This article was originally published by Fashion Journal.
September 5, 2022
How to tell your boss you’re overloaded
If you’re struggling, it’s always better to speak up than to suffer in silence.
In the last two years, the traditional working model has been disrupted. Remote working has been embraced and has become an undisputed success. But as the boundaries between office and home merge, logging on after hours for ‘one more email’ can start to add up.
Saying yes to that extra project in the hopes of a promotion or working late for those extra brownie points may seem productive, but it can lead to work overload. Working a 60-hour work week isn’t a prerequisite for work overload.
People have different work thresholds, so assessing your capacity and adjusting it accordingly is important. This doesn’t mean Googling ‘ways to be more productive’ or sacrificing your lunch breaks – instead, it requires you to address the issue at the source by approaching your boss.
We’re often wary about asking for help for fear of being labelled as lazy or unproductive. But if you’re struggling, it’s always better to speak up than to suffer in silence. Communicating your boundaries with your boss will help to avoid that sweat-inducing panic you feel as you feverishly work your way through your tasks, terrified you won’t complete them in time. I spoke with organisational psychologist Michelle Pizer about how to identify if you’re being overloaded and what to do about it.
Overload vs burnout
“Burnout has three components. One is exhaustion, where you feel constantly fatigued and lack productivity in your performance. The other is when you’re cynical, and you identify less with your job to the point where you might even start to hate it. Feeling ambivalent and lacking motivation is a big sign of burnout. And the last sign is when you start to question yourself; your performance might drop and you feel less confident in your abilities,” Michelle tells me.
These signs of burnout can go hand in hand with overload. When you’re burnt out it can be due to work overload and when you’re overloaded it can make you burn out. This is why it’s so important to identify the warning signs.
“Overload can manifest itself in multiple ways. Whether it’s working ridiculous hours so you’re not getting your weekends or cancelling engagements to get work done. [You might be] sacrificing other aspects of your life like cleaning your house or exercising and eating well. If you’re not sleeping well and things start to slip so you can get work done, these are all things that can indicate you’re overloaded,” she explains.
What is work overload?
Work overload can fall under the categories of qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative overload can occur when you feel you lack the skills to effectively complete your tasks. There’s nothing worse than being assigned work you don’t feel confident in, whether it be because you’re unfamiliar with certain software or are just unsure about a new.
As you can’t be knowledgeable in every area, there are bound to be times when you don’t know how to do something. The key difference between this and overload is that overload occurs when you’re constantly being given work that doesn’t match your skill set.
Quantitative workload is something I’m sure everyone has experienced. This is when your workload goes beyond the amount of time you have to complete it. If you’ve been in a position where the hours seem to tick by faster than your ability to complete work, there’s a chance you may have been overloaded.
When should you approach your boss?
It’s one thing to be able to identify that you’re overloaded but being able to voice your feelings to your employer is another. According to Michelle, there are a few questions you should ask yourself before approaching your boss.
“I think there’s a tendency for us to think, ‘There’s something wrong with me, I should be able to do this’. In times like this, it’s worth asking yourself if you need to upskill or if this is a problem you can solve individually. You should also consider if you are doing work that is a priority for your organisation or if you may be doing tasks that are wasting time. Once you’ve been able to answer these questions and identify that you are overloaded then it’s time to approach your boss.”
How should you approach your boss?
“The first thing I would do before going to talk to my boss would be to make a clear list of all my tasks and how I’m helping achieve goals for the organisation. This is a great way to highlight how you are an important part of the company. Then I would ask to set aside time to speak with them formally. Doing this means your discussion will be treated seriously rather than having a casual chat where nothing changes,” she tells me.
“Framing your discussion with the aid of your task list, you can start with, ‘I’d like some help with prioritising my tasks so I know I’m completing the most important ones’. You should also be clear with your boundaries. If you’re asked to take on another task, follow your acceptance with a question like ‘Which of my tasks can I remove?’. This ensures you don’t agree to take on something you can’t complete and avoids [you] being trapped in the overload cycle.”
Michelle tells me another approach is to see if there’s anyone on your team who can help out with any of the tasks on your list. This might not be an option for you, and if this is the case, you need to come up with alternative ways your company can help you manage your workload.
“Although not every work environment has this option, the most important thing is outlining what you need. Perhaps you would like a holiday to alleviate stress or you can only work certain hours. Having a clear idea of your goal before you start your discussion will give it more direction and a better chance of getting what you want,” she says.
And what should you do if you’re faced with a boss who fails to acknowledge the impact your workload is having on you?
“If you were to approach your boss and they’re unwilling to help or meet your requests, that’s when I would escalate my language with something like ‘If nothing changes, I’m going to become burnt out and my productivity is going to be impacted’. It would be preferable to sort it out with your boss, but the next step would be approaching your human resources department.”
If communicating in a clear, assertive manner doesn’t help or change things, you have to ask yourself is it worth it? Is my job worth sacrificing my well-being for? If you’re grappling with that, I’ll help you out – no, it’s not worth it. It’s always been my motto that I work to live, not live to work, so if I become overloaded, you best believe I’ll be approaching my boss.