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Every job has stress from essential deadlines, adverse reactions from customers, or an inpatient boss. Employers want to know you won't crumble to work-related stress.
That's why "How do you handle stress?" is one of the most common interview questions.
The interviewer doesn't expect to hear you never get stressed. Everyone feels stressed at some point. They want to assess whether you understand how pressure affects you and if you can manage it.
This article outlines why hiring managers ask this question, provides a step-by-step guide on how to answer, as well as tips, example answers, and mistakes to avoid.
Why employers ask, "How do you handle stress?"
Interviewers ask, "How do you handle stress?" to assess whether you can handle job-related stress and what you do when facing a stressful situation at work. Understanding your stress response is essential if the job you're interviewing for has a large workload or tight deadlines.
That's because chronic stress can negatively impact workplace performance, so you must have ways to manage your stress levels.
Employers may also want to understand how you cope with stressful situations outside of work, which can also impact your mood and performance at work.
How to answer "How do you handle stress?"
Answering "How do you handle stress?" successfully relies on you providing specific examples of how you handle stress. It's a behavioral interview question, which means you should leverage the STAR interview technique to answer it.
Be careful with how you answer in the job interview. If you say you get stressed when you need to juggle multiple projects and the job description calls for someone with excellent project management skills, you risk coming off as a poor fit for the position.
It's a good idea to focus on how the right amount of stress brings out your best work.
Try to provide a specific situation where you completed a challenging project while stressed. Employers are looking for examples of how you rise to the occasion or minimize stress through a schedule, careful planning, and soft skills.
1. Read the job description and research the company
It pays to target your answer to the job, which is why you need to read the job listing carefully and research the company before your interview.
The job post contains the duties and responsibilities of the positions and hints at what the interviewer is assessing. Look for skills, obligations, and expectations that the company needs.
As with the job description, research into the company gives you an idea of what qualities and abilities the hiring manager needs.
Once you've got a list of skills and qualities, it's time to think of specific stressful situations from your previous experience where you managed stress well.
2. Find relevant situations where you've managed stress well
Now it's time to recall specific stressful situations that help demonstrate that you have the skills and qualities needed to succeed.
Create a list of three to five stressful situations that show you're an ideal candidate. The situations could come from your time as an employee, student, volunteer, or intern.
3. Use the STAR method to develop your answer
The STAR method is a four-part approach to answering behavioral interview questions. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result:
- Situation: Describe the situation as it forms the basis for the rest of your answer.
- Task: Outline your goals or problems.
- Action: Describe the steps you took to solve the problems or achieve your goals.
- Result: Explain how solving the problems or meeting your goals contributed to the company, then list any important lessons or skills you learned.
Structuring your answer using the STAR method provides a comprehensive description of your experience and emphasizes how well you can handle stress to prospective employers.
Let's walk through the four parts of STAR and how to use them to answer:
- Situation: "When I started my last role, there were no project management processes in place, and I inherited a large backlog of requests. It was a stressful situation come into one my first day, but I knew I had the required skills."
- Task: "I had two tasks. Develop a project management function at the company and teach other leaders how to prioritize and manage projects."
- Action: "I had used Asana at a previous company for project management, so I signed up for that and recorded a bunch of Loom videos to teach people how to use it. I also hosted a weekly project management 101 course to teach the basics to managers and reviewed their Asana boards with them weekly."
- Results: "By the time I left, the company was running smoothly, and the managers of each division were teaching their teams how to leverage Asana without my help. Implementing Asana and a proper project management process helped the company go from unprofitable to earning more than $1 million per quarter."
4. Describe your stress management strategies
It can also be helpful to talk about some of the healthy stress management methods you use like:
- Staying positive.
- Using stress as a motivator
- Accepting what you can't control
- Practicing yoga, meditation, non-sleep deep rest, or other relaxation methods
- Choosing healthy habits
- Developing strong time management skills
- Making time for your personal life
- Talking to a mental health professional you trust
- Maintaining a consistent workout routine
Example answers to "How do you handle stress?"
Review these sample answers and the information about why they are good responses.
Example answer #1: Stress taught you a valuable skill
"As a salesperson, stress is important to me. Good pressure–such as having a quarterly sales target–helps me stay motivated and productive. Of course, three are times when a too high target can lead to stress. However, I'm always improving as a salesperson, so I tend not to get too stressed about big targets. For example, I once had a sales target 2x the rest of the team, and I was under a lot of pressure. However, because I consistently push deals forward week after week, I knew that I'd be able to hit it, and I did. It reinforced the value of never dropping the ball and always following up with prospects."
Why it works: This answer shows the candidate enjoys working under pressure, thrives in stressful situations, and can hit their targets.
