How To Answer “How Do You Handle Stress?” (Example Answers)

By Mike Simpson

When it comes right down to it, interviews are phenomenally stressful.

You’re potentially competing with hundreds, if not thousands of other qualified applicants for the position. The question is, how do you handle stress in that situation?

You’re meeting with people you’ve never met before in, answering questions that are specifically designed to psychologically analyze you, and to make matters worse, odds are you’re wearing clothes you’re not totally comfortable in.

Sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon, right?

Hopefully you’re handling all this pressure gracefully and are answering all the questions with a smile, looking the interviewer in the eye and remembering your STAR method for answering behavioral interview questions (which, if you didn’t know, are some of the most stress-inducing questions you could be asked).

So, when an interviewer asks you “How do you handle stress,” your first response might be to laugh bitterly, open your arms up wide and respond with “You tell me! I’m here, aren’t I?”

Of course, you’re smarter than that and while the above scenario is so tempting, there are much better ways to answer this question, and I guarantee that none of them use sarcasm.

But before we get to how to answer the question, we need to look at why the interviewer is asking it in the first place.

While it might feel as though this question is an attempt by the interviewer to play on your already frazzled nerves, there’s a very good reason they’re asking you how you handle stress.

Work is stressful and regardless of what your job is, at some point in everyone’s life, a little stress (or a lot, depending) is going to come your way and an employer wants to know if you’re the kind of person who is going to be able to handle that stress professionally, or if you’re going to end up crumbling like a stale cookie.

How NOT to Answer “How Do You Handle Stress?”

“Stress? Never experienced it.”

As we said, an interviewer wants to hire someone they know will be reliable when things get tough but playing the emotionless robot card isn’t going to win you any points.

Besides, everyone experiences stress, so saying you don’t just means you’re lying and nobody wants to hire a liar.

“Stress just motivates me to work harder.”

While this might seem like the right answer, it’s not. Hiring someone who is convinced they need to solve every problem themselves means they might not realize at some point that their problem is too big to handle alone.

A lone wolf employee might end up waiting too long to bring in additional help resulting in a problem that could have been solved much earlier and cheaper blowing up into something much bigger and much more expensive.

“I remove myself from the situation, take time to look at it from all angles, and then attack whatever is causing me stress in the most efficient way.”

Another ‘sounds like it should be right…but it’s not!’ answer.

In this case, you’re telling the hiring manager that when things get tough…you leave. And yes, we know you said you come back after you’ve formulated your plan of attack, but still…we can’t get past the part where you walk away for an unknown amount of time.

“Dude, I don’t know about you, but I like to unwind by grabbing a beer and just feeling the mellow wash over me after work.”

All we’re going to say is…there’s a thing called oversharing.

Mike's Tip: On a side note, it’s always a good idea to check out the company policy on recreational drug and alcohol use, especially if you’re working in a job that involves heavy machinery and/or company mandated drug screening before going in for an interview if you feel there might be any conflicts with what you do in your off time.

Ultimately an employer isn’t going to be interested in a potential hire who they think might react negatively in a stressful situation. Beyond just our previous examples of the robot, the lone wolf, the disappearing employee and the Dude, hiring managers are going to avoid anyone who handles stress in a negative way including:

The angry stresser: When stressed out, this employee gets angry and takes it out on everyone around them.

The sad sack: This employee is the opposite of the angry stresser. Instead of anger, they descend into depression, even to the point of full withdrawal.

The shut-down: Stress for this employee is a bit like hitting the power button. A shut down employee does just that…they shut down and are unable to do anything to alleviate the stress or the situation causing the stress.

The delegator: When stressed out, this employee would rather pass those stressful tasks off onto others. While delegation is an important part of any solid team, foisting your problems off on others won’t win you any points.

