help! my workload is too high and I’m burning out

A reader writes:

I work for a non-profit that is a bit understaffed, but the biggest problem is that the staff, as a whole, is under qualified. The director of the organization hasn’t been there long (18 months) and inherited this staff. They’ve been (in my opinion) extremely poorly managed, and many of them are under qualified for their jobs (again, in my non-HR but definitely managerial opinion).

I was one of my boss’ first hires. I had some inkling of the staffing issues at this place, but came anyway. It’s not uncommon to have crazy staff situations at small-to-mid-level non-profits, and I did have the impression that things were more solid than they ultimately were.

Now, after 9 months in my position, I am burning out. I am picking up lots of extra slack, and trying to manage people in roles they don’t belong in. I am being depended on for things that are well outside my scope of expertise and responsibility. My boss has come to heavily rely on me as a “second set of eyes” on projects that aren’t mine, simply because he trusts my judgment (No, he is not the best manager. Definitely a visionary, not a manager).

I am gaining weight. Working long hours. Resentful. My life is out of balance because of my trying to keep up with everything my boss asks. I am not happy and am already considering looking for another job, even though I really like my boss and want to see the organization ultimately succeed. How do I re-align things? I understand that the fact that things have gotten this far is my fault too. How do I un-do the damage?

P.S. After re-reading this, I realize I might come across as ungrateful, especially in the eyes of so many who would love a job, any job right now. I hope it doesn’t come across that way. I know how lucky I am to have a job. Truly, I am hoping to fix this situation so that I can be a happy and productive employee for a long time with this organization!

Have you talked to your manager about how you’re feeling? That’s the first step — you need to explain that your workload has become unmanageable, that your responsibilities have grown without anything being removed to make room, and that you want to talk with him about how to restructure what you’re doing so that the workload is more realistic and so that you don’t burn out.

So. Communicate. That’s the first step. No one can help you if they don’t even know there’s a problem.

Suggest some options. Say, “I can do A and B, but not C. Or if C is really important, I’d want to move A off my plate to make room for it. Alternately, I can act as an advisor to Jane on C, but I can’t do the work of C myself if I’m also doing A and B.”

If your manager resists making these kinds of choices and trade-offs, you need to keep pushing the issue. Say, “I hear you that we want it all to get done, but since I’m never going to be able to get to it all, I want to make strategic choices about how I should be structuring my time, and make sure that you and I are aligned on those choices.” If he still is no help (which might be the case; some people are bad at this kind of thing), then come up with your own proposal for what you intend to do and not do, and give him that.

From there, enforce some boundaries. When someone asks you to take on something new, don’t just add it to your plate without moving anything else. To take on something new, you need to either get rid of something else or at least push it back. Your time and energy are not infinite, and that reality needs to be built into the decisions you (and your manager) make.

Furthermore, you are doing your organization no favors by working yourself into the ground. At some point, the quality of your work will suffer, and you’ll also probably end up moving on sooner than you would have otherwise. A good organization wants awesome employees who produce at a high level, but because it wants them to be doing great work in a year too, it wants them to function in a sustainable way. What you’re doing won’t be sustainable.

Now, two caveats:

1. Someone is sure to claim that being candid like this will have dire consequences for you, that your manager will expect you to just suck it up and deal with it, etc., so I want to say preemptively that I don’t think that’s going to be the case. First of all, it sounds like you’re highly valued and that you and your manager have a great relationship. Second, it sounds like he’s perfectly happy to tolerate subpar performance from others, so he’s not likely to lay into you for saying you can only do 110% of the job rather than 150%. But hey, if he reacts badly, there’s your sign that you can happily drop your loyalty and start looking elsewhere.

2. I’m taking you at your word that the workload really is way too high. If, instead, the workload was ambitious but still achievable in a reasonable workweek by someone good, in that case, a good manager would push back. (Although even if that were the case, the answer wouldn’t be for you to make yourself sick trying to get it all done; rather, that would be a signal to conclude that you and the job weren’t well-matched.)

Finally, as a last point, I’m going to question whether you should really be so committed to staying. You say you’re working somewhere that’s poorly managed, with lots of under-qualified staff. These are not good things, and they’re especially troubling in the context of a nonprofit.