Example answer #2: Motivated by stress
"The right amount of stress puts me into a good frame of mind. I used pressure to stay on task and code more efficiently in my previous role. When I'm under a tight deadline, I prioritize the most important thing and don't get distracted. I find that communicating the most important priority to my team helps everyone manage stress levels and keeps the feature release cadence going."
Why it works: With this response, the candidate shows how they turn stress into a positive instead of a negative because it forces focus.
Example answer #3: Deadline driven
"As a content marketer, I tend to work better under tight deadlines. I'm a big believer in Parkinson's Law and find I produce my best work while a bit stressed. Content is strange in that effort does not always equal output. Some of my best-performing articles were put together in a week and outperformed those I spent far longer on. For example, I wrote our best-performing article in two days to respond to the news at my last job. The pressure of being first to print forced me to write fast."
Why it works: This answer works well because it shows the candidate enjoys deadlines and can produce quality work.
Example answer #4: Successful result
"At my last company, there was a lot of tension between the sales and product teams. Both teams felt the other wasn't contributing enough, which created stress for me as the Head of Sales. I reached out to the Head of Engineering and listened proactively to her concerns. The engineers felt that the sales team didn't value their work. I told her that the sales team felt that the engineering team didn't value their insights. It was a heated discussion, but we ended up deciding to get the two teams together outside of the office so they could meet each other in a relaxed environment. After they got to know each other, it felt like they gelled better."
Why it works: When interviewing for a management role, candidates need to assess the stress levels of their team and the teams they influence and work with their counterparts to come to a solution that works for all parties. This candidate did precisely that.
Tips for answering "How do you handle stress?"
- Provide specific examples of when you've managed stress: Interviewers want to hear about specific stressful situations you've encountered, rather than generic answers of how you would respond. For example, describe when you met your goals despite having competing priorities.
- Focus on success: When you answer, share examples of times when you produced good results despite being in a stressful situation or how you could collaborate with colleagues an issue resolved. If possible, quantify the results.
- Emphasize your ability to work in stressful situations: If you're applying to a stressful job, make sure to emphasize you're used to working with stress and that you have stress management strategies in place.
- Personalize your answer for the job: Read the job description carefully and think about which responsibilities are most likely to induce stress. Then find situations from your past that align with the duties.
- Show positive body language: During your interview, make an effort to sit straight, make eye contact, and project confidence. Positive body language shows you're comfortable in stressful situations.
Mistakes to avoid when answering "How do you handle stress?"
- Saying you never get stressed: It may seem like a good answer, but everyone gets stressed at some point. Saying you never get stressed could give the interviewer the impression that you lack self-awareness or don't take work seriously.
- Mentioning issues you created: Don't mention times when you created a stressful situation. Employers want to hire people who can manage stress, not make it.
- Saying you were stressed: If the hiring manager hears a story of feelings that overwhelmed you, it will impact your chances of receiving a job offer. Focus on how you deal with stress rather than how stressed you were.
- Bring up job duties as stressors: If you bring up a role requirement as a stressor, it's an indication that you didn't read the job description or aren't a good fit for the role.
- Not mentioning specific situations: If you say you handle pressure well, but can't mention a time that shows you can, then you've failed this interview question.
- Saying you ignore it: Giving a response like this can make the recruiter think you won't reach out for help.
- Body language that indicates you're nervous: Fidgeting, rocking back and forth, or avoiding eye contact shows that you have difficulty managing stressful situations.
How to manage stress during your interview
Job interviews are inherently stressful for most people. Even if you interview a lot, staying calm can still be hard. You're meeting new people in a new environment and selling yourself.
Understand that handling the job interview well is a fantastic way to show that you can handle stress, and a big part of succeeding in a job interview is preparation. Read the job description thoroughly, research the company, and practice common interview questions. If possible, ask a friend or family member to conduct mock interviews. The more time you invest in practice, the more comfortable you'll be in a job interview.
Beyond preparation, here are a few things you can try:
- Positive visualization: Visualize having a successful interview and a positive conversation with your interviewer.
- Relaxation techniques: If you start to feel stressed, take a deep breath or ask for a moment to compose your response before answering.
- Good body language: Your body has an impact on your thoughts, so sit up straight, maintain eye contact, and smile. By appearing calm and confident, you'll feel relaxed and confident.
Possible follow-up questions
- Describe your work ethic
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- Why did you leave your last job?
- Why do you want to work here?
- Why are you the best person for this job?
- Tell me about a time you made a mistake
- What can you bring to the company?
- Why do you deserve this job?
- Do you have any questions for me? Read our guide on the best questions to ask in an interview.
- What is your greatest weakness?
- Behavioral interview questions. Be sure to use the STAR method when answering.
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