transcript of “I’m Drowning in Too Much Work”

Alison: Hi, and welcome to the show! Today I’m going to answer a bunch of shorter questions from people. The first question today is from someone who’s dealing with a problem that I get a lotof questions about – what to do when your workload is just way too high.

Caller 1: I started a new job in November last year, and was told this position had a lot of growth potential. And overall that’s been really true — we’re expanding into previously unentered markets, we’ve doubled last year’s revenue in the last month, we won an additional half million grant, and we tripled our donations. I’ve already been put through for a promotion, and that’s great and they love me. And to top it all off, the people are great and so is our mission.

But here’s the problem. Everyone is chronically overworked. I’ve been told “this isn’t normal” at least 15 times at this point, but I’m honestly starting to feel like this is the new normal. I’ve been working 70 hour weeks, and finally saw the light at the the of the tunnel when I asked for help and they took something off my plate. That is, until yesterday, when our leadership decided we would start another international program next month. 

I’ve already passed along some of my work on to my other swamped colleagues. This program  requires work sessions once a week after normal business hours for seven weeks straight. This could be a huge career step for me, but also could be the straw that breaks my back (and everyone else’s while we’re at it). 

What’s the best way to deal with an office that’s growing too fast and maybe more importantly, how do I survive and keep my personal life? Thank you so much for answering my question.

Alison: Yeah, if you’ve been told “this isn’t normal” for almost a year …, it IS normal. Even if it didn’t used to be normal, they’re going to have to face the reality that it has become normal now.

It’s one thing to pitch in and work longer hours in a temporary pinch, but when it’s been going on that long, it requires a different approach.

So, how is your relationship with your manager? Because the best thing that you can do when you’re chronically overworked is to sit down with your boss and really illustrate for her exactly what’s on your plate and how long it all takes. Your manager might know that you’re doing a lot and working long hours, but still not quite get the specifics of just how bad it is. And also what I’ve noticed is that people’s tendency in this situation is to feel like, “Well, my boss must know how busy I am, and since she still keeps piling work on me, she must think it’s reasonable and I guess I’m just supposed to find a way to get it all done.” But on the manager’s side, a lot of the time the manager really doesn’t realize exactly how bad it’s gotten, and definitely doesn’t realize that it’s become a problem for you. On the manager’s side, it’s really easy to assume that everything must be fine if you’re not speaking up and saying otherwise. And to be clear, that’s not ideal – ideally managers would be proactively checking in with people to see if everything is really fine. But in reality, a lot of otherwise decent managers tend to just assume things are fine if you don’t tell them otherwise.

So, sit down and talk with your manager. Pick a time when she’s not rushed and explain that you’ve been working 70-hour weeks and it’s not sustainable because you don’t want to burn out. Say that you started working those hours when you thought it would just be temporary, but it’s been going for close to a year at this point and that you need to take a fresh look at your workload and figure out a different approach, and that this isn’t just about moving one thing off your plate or a few small things, you really need a different in a larger way.

Be really explicit if you need to about the things on your plate that take up the most time, and how long they take. Sometimes your manager really might not know that something takes hours rather than a shorter timer. She might be assuming it’s quicker than it really is. So make sure you’re not assuming what she knows what you know – spell it out.

And then suggest options – for example, you might say, “Well, I can do A and B, but not C. Or if C is really important, I’d want to move A off of my plate to make room for it. Or, I can act as an adviser to someone else on C, but I can’t do C myself if I’m also doing A and B.”

Another way to approach that can be really effective it is to decide how many hours a week is reasonable for you to be working. It sounds like in your field it might not be 40, but maybe it’s 45 – whatever it is, write down what that would look like. Let’s say you decide yes, you’ll work 45 hours a week, that’s what’s sustainable for you. Write down everything you’ll be able to do in that amount of time – and then make a list of all the things that won’t be getting done under that plan. And that doesn’t mean that every week you’re going to be really rigid about working 45 and you’ll never go over it, but you want it to represent what you’ll be doing in an average week. And bring that to this meeting and show it to your boss. That’s a really good way of illustrating in very stark terms how out of control your workload has gotten, and what would actually be reasonable, and what the difference is between those two things.