I’m about to get sanctimonious for a moment:  The work many nonprofits do is crucial, and what’s at stake is so much more important than some business’s bottom line. Because of that, nonprofits have a special obligation to be as effective as possible in pursuing their missions, which means that they need to be really committed to effective management … which includes getting rid of people who aren’t fantastic.  So I hope you’ll ask yourself some hard questions about whether this organization is living up to its obligations to its donors and the communities it serves.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    I read the title and checked my sent folder to see if I had somehow submitted this in my sleep. I talk in my sleep, is sleep emailing really such a stretch?

    And then I read the post and saw it was about a non-profit, and since I’m not nearly a good enough person to work for one I knew it wasn’t me. Whew.

    I have no advice for an attitude turnaround once the joy has kind of gone out of work due to burnout – and will be anxiously watching the comments as I need this, too – but I do have a tip for the conversation with your boss about workload and priorities:

    A numbered list. Don’t walk in without it. I keep mine in excel categorized by area of responsibility (in my case system admin, network issues, accounting, development, and dba issues, etc.). It is color coded to show that which is backlogged. There is another section for the scheduled routine tasks which are always current, but need to be taken into account.

    If you work fairly closely with your boss he knows you’re killing yourself to stay on top of things. Telling him you’re overloaded is one thing. Telling him you’re overloaded while handing him a spreadsheet with a breakdown of the 93 current tasks you’re trying to get to in addition to your routine duties is another thing altogether. Tell him that every person whose name is next to a task would consider it a high priority so hand him a highlighter and ask him for input into what your immediate focus should be.

    A good boss will use this to restructure some things to other personnel if applicable, discuss outsourcing certain projects when possible, etc…but most importantly he will take away from this that you are on top of what you need to do, but despite excellent time management skills there are only so many hours in a freaking week.

    I also found using the words, “I’m doing the best I can but I’m drowning” to be effective when said without complaint or emotion – just a statement of fact.

    I did this not too long ago and the result was he took a pen and scratched some stuff off my list to table it for next quarter, highlighted the projects we both felt were most crucial, and gave me authorization to farm out some smaller tasks to other departments who were less busy. All great, but the most helpful thing he did? All of those people who had items on the list which we decided weren’t priorities? He backed me up 100% on that and took the heat for the complaints.

    It helped a lot – mostly in bringing it to the table I realized that my feelings of incompetence and failure for not being able to tread water fast enough were in my head. The only one with doubts about my performance and value to the company was me – the powers that be knew that we were in the middle of a staffing restructure and no one expected me to take on the extra responsibilities without something having to give (temporarily). Hearing that made the difference – and getting people off my back was super.

    I keep my list updated and when the non-mission critical requests start coming in fast and furious I just print out a copy and tape it to the back of one of my monitors. Ostensibly it’s to show people where they are on the list – in reality it’s code for people to rethink how important something is and perhaps send me an email rather than demanding immediate attention.

    If the list is up I’m drowning. If there are no Hello Kitty toys on my monitor stands it means it’s a VERY bad idea to ask me to fix your home computer for free. These are my tells – that’s why I went into IT rather than professional poker – I’m way too easy to read.

    1. Charles*

      Second on that numbered list thing – it works well, I think, mainly because it is in WRITING!

      Also, I would like to go beyond what the OP asks for here and suggest that she talk to her boss to check in with a local college, especially the HR department or other such program, to see if they have a class that is looking for a group project – finding ways for a non-profit to improve.

      Perhaps, the class will help with some training or at least give the manager an outsider’s view of the ways things to be shaken up a bit. The class’s suggestions could also involved ways to improve managing, staff improvements, or even a re-organization. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things more clearly.

      This, of course, is a big step to take, it involves time and commitment (afterall, the project is suppose to be for the benefit of the class, not just the non-profit). But, such a project (usually lasting only one semester) can give everyone in the organization the idea that things need to change.

      I’ve been involved in such a project from both sides (as a class participant and as an employee of such an organization) and it can be quite helpful.

  2. Jamie*

    One other thing that stuck me about this situation is the percentage of under-qualified people you have working there.

    Alison already addressed the bigger ethical issues of non-profits operating so inefficiently – but from a regular business perspective my opinion is that tolerating incompetence or laziness is, without a doubt, the fastest way to breed resentment in your top performers. It is absolutely fatal to morale.

