what to do when you’re overworked

If it seems like you’re always stretched too thin and never have enough time to complete your work before three new projects are handed down to you – always with the instructions that they’re high-priority – you probably need to talk with your manager about your workload. But with more companies expecting people to do more with less, how can you talk about this in a way that your manager will listen to? Here are five steps to talking to your manager when your workload is overwhelming.

1. Don’t assume that your manager knows how high your workload is. Your manager can’t help you if she doesn’t realize that there’s a problem. A common mistake in this situation is to assume that your workload is so obviously high that there’s no way that your manager doesn’t know, and so therefore she must not care or can’t do anything about it. But in reality, you’re the person paying the most attention to your workload, not your manager – and she may assume that since you’re not speaking up, there isn’t a problem. So…

2. Talk to your manager about the situation. Pick a time when your manager isn’t rushed and ask to talk about your workload. Explain that it has become unmanageable and why (for instance, that you’ve taken on the responsibilities of someone who left without anything being removed from your plate, or that a particular account has doubled in size in the last year). Explaining what’s behind the workload increase can help because your manager may not be focused on the facts as you.

3. Suggest options. You’re most likely to get the help that you need if you come prepared to talk about options. For instance, you might 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 adviser to Jane on C, but I can’t do the work of C myself if I’m also doing A and B.”

4. Frame it as a matter of making the best choices. If your manager resists making these kinds of 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 your manager won’t help you prioritize, then come up with your own proposal for what you will and won’t prioritize and ask her to tweak it or okay it.

5. Enforce boundaries. To take on something new when your plate is already full, you need to either get rid of something else or at least push it back. So if a new project comes your way, go to your manager and ask about trade-offs: “If I work on this now, it means that X and Y will have to pushed back by a week. Is that OK to do, or should we put this new work on hold until X and Y are finished first?” Or, “I can do this new project and X, or this new project and Y, but not all three in the time frame we have.”

One important note: The above should work with a reasonable manager – and even with a somewhat reasonable manager. If you have a manager who listens to everything here and tells you to just find a way to get everything done, then you’re working for a bad manager (or alternately, you aren’t working as quickly as others in the position, in which case a good manager might push back). If that’s the case, you’ll need to be realistic about your circumstances and decide how you want to respond.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 22 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    What do you do if your manager is extremely metrics-focused and each year everyone’s goals are 10 – 25% higher than the year before, without fail, and everything is a ‘stretch’ goal (without input from staff)? How would you frame the conversation then?

    1. Anonymous

      25% higher??? I hate unrealistic goals. I find stuff like this really demotivating, if you’re the same maybe bring that up. If I have a realistic goal I’m probably going to meet/exceed it, but a stretch goal I’ll be like “nope, too hard, not bothering.”

    2. NylaW

      I sympathize with this and it can be a sticky situation because sometimes those goals are setup as an organization, which may mean there isn’t much your manager can do. I’m interested to hear AAM’s opinion on this as I’m faced with a similar situation for next year’s goals.

    3. Anonymous

      For me, the first thing I would figure out is how critical is this goal.
      There is job on the line critical.
      There is well try your best critical (wink-wink, we won’t say it but your job is on the line).
      And there is everyone has to have a goal assigned to them, do your best, that is all we ask.
      I find that most of the time it is one of the first two levels.

      Start finding a way to calculate out much is involved in reaching the new goal level.
      “One machine can output 4ooo units per day. If you need me to do 12000 units per day, I will need two more machines and X number of people to operate the machines.”
      OR
      “You want me to develop 25 new clients. Our industry standard is that it takes X hours on average to develop a new client. Meanwhile, maintaining current relationships requires Y hours per week. Keeping my licenses current is Z hours per year. Company training usually ties up two weeks of working hours.”
      And so on… show the total number of hours for what you are already doing.
      Another point to mention is that a person’s goal cannot grow indefinitely. At some point the goals have to stop increasing. What is the company’s ultimate goal for each individual? It’s a real morale killer every year to keep hearing “Ok you have to do X% more than last year”.
      One thing that I like to look at, because I am kind of amused by it is “Has the company geared up in preparation for everyone to actually meet their goals?”
      One company I worked for wanted to see X million dollars of merchandise over the holiday season. Everyone was pumped up, we did it. ALMOST. The company only ordered enough goods to make 75% of that goal.
      In a parallel setting, one manufacturing plant decided to double its outputs. Which happened. The was no place to put the larger amount of completed goods. There was no truck and no driver to handle the extra goods.
      Sometimes you can just look around and see the lack of preparation and say nothing. Other times you can speak up and say “If we increase X successfully, this company is going to need A, B and C.” To speak up or not is mostly a judgement call.

        1. Anonymous

          It’s across the board, and it’s because our manager is really, really ambitious. This year we’ll reach 600 new customers. OK, we killed ourselves to reach 514. Rather than sit down and discuss ‘okay, here were the issues that led us to not have the retention rates we needed, how to do rectify that’ etc., next year we will reach 800. And double our monthly programming offerings. And raise $100,000 more than last year, even if we don’t meet our goal this year. And have 8 meetings a week, etc. It’s all metrics, all the time. Any goal that is not measurable is discouraged – so my suggested goal of ‘hey, let’s build some relationships with third party stakeholders that might help us down the line if we want to expand’ was shot down because there were no measurable outcomes.

          It’s a terrible fit for me and I am looking to get out ASAP. After two years, I’m about to have a nervous breakdown.

  2. Jake

    #1 is the best advice I’ve seen on this subject. Most managers aren’t going to help unless asked because they either don’t know our don’t want to send the message that the employee isn’t doing good enough.

    My favorite post in a while.

  3. Wilton Businessman

    Maybe I’m different, but I like to have a pretty good feel for what my staff’s workload is. I work in a project oriented role, so I have a pretty good idea of how long each project will take and if they are struggling with a particular project. If things go over their allotted time, we (the employee and I) will discuss the bottlenecks and where we can improve next time.

    I don’t want my staff to be stressed about deadlines all the time, because when I have a tight deadline I want them to meet it. I want my staff to be 100% busy 90% of the time, and 110% busy 10% of the time.

    When we do have conflicts, we shuffle priorities.

    All that being said, sometimes I think I know your workload, but you also need to communicate with me. That may lead to unrealistic expectations on either my side or your side, but it needs to be out in the open.

    1. Jeremy

      On behalf of people who work for managers like you in project oriented roles… temper it back. That percentage breakdown of yours works out to being more than 100% busy 100% off the time. That will burn out your best workers, and kill the productivity of the rest.

      Downtime is OK. Build in slack to your projects, so that critical things aren’t being overlooked. Let your staff have time to look for better ways of doing things, rather than always operating at 100%+ just to keep their heads above water.

      Tight deadlines, if realistic, are fine. But if they are only achievable by redlining your team, then they are NOT realistic.

      1. Not So NewReader

        I agree. Sometimes I get ideas for working more efficiently and I need a half hour to reorganize what I am doing. Other times, a machine breaks/misbehaves and I can lose two hours figuring out what went wrong.
        I had one boss who expected you to hit the ground running when you came in to work. But at hour number 6 of the work day the pressure was off. I could do those repairs, or the reorganizing that I wanted to do. I could set up for the next day. I could also cover the many, many loose ends that were left because of working at 90 mph during the six hour period.
        Even doing this stuff, I was still running from one thing to the next but at least I knew it was a no fly zone, where the boss let me do what I needed to do to prevent a pressure cooker from developing.

        1. Katieinthemountains

          Yeah, I have one boss who says you shouldn’t plan more than six hours of an eight-hour workday because stuff comes up…and the other one refuses to prioritize. He just keeps repeating, “It all needs to get done” until I walk away and make my own decision, because I cannot simultaneously be doing fieldwork in separate counties (and fieldwork is limited by daylight, so I can’t stretch a workday indefinitely). When I am 100% busy, I wind up missing deadlines because things do come up that have to be handled on the spot, or several deliverables are due sooner than I can complete them all. I hate being bored at work, but if you’re always running at full capacity, then one extra task/sick day/etc. is an unhappy client waiting to happen.

  4. Not So NewReader

    What I hate is when a few more steps are added to processes on a regular basis.
    So filling out a form morphs from a four step process to a 12 step process, for example.
    It sounds stupid to tell the boss that 8 more steps is such a problem. But that is only one example and one form. Steps are added every day. The effect is cumulative. Fifteen minute tasks expand to fill thirty minutes because of all the added steps.
    The work load starts growing exponentially. The bosses cannot grasp why adding one more little thing is such a big deal. Stand alone, it’s not an issue. It’s the habit of adding one more little thing ten times a day times five days a week times 52 weeks a year that it becomes a problem.