The outcome you want here is for you and your boss to get you close to that 45 hours. That might mean that jointly deciding that some things aren’t going to get done at all – literally canceling projects, or back-burnering them. Or she might move some of your stuff to someone else, although it doesn’t sound like there’s a someone else to give it to. Maybe she needs to bring in a temp, or make a case for a new hire, or who knows – but the point is that the solution can’t be that you just do it all, when “all” is the equivalent of nearly two full-time jobs. That’s not reasonable. Sometimes organizations, especially nonprofits, and since you mentioned donations and grants I’m betting that you’re a nonprofit organization, sometimes it’s really easy in that context to feel like every time we think of a good idea we’re just going to find a way to do it, but there’s a point where that’s not realistic and where you will start giving short shrift to other things and doing things poorly and burning out your staff, which will lead to very high turnover. It’s not a sustainable way to operate. You can get away with it for a few months, but you can’t really get away with it for longer term than that. And so you might need to be the one who really points out what your workload looks like.

Now, if your manager is resistant to doing this, then you want to say something like this:  “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 what those choices are.” Because that’s true – something is going to fall through the cracks when your workload is this high, and it’s much better to choose those things deliberately rather than have them chosen by default when you just end up forgetting something or just can’t get to something for lack of time.

If your manager won’t help you prioritize, then I would come up with your own proposal for what you will and won’t prioritize and ask her to tweak it or okay it.

And then, after this conversation, you’re going to have to be vigilant about enforcing boundaries. If you’re asked to take on something new, you’re going to either need to get rid of something or push something else way back. So if a new project comes your way, you’d want to go to your boss and ask about trade-offs. Say something like, “If I work on this now, it means that A and B will have to pushed back by at least a few months. Is that OK to do, or should we put this new work on hold until A and B are finished first?” Or it might something like, “I can do this new project and A, or this new project and B, but not all three in the time frame we have.”

Last, and this is really important: This approach will work with a reasonable manager, one who’s able to look at the reality of the situation when you lay it out this clearly and proceed accordingly. But not every manager is a good manager, so if yours won’t help and just tells you to get it all done, then in that case you need to be realistic with yourself that this isn’t likely to change at this organization, and you’d have to decide if you’re still interested in staying, knowing that. But having this very explicit conversation is the first step.

Okay, here’s the next question.

Caller 2: I’m wondering if after 18 years in hiring and training people, if they are promoted past you, and you have more education and experience, what does that mean when it happens 7 times?

Alison: Oooof. That probably means that you’re never going to be promoted at that particular organization, I’m sorry to say. You’ve been there 18 years, you’ve been passed over seven times. For whatever reason, they’re not showing signs that you’re going to move up there. I’m not sure if you’re gotten feedback about why might be, but if you haven’t talked to your boss about it, I would do that. Say that you’re interested in moving up, have been passed over multiple times, and you’re wondering what you need to do to be promoted in the future. There might be specific things that you do need to work on, and if your manager is a decent manager, she’ll tell you what those things are. You could also try asking for feedback from the managers of the positions that you’ve applied to and not gotten. But unless you hear very specific feedback about what’s going on and what they need to see you do differently, I would assume that for whatever reason it’s just not to happen there, and that if you do want a higher-level job, you’ll have to look outside your organization in order to get it.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing to do after 18 years anyway – you might find that there’s something out there that suits you much better, who knows. But I would take a look around and see what your options might be because it sounds like you have goals in this company that they’re not especially amenable to meeting. So look around, see what you can find. Good luck!

This next question is from someone who’s lost a bunch of weight and is noticing a strange reaction at work.

Caller 3: I weighed almost 300 pounds when I started with my current employer. I have managed to “slim down” to 225. I also have the goal of losing about 50 more.  I am proud of the my weight loss, but it’s created a really strange dynamic at work.

