How to deal with minor irritations at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life. This month the focus is on unpredictable annoyances

by Psychologies


Some of the most stress-inducing aspects of modern work are small irritations, which psychologists call ‘background stressors’: the colleague with a noisy telephone voice or a talent for interrupting at exactly the wrong moment; the printer that always jams; the employee who munches food noisily at their desk. The annoyance they induce seems out of all proportion. Indeed, studies have shown they cause illness. But why is that loud crisps-muncher so infuriating – and besides starting a fist-fight, what can you do about it?


Part of what makes minor irritations so majorly irritating is that they’re unpredictable, as Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman explain in their book Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us (John Wiley & Sons, £17.99). We’re good at screening out predictable things, like the hum of air-conditioning. But unpredictable distractions rupture our focus every time.

Worse, though: annoyances are beyond our control. We each have a deep need for autonomy – workplace annoyances provide a frequent reminder that we don’t control our surroundings. 


First, don’t neglect the obvious: if you can shut out your colleague’s enraging clack-clack typing with headphones, or fix that printer, then do it!

Step two is to switch perspective: imagine what it’s like to be whoever’s irritating you. We often subconsciously assume that annoying people are doing it deliberately – so you’ll relieve your own anguish when you see that they probably don’t mean to be maddening. (You probably irritate someone without knowing it, too.)

Third, seek other, unrelated ways of enhancing your sense of control. For example, turn off email notifications, and resolve to check it at specific times instead. The boost in self-control will make you less easily riled.


  • Just ask: We’re generally terrible at knowing how we’re coming across to others; you’d be surprised how rarely an irritating person knows they irritate. Politely asking them to alter their behaviour might work wonders.
  • Adopt a ‘power pose’: Unlikely as it seems, social psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown posture directly affects brain chemistry. Choose a confident, open pose, with shoulders back, and you’ll enhance your sense of control.
  • Use irritations as a mindfulness prompt: Try using the source of annoyance – a colleague’s stupid ringtone, say – as a reminder to breathe deeply and feel the physical sensations of the breath in your nostrils and abdomen. Repeat a few times. Make it habitual, and you’ll have turned whatever’s disrupting your calm into a source of it.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock