Are You Overloaded With Work? An Honest Assessment & How To Cope
It is not uncommon to feel overloaded with work; you’ve felt it, I’ve felt it, we’ve been on teams that are feeling it. Sometimes, though, we miss the signs until our coworker snaps or we realize we’ve been dragging ourselves out of bed only to be miserable at work.
Signs of Work Overload
Consistently missing deadlines and making errors.
The reward for being a top performer is, well, more work and more opportunities to perform. Only, everybody has a limit. If you have a high-achiever on your team who is suddenly missing deadlines and making errors, chances are, your high achiever is overloaded with work.
The coworker that you used to chat with in the mornings before settling in to work no longer has time for chit-chat. She is running here and there all the time, from meeting to presentation to appointment; when she finally does sit down, she is pulled in so many directions that she can hardly keep her focus on any one area (or screen) for very long. You can’t remember the last time you saw her relaxed.
New apathetic mindset.
It’s alarming to see a top performer blow off deadlines or miss meetings altogether, but when work overload sets in, so does overwhelm. There’s only so much stress that a person can take before they shut down entirely. When a person’s boundaries have been violated repeatedly (whether they are culpable or not), it is inevitable that they will throw up their hands at some point. An apathetic mindset is a key tell that a top performer is overloaded with work.
Irritable and frazzled.
The awareness that we are overloaded with work sometimes comes at the cost of hurting friends or family. When our workload occupies an outsized portion of our brains, we get tunnel vision on the importance of completing tasks. Our tunnel vision comes at the expense of cherished relationships, especially when our focus or productivity is suddenly and surprisingly interrupted by a well-intentioned loved one. When we come face-to-face with the way in which our workload impacts our family and friends, we can longer escape the truth: we are overloaded with work.
Frequently sick and/or fatigued
The emotional and physical fatigue associated with work overload can lead to headaches, digestive problems, and back pain, amongst other symptoms. Managers might be tipped off to an employee’s overwhelming workload when they are suddenly absent from work more frequently due to legitimate illnesses commonly associated with stress.
Self-care takes a backseat
If you notice that your self-care practices have suddenly been shoved to the side so that you can take on one more project or meet one more deadline, be mindful of your choices – you may be flirting with an overloaded work schedule.
But, how do we know whether the issue is the volume of work or our ability to handle it? How do we know when the solution is self-management, or delegation, saying no, or asking for help?
Let’s start by taking a look at the work itself.
Four Categories of Work
1. Ongoing work
These are tasks or activities that you perform every day, every week, or every month. Examples may be preparing a board briefing or tracking certain key performance indicators (e.g., revenue week-over-week).
2. Work backlog
This is work that you keep putting off. You know it needed to have been completed before now, but you’re behind and need to catch up.
This is work associated with one-off events, such as an annual conference or a new client pitch. This work happens at intervals longer than one month, and the tasks for this event are highly customized.
4. Asset building
This is time you invest in creating something new that will pay dividends into the future. This is often heavily creative work that may involve a larger team effort.
Here’s a closer look at each category.
These tasks are here to stay. They are likely the core of your responsibilities and are close to the top of your job description. If you were to create a job posting for your position, you’d want to find someone who is, at a minimum, capable at performing these tasks.
In an accounting role, these might be managing payroll and accounts receivable; in IT, these tasks might involve daily checks on network stability and running programs that minimize downtime.
The amount of ongoing work you have on your plate must be manageable. If ongoing work is the only thing on your plate – i.e., you have no other responsibilities beyond that which is routine and predictable – and you are feeling under water, the time to take action is now. You are overloaded with work.
It was very helpful to talk with Anne about the skills I am using in my current work and how they will transfer to and open up other pathways for me. It is often hard to step outside of the work you are doing and see that you can redefine your skillset. Being able to talk about a vision and next steps with Anne helped so much. She was able to look at my current body of work and help me re-categorize the assets I have and make them marketable in a different context. The simple exercise of a resume review was extremely helpful – putting + and – next to the areas I wanted to continue and not continue.
Anne’s manner with me, during what was a volatile personal time, was compassionate and understanding. Her support was incredibly important as I was having to rethink what both my professional life and personal life would look like in the next 3 to 5 years. Anne: do not underestimate what you are bringing to the table as a life coach for those of us in transition in our both our careers and lives!
It’s only natural that, from time to time, we fall behind on our work. It happens! Oftentimes, the things that get pushed off are responding to emails and various kinds of tedious administrative tasks, such as submitting expense reports or travel logs.
The causes of work backlogs are predictable: disorganization, untenable workload, or a variety of other one-off tasks or events taking precedence, such as illnesses/holidays/vacations, or events or asset-building activities.
In prioritizing tasks and business goals, some things inevitably have to take a back seat. This is key: backlogs are to be expected. Avoid using the word “should” as you assess your work backlog, as in, “I should be farther along than I am on this”.
The saving grace for dealing with work backlogs is creating a system to deal with them and having the discipline to stick with the system.
Create a system specifically for backlogs. For instance, create a MISC email folder, establish a rule that certain emails are automatically filed into that folder, then establish the practice of checking your MISC folder every Friday morning, no exceptions. This way, the backlog remains manageable without diverting your time and attention away from other tasks.
Remember: backlogs are known and to be expected, so a backlog due to disorganization or lack of discipline is avoidable. Backlogs due to holidays or vacations are to be expected, so plan for them.
Events are deadline-laden stress hurricanes that leave us scrambling for higher ground. They can be both exciting and exhausting, thrilling and tiresome.
Events in your business might include hosting a conference, running a webinar, launching a new website, or pitching for new business.
The payoff for running a successful event can be significant and so can the cost of the resources dedicated to it. So, in considering the workload associated with an event, make sure the payoff is worth it, whether measured in revenue, size of audience, or another metric.
In planning for an event, be sure to plan for the backlog that will accompany it. Note: burnout just prior to or just following the event is common, so be sure to block time off on your schedule to conserve and replenish your energy. Failure to do so is a recipe for burnout.
Anne is 100% in your corner! Whatever it is you need help navigating – she is an ally and adviser for women in this world!
Whether you’ve thought of them this way or not, an asset in your business is something that you’ve created with the intention of it generating ongoing value for you into the future with minimal ongoing effort. Typically, the creation of the asset requires a good bit of heavy lifting but, once created, it serves your business well long-term.
For instance, this could be the development of a new website, an investment into professional development such as a certification or a license, or diligent networking/new business generation efforts.
Because of the relatively large up-front resources required to create an asset, doing so is risky. Setting aside the time to create an asset can be difficult to do – it takes time away from other tasks that have more immediate benefits (answering emails, doing daily tasks) and that are “sure things”.
However, where there is risk there is the potential for reward, making the time trade-off (and ensuing backlog) worth it.
There is also a compounding effect with assets: having one well-performing asset can provide you with the motivation (and time/revenue, in some cases) to produce two, three, or four assets. The more valuable your asset portfolio is, the broader your audience stands to be, and the more your business is able to stand on its own.
So, are you truly overloaded?
Run through this filter to find out.
1. Organize Your Tasks
Organize your tasks into four columns corresponding to the four types of tasks outlined above. Then, take stock:
- If your “Ongoing Work” column is lopsided compared to the other columns, it’s time to renegotiate or ask for help.
- If your “Backlog” column is lengthier than the others, consider the cause: are you as organized as you can possibly be, or is there room for improvement here? Have you invested a lot of time recently in events, taken a lot of time off, or invested time in asset building?
- If your “Events” column is weighed down, might there be an opportunity for you to get support with your events-related tasks? An intern, contractor, or a junior staffer may be able to lighten your load for these one-off projects without taking on a long-term commitment or expense.
- If your “Assets” column is the lengthiest, take stock of your success rate. Has your investment in these areas paid off? Could you allocate some of the revenue that your assets have earned you to afford you help (i.e., contract labor) in creating new assets?
2. Orchestrate a Reset
Take one week (just one week!) to focus on nothing but your ongoing tasks. If the thought of doing so is mind-blowing to you, start with one day. See how it feels to just keep the ship afloat for one day. Then, on the second day (or second week), add tasks from just ONE more category to your day.
The key to resisting a new onset of overwhelm is to learn from a system that works. In this case, your baseline is your ongoing work. Then, when you take a macro-view of your tasks and calendar, add from just ONE column at a time.
If you have an event coming up in two weeks, now is probably not the time to work on your backlog or create a new asset, so set your ideas, energy, and time for those tasks to the side until your event is over. The week after the event may be a great time to focus on reducing or eliminating your backlog, after which you could tackle creating a new asset.