Ever since the weight loss got noticeable, around the first 25 pounds, along with the compliments came strange behavior changes from my coworkers.  I am suddenly not being invited to lunch with coworkers and when we have snacks or meals at team meetings someone will always bring up not wanting to “wreck my diet.” I have never thought of myself as a diet and have repeatedly told this to my coworkers. I am trying to beat obesity, not fit into an old pair of jeans. I’ve never demanded any behavior changes from my coworkers with food and I feel that it’s my problem to get over the historically bad relationship I’ve had with food.

While the perception that I am on some kind of diet irritates me, I am actually more concerned about the fact that the weight loss seems to be becoming my defining characteristic. For example, I had a new manager start last week and I was introduced to her by a teammate who said, “Hey, he’s lost 75 pounds over the last year.” I was really taken aback by this. I would really prefer that my new boss get to know me as the person who found a way to cut $10,000 a month in administrative costs last year and not feel like I am being judged on my body.

I am a man who works in a female dominated profession, so I am wondering if this is just a difference in male to female work behaviors that I’m just noticing for the first time or if this is something that I should be worrying about.

Alison: I don’t know that it’s gender-based, it might be, but people in general can be really weird about weight loss. And about weight and diets in general, for that matter.

I do wonder if any of the coworkers who are leaving you out of lunch are struggling with weight themselves. This is just one possibility of several, but sometimes people who are having their own struggles can react strangely when someone else successfully does the thing that they’re struggling with. Or, they might have the idea that they’re not supposed to “tempt” you, even though you’ve never asked them to make that their business.

I’m curious to know what your relationship is like with these coworkers. Assuming it’s pretty good aside from this issue, I’d be very straightforward with them about this – more straightforward than you probably assumed you would need to be. When you hear people talking about going to lunch and they’re people you used to eat with, I would try just inviting yourself. Speak up and say, “Hey, are you going to the taco place? I’d love to come with you.” You might need to make a point a few times of demonstrating to them that you do still indeed want to go to lunch. Obviously be thoughtful about how you do this, and be attuned to cues that it’s okay to invite yourself along. But if that’s the way lunch works in your office, like in many offices where is it okay to just tag along, just be a little extra assertive about it –and say “hey, I’d love to come.”

And for meeting where there will be food and someone talks about not wanting to wreck your diet, speak up there too. You can say, “Hey, I’m good with whatever you want to order” or “Don’t worry about me, in fact I’ll probably have a little of that” or, if it seems needed, an even more direct “Hey, there’s no reason for us to do anything differently than we’ve ever done. Please don’t worry about my diet – just proceed the way you normally would!”

And in fact, if there’s one person who usually does the food ordering, I’d go talk to that person directly and say, “I’ve noticed that people seem to be trying to plan around what I eat, and I really don’t want that. I’ve got it under control, and while I appreciate people trying to be thoughtful, I’d actually really prefer that you just order whatever you’d normally order and not do anything special around me.” Depending on how comfortable you are with that person, you could also add something like, “You know, to be honest, it makes me feel a little awkward when people make a point of discussing what I eat – so the more you keep that out of it, the happier I’ll be!”

But there’s also this broader issue that you mentioned, the way that your weight loss seems to have become your defining characteristic, like even the way you’re being introduced to a new manager! I don’t blame you for not wanting that – I mean, that’s legitimately weird. You want to be known for what you bring to the table professionally. I do think people are fascinated by major weight loss – in part it’s really impressive and you don’t see it a lot – but you’re absolutely on solid ground if you want to ask people to stop doing that. If there are a few people who do it the most, which tends to be the case with this kind of thing, I’d start with them. You could say something like, “Hey, I appreciate that you’re supportive of my weight loss. I’m sure you haven’t thought of this, but I’d rather it not become my defining characteristic at work! When people think of me, I want them to think of me and my work – not my weight.”

You might have to remind people a few times, but if you’re working with reasonably considerate people – really, unless you’re working with jerks – being direct and straightforward with people about what you would  prefer should work, even though it may take a few tries.

Okay, here’s our next letter.