Top 5 Tips For Answering the Question

  1. Start with an example story: Just telling the hiring manager how you handle stress isn’t enough. They want to hear you apply this to a past scenario.
  2. Focus on positive examples: The last thing an interviewer wants to hear is about a time you were stressed because of something you did that was irresponsible or unprofessional, especially if the situation was completely avoidable.
  3. Focus on what you did, not on how you felt: The interviewer wants to know how you handled yourself and what you did to mitigate the situation. Focus on your actions and don’t weigh down the example with how stressed you were feeling.
  4. Highlight the skills you used: Dealing with stress in a healthy and positive way can help you learn and hone skills an employer will see as valuable. Talk about things like time management, organization, prioritization, and attention to detail. (Here is a handy list of soft skills that you can focus on.)
  5. Tailor your example: This one should be obvious. Make sure you’re sharing a story that relates to the job you’re applying for. (If it’s not obvious to you, you probably need to brush up on our Tailoring Method… check out this article to get a quick tutorial.)

3 Example Answers:

For an Entry-Level Position

While I can’t say I enjoy stress, I do have to admit that handling stressful situations has really taught me a lot about prioritization and most importantly about communication. In my most recent job I had to answer to two supervisors who occasionally assigned me conflicting tasks. Rather than trying to tackle both at the same time and ending up overwhelmed and stressed out, I sat down with both my supervisors and discussed which tasks were more urgent and which tasks could be done later. We worked out a game plan that allowed me to organize what needed to get done based on priority. We used that to build a list of assignments. Not only was I able to finish both tasks quickly and efficiently, but it gave me a lot of satisfaction every time I checked things off of the assignment list. Now I’m all about lists and making sure I’m properly prioritizing tasks and as a result, I’ve found I can handle much bigger work loads at a fraction of the stress level I had experienced before.

Management Level Position

While I personally enjoy a bit of stress in the job as I love a challenge, I know that stress in a team can be a problem as not everyone feels that way. When I know there’s a stressful situation or a task that’s causing my team some anxiety, rather than expect them to deal with it like I do, I prefer to seek them out individually and check in with them about their concerns and how they’re handling the workload. A few months ago, we had a big project come through that meant a lot to the company. We divided up the project and I assigned parts to each of my team members. At first things were going well, but then I noticed a serious slow down in productivity. This meant things were piling up and I started to get stressed about the fact that we were falling behind, and I was afraid we wouldn’t reach our deadline. I went to each team member and spoke with them individually, trying to see where the slowdown was happening. I found that one person on the team had accepted a task they were struggling with. The team member and I put in some extra hours working on that task together and managed to bring the whole project back on schedule. Not only were we able to meet our deadline, but the team member who was struggling got some valuable training during our one on one time and we’ll be able to avoid future slowdowns if we find ourselves in a similar situation again. I’ve also made sure to let all my members know that I have an open door policy and to always come to me when they’re struggling. A good team is one where everything is well balanced, and that includes stress levels.

Executive Level Position:

As the head of a large corporation, I can’t afford to let stress affect my ability to do my job. I have a lot of people answering to me and stress from my level can filter down through the entire company and cause a lot of issues. I’ve learned that prioritization and organization are the best ways for me to help minimize stress. Of course, things still come up unexpectedly and I’ve found the best way to manage that stress is to step back and look at the big picture and see why this issue is causing stress. I also find that crowd sourcing solutions is one of the most effective ways for me to alleviate stress when it comes to a problem I’m trying to solve. A few years ago, we lost one of our major suppliers. We had a massive order to fill and our supplier was a key part of making sure that order was correct. Millions of dollars were at stake. I’m sure you can imagine it was stressful for me. Rather than panic, I brought in my upper level management team and we sat down for a full day of problem solving. Everyone had an opportunity to offer solutions and workarounds, and by the end of the day, we had not only found a new supplier, but had managed to reduce the overall cost of the final product as a result. It was a huge win for us all and I absolutely could not have done it alone. That roundtable has become a regular part of my problem-solving process and now, any time I start to feel stress from any part of my job, I call in my team of experts to see how we can make things work.

Putting It All Together

Every job is going to have some stress involved, and everyone ends up getting a little stressed out every now and again. Part of what makes you the perfect candidate and will help set you apart from other job seekers is understanding how to leverage that stress to your advantage. By not letting tough situations shut you down and still being able to complete tasks to the best of your ability regardless of the stress you’re under, you’re showing a hiring manager that you’re a professional and ultimately…the best candidate for the job.

Good luck!

Please be kin