example that is unprofessional, or where the outcome wasn’t a positive one.
As a general rule, stick to providing evidence that happened either at school or university, or even better, in a previous job.
Though it can be a tricky one in a high-pressure graduate job interview, getting flustered will only hinder your chances of success. If you are nervous before your interview, read our blog about how to relax before a job interview.
If the employer is looking to analyse how you actually do handle stress, getting worked up won’t indicate to them that you perform well in a demanding situation.
Plus, you don’t want to throw off your performance throughout the rest of the interview – so take a deep breath and prepare to wow the employer with the answer you’ve prepared and practiced.
Generally speaking, a great way to respond to graduate job interview questions is to use situational evidence – and none more so than your answer to ‘how do you handle stress?’
So before you go into an interview, prepare your answer with an example that shows off your strengths and skill set, and confirms to the employer that you’re the best person for the job.
Read our complete guide to Interview Questions!