It’s not a shocker that irritable co-workers are unpleasant to be around: They’re usually either quietly grumpy or surprisingly explosive. Two options that put you squarely in the watch out what you say or do because anything could become a problem camp.
Everyone’s dealt with someone like that, and I know I definitely wouldn’t want to be perceived by my peers as that kind of person.
But irritability is more than a surface-level bad temper—it could be a sign of emotional trouble, personal struggles, or any other hard situation you’re currently unaware of. And when that’s the case, this “grumpy mood” can be a warning signal for a whole mess of negative emotions: anger, stress, anxiety, and so on.
When I have a looming deadline on an important project, I become very conscientious about how I spend my time—and as a result, snappier when conversations are taking too long, or co-workers are being too loud and distracting. I would certainly attribute that to the stress, and (hopefully) not my overall personality.
According to Susan Holtzman, a psychologist who spoke to NYMag on the topic, this is natural. But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean you should accept it as par for the course. Instead it should provide a reason for you to rethink your relationship with this unsettling feeling, as well as your perception of irritable people in general.
“It’s hard because people are rarely just irritable—irritability often goes with a lot of other negative emotions,” she says, “It often goes with stress, it goes with depression, it goes with anxiety, it goes with anger.”
So, maybe your grouchy co-worker isn’t “easily annoyed”—maybe he’s coping with a larger issues like missing his sales goals, a break-up, a family crisis—or as is common in my own life, simply skipping a meal. Seriously, forgetting to eat makes me an absolute nightmare to be around.
Knowing this, of course, doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it would perhaps change your approach to it. If nothing else, viewing this as a symptom of a larger problem should make you more sympathetic, and hopefully more understanding when he snaps at you about forgetting an email attachment.
In a 2014 study, Holtzman developed a “brief, reliable, and valid self-report measure of irritability” in order to assess how anyone, for any combination of reasons, might be irritable. Understanding your own behavior, she argues, can help you understand the broader situation of your own mental health.
So, take her brief irritability test now to see where you fall on the spectrum.
And no judgment if you receive a poor score—if anything, this is a sign that something in your life is causing you unhappiness. Just the simple act of recognizing that opens you up to finding a solution.