Caller 4: I’m a recent college grad at my first big job. The problem is that I have developed uncontrollable work anxiety. The biggest issue I have is how people can be publicly humiliated when they make a mistake – and mistakes happen. My manager started yelling about something I made a mistake on in front of the entire department – so embarrassing, especially since I asked a different manager for help on the project and I thought it was good to go. I anonymously sent HR a message about this situation and the managers treated mistakes differently to some extent afterwards, but I have not recovered. I’m terrified of making another mistake like that. I wake up at 3 am and have panic attacks at work regularly. I’m not the only one either. Many coworkers say they experience this as well and in my short time here, about15 out of the 30 something people I work with have quit.

How do we deal with this high stress environment? How can I leave work at work and be more present at home?

Alison: Oh my gosh, you’ve developed bad work anxiety because you’re in a really bad work environment! I want to be really clear about this because it’s your first job and you might be thinking that well, this must just be how work is – but this is not normal! It’s not normal or okay to publicly humiliate people or to yell at them. People make mistakes at work – I mean, we’re human and humans aren’t perfect. Good managers – even halfway good managers – don’t yell and humiliate people. they might need to correct you, yes, but it should be more like coaching, definitely not like humiliating you.

You’re in a very dysfunctional environment, and you’re having a very reasonable reaction to that environment! Of course you’re stressed out and waking up at 3 am because this is awful. This is a problem with them, not with you. And if you need proof of that, I would say look at all those people who are quitting. You’re not in a normal workplace and it is not normally to lose half of your workforce so quickly. There’s a reason that’s happening.

I’m stressing this so much because when you’re at the start of your career, it can be really hard to know what is and isn’t normal – and sometimes people early in their career end up putting up with pretty bad behavior, because they don’t know how not okay it is. In fact, I’m always a little bit suspicious when I see organizations that seem to only hire 20somethings – sometimes it’s because most of the jobs there are legitimately early-career jobs, but often it’s because on some level, they know that more experienced people won’t put up with the abusive or unprofessional way they operate. It’s pretty infuriating, because they’re taking advantage of people’s inexperience.

So I want to make sure you hear loud and clear that this is not normal, it’s not okay. I don’t think your goal should be to find a way to be okay with it. I think your goal should be to get out of there and into a healthier work environment.

But for however long you do have to stay there before you can do that before you can do that, try to emotionally distance yourself from your job as much as you can. Keep reminding yourself that this isn’t normal, the problem is with them, and that you’re going to escape as soon as you can. And I hope you’ll call back in in in like a year and tell me that you’ve landed somewhere much better!

The next question is on a topic that I hear about a lot – coworkers who are making annoying noise.

Caller 5: Hi Alison, I just started listening to your podcast and I’m really loving it, and I have a problem that I thought maybe you can help me out with. My coworker, who sits directly across from me, we’ve not gotten along well since I startedsince I started a little over a year ago. She seems to always be a little moody and unhappy, and I don’t want to step on her toes at all, but she’s been humming a lot recently and pretty loudly. The way our office is set up, I’m the only one that can really can hear this. It’s gotten to the point where it’s distracting from my work. I don’t want to be rude and ask her to stop doing it, but also I’ve been blasting my music and podcasts blasting in my earphones so loudly just to drown it out. I was hoping you could recommend a nice way of connecting with her and asking her to stop or just minimize the sound or frequency with which she does it. We work in a very corporate and traditional environment. I don’t think I’d be comfortable bringing it up with my manager. I don’t want to offend her or make her unhappy , but it is to a point where it’s been impacting my everyday work.

Alison: This is definitely made harder by the fact that you don’t get along very well. If you did, you could just be really straightforward and say, “Hey, I’m sure you don’t realize this, but for some reason I find it really distracting when you hum. Could I ask you to cut it out?” And in most cases, it would be totally fine.

But it’s trickier when the relationship is already tense, and when you can see that the person is, as you described her, moody and unhappy. There is definitely a type of person who is unreasonable and will take a request like this as a personal affront. They shouldn’t, of course, it’s a perfectly reasonable ask – but I’m worried that they way you’ve described things, she might. So I think you’ve got to decide if you’re willing to risk that or not. Maybe I’m wrong and reading too much into but a lot of the details you put in there make me think this is not going to be as straightforward as it normally would be.