    There was a great article on BNet about this – and one exercise is to look at your staff as if they were all working on three month contracts. Who would you renew and who would you not want back? Get rid of the dead weight sooner rather than later.

    Another good article on the dead sea effect (why good people have higher turnover and your lesser performers stay at a company forever.)

  3. Anonymous*

    I love working in the non-profit industry, and I’ve run into similar situations, though luckily never as extreme. I find my biggest hurdle is the “we are too small for that” in regards to training, HR and the like. (Org will pay for individual classes – yay!) We are small, but transitioning to a medium size. It feels like the only way to move forward is for us to just work harder – and we are running into burnout issues. I hope we get to medium soon! We need some HR services or we will start to backslide.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I suspect what you need is less about HR and more about better management practices! When it comes to dealing with stuff like employee burnout, etc., you need good managers who get good management training … because an HR person can’t solve that kind of problem without manager buy-in anyway — unless their role is actually something like a COO rather than true HR.

      Generally speaking, I feel like orgs don’t usually have enough work for a full-time HR person until they have at least 75 employees … and probably closer to 100. (Although they do need someone who’s responsible for HR functions, of course, in addition to that person’s other responsibilities … although typically at this stage it would be along the lines of things like compliance, FMLA, benefits, and so forth, rather than a major emphasis on employee relations.)

      1. Anonymous*

        Due to our structure, no one has anyone to talk to regarding staff problems – it all has to go to the ED. Our ED is great, but does not have the time to address these issues; or it’s just that they cannot be on top of everything at once. It can be very frustrating, and very difficult for staff to address their concerns. That’s really what we all want – an intermediary, to handle leave questions, and address personnel issues without having to have all these conversations with the head honcho.

        Most likely our structure is at the root of it – we are all lateral to each other. This works fine with the right staff, but throw someone who needs more management in there and….

  4. Clobbered*

    I am trying to understand – are staff under-qualified 0r un-qualified?

    (pet peeve: I hate it when the former is used as a euphemism for the latter)

    An under-qualified person has a chance of learning on the job, so with suitable support it is only a short term problem. An unqualified person won’t, and they need to be replaced.

  5. GeekChic*

    Like Jamie, I also thought that I might have posted in my sleep – only I do work in the non-profit field (maybe I should check my sent folders again).

    I second everything that Jamie said and have a few additional comments (I’m currently in IT but have worked senior management in the past):

    – When I’m new at a job I spend some time talking about priorities and organizational hierarchy (including the hidden hierarchy) with my immediate supervisor.

    – As I get busy I frequently ask my supervisor to confirm whether my prioritization of tasks is correct (i.e. I do an initial sort and then let them correct me).

    – As time goes by and I understand the organization’s needs more clearly I switch to simply informing them of what I’m doing and when (this gives the opportunity for correction without requiring comment). I do this on a monthly basis when things are quasi-calm and weekly when things are insane (this is easy to update once set up).

    – If a new large task gets dropped in my lap I explain what will have to get pushed back (or go completely) to accommodate it according to my understanding of the organization’s priorities.

    – I am firm about not over-extending myself continuously at the cost of my health (anyone in IT has to work some overtime – but not all the time).

    After working with several organizations and a number of supervisors and senior managers I have found them to appreciate this approach and have never had any negative feedback. As a bonus, those with a tendency towards micro-management typically leave me be as I’m already providing much of the information they need.

    1. Jamie*

      This is the perfect structure of how to maintain – I agree with just informing them of what’s in the current pipeline and letting them add/correct or not, once you’re established.

      And transparency like you’ve described is exactly how you get micro managers off your back, if that’s an issue.

      My boss has no time to manage my schedule, nor does he need to; I did this once when due to a staffing shift there was an avalanche of work …it was to make a point and also drive home exactly how much I was juggling.

      I am sure all positions have their commonalities, but it’s kind of funny how often IT people tend to develop the same kind of coping mechanisms.

  6. Joey*

    These are the things that are supposed to come out in the interview, you know when it’s your turn to ask questions. Granted they usually try to paint it better than reality, but you should have at least had a clue that the problems were bigger than a little understaffing. Now if you did ask and they lied I say start looking. Otherwise, I think your biggest problem is you need to learn how to say no.