Anne’s approach is down-to-earth and practical. We spent the majority of our time laying the groundwork for a transition plan that has effectively guided me in the first 60 days in my new position. She allowed me to bounce ideas off of her and she also helped me to hone my plan. Anne was great about sharing resources/articles/books to assist me moving forward! If you are a woman thinking about your next career move and need help honing their direction: call Anne! She is practical and smart and can help you move forward.
Coping With Overload: Best Practices
The following best practices are helpful in managing fluctuations in your workload.
1. Understand The Problem – Specifically
Make sure you are looking at the specific issue that is leaving you feeling overloaded. Is it ongoing work, a backlog, an event, or an asset that needs to be rebalanced?
2. Get Clear On Your Goals
It’s easy to spend hours, if not weeks or months, working on a project because it landed in our lap. However, set a reminder on your phone to check in with yourself on a regular basis to make sure that the work you are doing is moving you towards your career goals, not away from them. Dealing with a weight workload is one thing; dealing with a weighty workload that is moving us away from where we ultimately want to go is another.
3. Time Management
Keeping a daily diary (down to the minute) for a week or two will help you see clearly where your time is going. You might be feeling overloaded because you’re drowning with work, or, you might be squandering time here and there with tasks that don’t move you closer to your goals.
Make sure you are delegating work, maintaining a regular work schedule, taking breaks, getting enough sleep, and utilizing tech tools that keep you focused on quality outputs.
4. Anticipate Pressure Points
After you’ve taken stock of the types of work on your plate (above), you can better anticipate (and thus, plan for) times when your workload will increase. Plan for these work-heavy times by keeping a list of contractors, interns, subject matter experts, and others who you can schedule in advance of a busy season.
5. Eliminate Bad Habits
The daily log you kept in #2, above, may have brought to light some habits that are not serving you. Whether it’s extra time at the water cooler or checking email every 30 minutes, you may be holding onto a few bad habits that are gobbling your marginal time.
6. Make a List Of To-Do’s
The feeling of work overload is real, yes; the actual work, however, may not be. Certain tasks (typically the ones that we most dread) play an outside role in our minds. We spend time dreading them, putting them off, doing them halfway, and so on. When we keep a written list of our to-do’s (with a time component next to them), the length (or brevity) of our list is undeniable.
7. Get Help With Prioritization
Prioritizing work is something we know we need to do, but not always something we adhere to once completed. Let’s face it: we want to work on what we want to work on! Nevertheless, those less desirable tasks need our attention, too. If you are having a tough time figuring out what’s most important, ask your manager, boss, or board to help you make the call. Then, stick to it.
If you are holding onto work out of fear that someone else can’t do it the way you can, you’re deluding yourself. Your fear may instead be how to manage or coach that employee or contractor to do things differently or better. Be honest with yourself: if you’re feeling overwhelmed and have human resources you can delegate to, you must do it or suffer the consequences. If you need help with management skills, talk to your boss or board about courses you can take to help in overcoming this obstacle. No one – ever – rose to the top by doing it all themselves. They figured out how to get the help they need and you can do the same.
*Side note: there are times when our workload, or certain special projects, are so unique and early-stage that delegating feels onerous. I will cover handling that particular problem in a later post.
9. Consider Outside Resources
Everyone capable of helping you doesn’t work with or for you. The gig economy is here to stay – check out Fiverr or Upwork if you don’t know where to start. Call your local university or community college to see if there are students interested in your field, post your needs on LinkedIn, or ask your network to help you brainstorm.
10. Pick Your Do’s and Don’ts; Give People Permission To Stop Doing Things
Understanding opportunity cost is critical to understanding business. For everything that we say “yes” to, there are countless other things that we’ve said “no” to by default. The same goes for your team, so make sure that they are only working on high-priority tasks that track towards your strategic goal. If they have gotten into the habit of doing low priority tasks that are no longer mission-critical, give them permission to stop – immediately.
11. Say “No”
As women, we have been conditioned to believe that we are to be self-sacrificing nurturers of humanity; sometimes, this is appropriate and necessary. However, other times it is used as an excuse to assign us tasks that fall into the category of non-promotable work. When you have autonomy over your workload, saying no is always acceptable – always!
12. Communicate Early and Often
If you are feeling the pinch, speak up – right away. If you wait to share your discomfort with others, you may miss an opportunity to avoid errors and develop your team. Moreover, you will feel overloaded longer, which is not fun – for anyone!
Knowing how to ask for help in a way that a) gets you the assistance you need b) without leaving you feeling incompetent is critical to your advancement. I will cover this important topic in an upcoming blog post – don’t miss it!