One thing you could try – and it’s manipulative, but it might help – is to see if you can first spend a couple of weeks trying to improve things between the two of you. Go out of your way to be nice to her, if you’re getting up to get yourself coffee or water, ask if  you can get her something. Compliment her on her shoes or something she’s wearing, if you can do it sincerely. Just put some effort in generating warmer feelings between the two of you. That might build a better foundation so that you can then make the request and she’ll have some good will built up.

I want to be really clear, I don’t mean to imply that you should have to do all of this work just in order to say “hey, can you stop humming?” But the reality is that with the dynamic you’ve described, it really might help you get better results. But I know it seems like a lot to have to do first. It isa lot to do and it’s silly that you’d have to. But if your gut is telling you that she’s not likely to react well – and my sense from the language in your letter is that that IS your sense – then that could help.

As for what to say when you do finally say something, one trick that I like is to make it about you, not about her. So you’re not conveying, “hey, you’re doing this rude and inconsiderate thing, cut it out.” Instead, you’re saying, “I have a weird thing about not being able to focus when someone’s humming.” It’s about you! You’re asking her to help you out with your weird quirk. Which is not a weird quirk, by the way, but we’re going to frame it that way for the purpose of navigating this as smoothly as possible.

So you could say something like: “I’m so sorry to ask this – I have a weird thing that makes it hard for me to concentrate when someone is humming, and I’m having trouble focusing when you do it. I’m sorry to ask, but could you try not to hum when we’re working?”

If you really want to fluff it up, you could even say, “It’s actually sounds very pretty and I wish it didn’t distract me” – you know, compliment her. Butter her up if you must.

Will it work? Who knows. It should work, it would work with a reasonable person. But with a reasonable person, you wouldn’t be having to stress about this at all or manage it so carefully. But that’s what I’d try and see if it works. And I will say, it’s very unusual for me to give this kind of advice because normally I’m a big fan of “just say the thing, it’s not going to be a big deal.” But I think in this case, you might need to finesse it a little more.

Okay, one more letter.

Caller 6: I work for a company that is a large conglomerate. They have a really big national presence. And during peak season, which is mostly September and October, we can get really busy and my boss has decided recently that they would like to hire a temp agency to help us to relieve some of that stress, but I know from past experience that the temp agency employees make about $4 more an hour than I do. Last season, I told them that I would not work for the company if this was something that was a repeat issue. And now I’m finding myself in the same circumstance. I’m just wondering if there’s any wiggle room for me, if there’s anything you can suggest that could help me negotiate the situation, or help my manager and my boss see a little bit more clearly where I’m coming from. I could really use some assistance.

Alison: So, it’s actually very normal for temps to get paid more than regular employees. That’s because they’re not permanent employees, so they’re not getting all of the benefits that you’re getting – paid vacation and sick time, health insurance, whatever else you get. In the U.S., the average cost of benefits to your employer is about 30% of your pay, so it’s significant!

Plus, temps don’t have the stability that you get – part of what they’re being paid for is that they are temporary and they can be dismissed at any time, without any warning or any severance or anything like that. Your employer could call up the temp agency today and say “you know what, don’t send anyone tomorrow” and that would be that.

So it’s very, very normal for temps to earn more than regular employees for those reasons. So this isn’t something to be insulted or offended or pissed off over. It would actually be pretty surprising if your temps weren’t getting paid more than you.

Now, if you feel like you’re not being paid fairly or being paid market rate for the work that you do, you absolutely can and should ask for a raise based on that and based on the contributions that you make. But I wouldn’t bring the temps into it, because that won’t be a strong argument and will undercut any other points you have. I hope that helps!

That’s our show for today! If you would like to hear your question answered on a future episode, you can record it on the show voicemail by calling(855) 426-WORK. That’s 855-426-9675. Or, if you have a longer question where you would want to actually come on the show and talk with me, email it to

I’ll be back next time with more questions.