    1. Anonymous*

      I am interviewing replacements for my job right now and struggle with this. If I knew the details I would have never taken it. But, I’m being promoted and can’t leave until I replace myself. My boss paints a rosy picture and then sends them to me to interview. He says “occasional weekend” but I work every weekend without exception. He says “competitive rate after the contract period” but I know it’s well below market. He says “busy” but it’s the heaviest workload I’ve ever seen and not gonna get better.

  7. Mike C.*

    Looking at the last paragraph, there’s no reason to feel bad because others cannot find a job. A bad economy is no reason to put up with an inordinate amount of burnout or boreout (look it up, it’s just as bad as burnout!).

    What you’re going through is having serious effects on your life. You’ve mentioned your health, but I’m willing to bet that your relationships with family and friends are suffering as well, right? Perhaps you snap at them when you normally wouldn’t, or are simply too tired to spend as much time with them as you used to?

    1. Sibyl*

      Boredout! Brilliant! I looked it up, and it relates all too well to my workplace. Lots of walking dead (or walking bored) roam the halls or surf or try to invent meaningful projects while the overlords burn themselves out. Delegate. Trust people. Give them authority and access, or get them the hell out. Geez.

    2. KellyK*

      Absolutely. And it doesn’t sound like the bad economy is the cause of your issues. If anything, it might help them—there are probably lots of people more talented than your underperforming coworkers who’d be thrilled to replace them if they can’t improve.

      I also think that the fact that other people have it worse doesn’t mean that you have to “grin and bear” legitimate problems just because at least you have a job. Counting your blessings is great, but that doesn’t mean you have to minimize things or pretend everything is awesome.

  8. Esra*

    which includes getting rid of people who aren’t fantastic.

    I started at a non-profit a while ago and this is such a problem. I came from a big corporation to a small non-profit (50k employees to under 50 employees), and there a couple people there who just absolutely cannot handle their jobs. But there is this whole: “So and so is our friend, so and so is part of the family. Heavens no, we can’t fire so and so! Or even let them know anything is wrong.”

    It’s a crap situation, not just for the rest of us who have to work with these people, but for them as well. One of them perpetually wonders why he is so underpaid and hasn’t had a raise in forever. He doesn’t know he’s underperforming in his role because the management isn’t letting him know. It’s not fair to him or the rest of us. He was trying to negotiate a raise and asked me what friends I knew in the industry were making. I kind of brushed it off, hard to nicely say “They are making X, but they, uh… are really good.”

    1. Mike C.*

      That’s really the worst situation. If you don’t set clear and high expectations for folks, you won’t get good work out of them, they’ll never develop and everyone’s time and money is wasted.

      1. Mike C.*

        Also, why in the heck didn’t you let him know when asked? Set him aside and say, “look, your manager doesn’t have the guts to tell you so I’m going to instead. I think you’re a great person and this is for your own good. Do this, and you’ll have a better chance at a raise”.

        Eye opening? Yes. But in the end, they’ll be grateful to you.

        1. Esra*

          I had only been there a couple months at the time, and he’s been there longer than anyone else on my team, including our mutual manager and director.

          I didn’t feel comfortable being that blunt, especially while I was on probation. I would have to know someone pretty well before I could give that kind of feedback.

  9. Mike*

    I offer a simple question, do you find that the job consumes you or do you consume the job?” It is a trick question. when you are excited and energized even when there is stress and you are attacking the job…you are consuming the job. When the job gets you down and the stress affects attitude your attitude, health, relationships, etc. you must make a change. Whatever it takes, you owe it to yourself and not to the job.

    1. Anonymous*

      Mike, that’s good advice, but most people know they need to make a change. They just don’t know which change might be most effective. Or they are listless from the stress. Or both.

      I suppose I am sensitive about this. I once did the job of four people. When I quit, yep, they replaced me with four people. A year earlier, my boss had told me to “make a change, whatever it takes”, and “work smarter, not harder”. So I did, by finding a new job. Who’s smarter now? :)

  10. Mike*

    You are right “listless” (lack of inertia). It beats you down but nothing helps more than taking some action…any action to get in a better place. Take a class to improve “hire-ability-skills”, consult with a mentor, get job counseling, set a goal. skilled, dedicated people need to get positive.

