how to answer when an interviewer asks “what do you do outside of work?”

how to answer when your interviewer asks, “how do you relieve stress?”

A reader writes:

I’ve encountered this question in many interviews for both customer service jobs and non-public-facing jobs, and I can’t figure out why they’re asking: “What do you do to relieve stress?”

With most interview questions, there is a right and a wrong answer. I’m guessing the wrong answer here is “scream and flip tables” but what’s the right answer? I can never tell if my answer, “Reflect on my day, gradually put it behind me, and then do something relaxing and fun,” is the right answer. I’ve had interviewers push at me with “Yes, but what if you can’t get over it? You’re really, really stressed?”

I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask someone how they specifically handle their personal feelings in their off time, plus I’d think that handling conflict and stress like a reasonable adult would be a basic workplace expectation you don’t need to ask about, so I have no idea how to approach this. Since this questions has come up across a few different industries and different interviews, I feel I could better handle it if I knew what they were trying to determine, other than filtering out people who don’t know better than to say “I’m a lot like The Incredible Hulk, actually, in that I tend to break stuff.” What’s the deal?

Yeah, this is a weird question. (And for some reason when I read it, I could only think of X-rated answers.)

I mean, it’s fine to ask it initially, although I’m skeptical that it’s going to produce anything of real value. As you note, it’s not likely that anyone is going to respond with, “Well, last week I punched a hole in the wall” or “I scream at people” or “I turn to drink.”

But the pushing for more and refusing to accept your answer is weird.

I do think, though, that in your case it might be happening because your answer might sound … insufficient for a period of prolonged stress. They might think that you’re envisioning a mildly stressful day, when they’re asking about weeks of unrelenting high stress. They might be looking for something more like “For a sustained period of stress from something like high workload, what I’ve done in the past is to take a fresh look at my what’s on my plate and make sure that I’ve prioritized correctly. If I’m concerned about my ability to keep everything in the air because of conflicting priorities, I’d flag that for my manager and figure out a plan.” Or something like, “It’s no secret that this can be a stressful industry, but I’ve found that for me, the keys are staying in regular touch with my boss so we’re on the same page about priorities, leaning heavily on a good calendar system, and making time to hit the gym.”

I think that’s probably what the “what if you can’t get over it?” part of the questioning is getting at — if doing something fun one evening doesn’t solve it, how do you approach it from a work standpoint?” They might be looking for signs that you won’t melt down under stress without sending out warning signals — that you’ll raise a flag when you need help, or otherwise step back and manage your work a little differently when the situation calls for it.

It’s also possible that interviewers who harp on this question are doing it because their work environment has a lot more stress than average … so watch for that if your interviewer seems unusually preoccupied with it.

how to answer when your interviewer asks, “how do you relieve stress?” was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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