    1. Anonymous

      This was my last job, and it drove me progressively insane.

      Boss: Do this 3 times daily, it should take X amount of time.
      Me: Sure!

      Boss: Now do it 3-5 times daily.
      Me: Okay, no problem!

      Boss: Why did you only do this 3 times on X day?
      Me: Well, I normally hit the top of the range but it’s still, you know, a range…
      Boss: Too bad, now we need it 4-8 times daily.
      Me: Okayyyy.

      Boss: So I see you did this 8 times yesterday, and that’s nice and all, but it displeases me anyway, so here’s an extra-restrictive guide to those 8 daily instances that will make your job impossible.
      Me: …I thought you said 4-8?
      Boss: I totally meant 8.
      Me: Okay, we talked about this task taking X amount of time, but–
      Boss: Don’t worry, if it takes less than X time, just do more work.
      Me: …yeah that’s not where I was going with that. Don’t mind me over here attempting to kill you with mind bullets.

  5. Jessa

    Also with the note about the worker that is not up to the same standard as someone else. First the manager needs to determine if the other worker is just super exceptional (or has a different mix of work so that they CAN meet that goal) or if the worker coming for help is actually normal and the goal is generally too high or the manager has given them way more tasks than on the on goal worker.

    Once that happens IF the goal is normal and the employee is slow/not meeting then boss should not be increasing that goal but figuring out how to FIRST get the employee up to the existing goal. Then they can increase the goal.

  6. anon. reader

    What do I do if I’ve spoken with my manager and my manager’s response is for me to work (unpaid) overtime? (I am an hourly non-exempt employee.)

  7. anon

    I wish it were this simple. I work in a matrix environment, meaning six different departments (and 12 different people) are constantly sending me new assignments to complete.Work can pile up very quickly, and no one knows how much stuff I have to do and they all expect me to respond quickly. It would be easier if I were working on big assignments, but I have one hundred plus small assignments in my queue at anytime. It’s harder to negotiate a bunch of smaller assignments than several large ones. Luckily, my boss is great at setting boundaries and will help advocate for me, but it’s still a challenge because when you’re so in the thick of it, you don’t even want to spend time having those conversations. And mentally, it can be hard to decide when to push back and when to just deal with it.

  8. Anon

    I think another good tactic with the “come up with options” point would be to figure out if there’s somebody that you think has the skills and time to maybe take on something that you’re not suited for or is taking up a lot of your time. For examples, if one of my managers has a ton of data entry for a project, it’s totally reasonable for her to “borrow” an admin (with the admin’s bosses permission, of course) for a couple of hours to knock it out. Along with not letting your manager know you’re overworked, overlooking opportunities to delegate can be a big mistake.

  9. Miranda Jane

    I’ve actually just been through all of these in the last month, and unfortunately the last stage happened on Friday, which was “Have a breakdown in the office and get most of your projects taken off you until further notice”. My managers were great at listening and reassuring, but not great at doing anything to start with – and now that it’s been done, I’m pretty nervous about what comes next, and feeling constantly as if I should be doing more since we’re so busy at the moment. I’m trying to make sure I don’t volunteer to do more than I can but it’s difficult to work it out with such a reduced workload – then I end up worrying about when I’ll be taking back more projects and struggling to do the work I have left.

  10. Mary

    I work with a boss that only wants the work done, I have asked for help repeatedly and was totally avoided. I am do the job of two people for five months now and am totally burnt out. In the private corp world, you can talk all you want, there is nowhere to make formal complaints about companies like this. So I am now on stress leave and looking for another job. Unless you work for a union or the local city,government jobs, you are used and abused and there is nothing you can do about it. I’ve worked for over 40 years and can’t believe they can get away with this.

  11. Manny

    I totally agreed with you Mary, as I have a PHD in business and have seen a lot of abuse towards employees by managers that are only worried about the numbers. They know there is another person around that they can give the speech to on what a good company they have, and many will fall for it, are totally dedicated to their position, and will also burn out. There should be a website for companies as those, where comments can be made by past employees, otherwise they will continue to operate in this manner. In Canada our labour laws allow this to happen as they are only there for discrimination situations.

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