  11. Anonymous*

    What about the manager that “listens” but doesn’t act? Many of us at my company are overworked and simply burnt out. One example is this: a coworker is working on many major projects with tight deadlines, and he recently raised it with his (our) manager. The manager simply said “I adjusted your priorities and work on project X.” Pretty much blowing off my coworker’s complaints temporarily. He’s done it for me in the past, asking me exactly what I’m working on and what is actually taking up my time every day. I pointed him to our “task list” where I had at least double the amount of tasks out of anyone in the team. His response: “Work on X.”

    Any advice? :(

  12. Mike*

    It is within the purview of the manager to set the Priorities. If he/she ways work on X (from your list) that doesn’t make the other items go away but gives you some direction. The problem comes when that manager, who said work on X, comes back and says where is “Y & Z”. In this case you were set up by a bad manager.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      Mike, this is what I’ve learned over the years: After a manager tells you to “work on X”, you send an email saying “just to confirm, you directed me on (date) to make Project X my priority and work on that.”

      It may not help you when you’re criticized for not getting Projects Y an Z done, but you do have something to show the manager (and possibly your director if it goes up the ladder) that said your priority was Project X. Sometimes, they learn.

    2. Anonymous*

      The problem with my boss, is that whenever we get a new task, everything is “high priority” unless no one is specifically asking for progress on it. If we have 3 big items to work on, per person, and we asked for direction in a way that is non-confrontational, like “I know we have a lot of high priority items to work on, but what is the order of them?” our manager responds “well work on them all at the same time” and doesn’t budge. He is definitely the type of manager to ask why “Y & Z” weren’t done when pushing us to work on “X, Y & Z” at the same time, but mostly pushing for “X” — it’s insane. I doubt there is anything we can do. It doesn’t help that this manager is 2000 miles away daily, and comes in to visit once every year or two.

  13. Mike*

    this is a tough situation. Perhaps you could consider a “Progress Report” of sorts where you show progress on each Project and the amount of time logged by you and your team on each assignment during the week. Once you have documented the work effort it somewhat puts the monkey back on the managers back,

    1. Anonymous*

      Yep we have twice weekly status updates. I do quantify my hours but we do have a major slacker here who extremely overestimates (I’ve had many complaints about this coworker to this same manager, who constantly defends the slacking coworker who is allowed to take approximately 10-15% of workload compared to the two other people here who take on the other 85-90%). It works for that one status update, then back to normal the next. He’ll say “Oh, okay… I know you’re working hard on X but I need you to make some progress on Y and Z” then move on. We’ve consistently raised concerns with our workload and have had it pushed back to us.

      Not sure if there’s anything we can do, realistically.

  14. Anonymous*

    Also be aware that things work out the way they should. Call it karma, call it fate, whatever.

    I recently had a similar situation to yours at a job that I had been at for the better part of a decade. When I got a new boss, I told him that I was burning out and overworked after many years of continuously taking on more responsibility and even wrote up a plan of how to fix the issues. We met several times but he never gave me approval to proceed with the plan. A couple of months later, I had a “sit down” with HR where they told me I was not being effective – I explained the history of the issue, and they basically offered me a demotion.

    This was what I was looking for to push me out. I took it as a sign and left. I had a new job before I finished working out my notice.

    I want to be clear that I know it’s hard to find work for a lot of people these days, especially in certain industries, and I do feel for you, but my industry is still booming, so I took a gamble and won – because I felt like the universe was trying to tell me something.

  15. Nathan*

    Hi there,

    I have only been in my new position for 4 months. I have already started to regret my decision in coming to the non profit as a Database and IT Manager.

    I have spoken several times that I am not coping with the quantity of work. I feeling anxious every time I come into work and I feel no one actually pulls there wait because some seem to be able to play on their phones or actually have a lunch break. I have improved some of the processes to speed up tasks with no lose of accuracy, we have employed a part time staff member but I am still struggling.

    I get into work at 7 am, leaving home usually about 6 am or just before. My starting hours is contracted at 8:30 am. I have only had about 20% of my actual lunch breaks in the day and in some cases I am the last to leave at 7 pm.

    Then 2 days ago I literally expressed my frustrations and anxiety but then was told to keep talking to him apparently as the last 2 people in my position “imploded” that was my actual managers quote.

    I have even started to look at other posts but feel hesitant to do as I don’t want my CV to show a short stay at an organisation, so I feel like I am stuck.

    Kind Regards,


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