Feeling overwhelmed at work? Here’s what to do.

Zdjęcie współautora – Caeleigh MacNeilCaeleigh MacNeil26 kwietnia 202210 min czytania
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Summary

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, you’re not alone. But while it’s tempting to just push through and get things done, that can lead to burnout and impact your work long-term. In this article, we show how to step back and acknowledge your feelings—so you can take action and address the underlying reasons that are causing you to feel overwhelmed.

Everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes. Work today can be hectic and intense, with tight deadlines, meetings, and notifications coming at you from every angle. With all that noise it’s hard to focus and get things done—especially when you’re also dealing with stress about your workload. 

But work doesn’t have to feel out of control. If you’re struggling to keep up, there are concrete steps you can take to feel better and improve your work balance. 

What does it mean to feel overwhelmed at work?

Feeling overwhelmed at work is a sense of anxiety due to the amount or difficulty of the work you’re assigned. When you’re overwhelmed, you often feel like you can’t keep up with your workload—or like you don’t have the skills or support you need to do a good job. 

If you feel overwhelmed at work, you’re not alone. Research shows that 80% of global knowledge workers report feeling overworked and close to burnout, while 62% feel imposter syndrome—a sense of self-doubt related to work accomplishments. That means the majority of workers feel like they have too much on their plates and that they aren't performing well enough. In other words, they feel overwhelmed. 

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Common causes of feeling overwhelmed at work

If you feel overwhelmed at work, there’s a reason why. Here are some common causes for this type of work stress: 

  • Having too much to do and not enough time.

  • Having too many deadlines at once.

  • Saying “yes” to too many requests. 

  • Feeling pressure to perform tasks outside your job description. 

  • Not having the skills or tools you need to do your job well. 

  • Lack of support from your manager or coworkers. 

  • Not knowing which tasks are most important.

  • Lots of “urgent,” last-minute tasks.

  • Unclear processes and roles, so you’re constantly unsure what to do and who to talk to. 

Read: How to get organized: 17 tips that actually work

How to tell if you’re feeling overwhelmed at work

Sometimes it’s clear when you feel overwhelmed, but other times it can be hard to pinpoint why you’re struggling. If you’re having a hard time, here are some common signs to look out for:   

  • Feeling constant anxiety about tasks, meetings, and deadlines. 

  • Thinking about work all the time, even on the evenings and weekends. 

  • Feeling like you need to work extra hours to catch up. 

  • Dreading coming into work. 

  • Feeling pessimistic about the future and your ability to perform tasks. 

  • Procrastinating on tasks. 

  • Feeling physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted.

  • Having trouble getting through the day. 

  • Feeling like you’re alone and nobody can help you.

Feeling overwhelmed is hard and can impact all areas of your life. If you’re experiencing any of the above feelings, it’s important to acknowledge and address your emotions instead of trying to push through. While it’s tempting to ignore negative emotions and jump right into the next task, that can lead to burnout and impact your work long-term. Instead, step back and acknowledge your feelings—so you can take action to address the underlying reasons that are causing you to feel overwhelmed. 

What to do if you feel overwhelmed at work

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s hard to think clearly or do your best work—and that’s totally normal. We can’t just flip a switch and make bad feelings go away, but we can step back, look at the full picture, and take concrete steps to improve our work lives. Here’s how. 

1. Identify the underlying thought you’re having

When you feel stressed or anxious about work, there’s usually an underlying thought behind that anxiety—something you believe or a story you’re telling yourself that reinforces your feelings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a valid reason you feel overwhelmed, like having too much on your plate or not having enough support. But in order to move forward with a solution, you need to identify the underlying thought that’s reinforcing your stress. 

For example, you might have one or more of these thoughts in response to your work situation: 

  • “I’m falling behind at work and I’ll never catch up.”

  • “I need to say yes to everything or else I’m a failure.”

  • “If I miss this deadline it means I failed.”

  • “If I don’t do a good job I’ll be fired.”

  • “Asking for help will expose me as a fraud.”

2. Look at the full picture 

It’s normal to have negative thoughts sometimes. But when you do, remember that those thoughts aren’t always the truth—and there’s probably other parts to the story that you’re not considering. In order to fully understand what’s going on and take action, you need to step back and consider the full picture. 

Start by writing down answers to the following questions. The goal of these questions is to expand your perspective and consider both the positives and negatives of your situation. It isn’t about putting a positive spin on bad emotions—rather, it’s a way to get the unbiased information you need to choose an effective course of action. 

  • What’s the evidence that my underlying thought is true? Not true? 

  • Is there an alternative explanation? 

  • What’s the worst that could happen? How would I cope? What’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic outcome? 

  • What should I do about it? 

  • If my best friend was in the same situation, what would I tell them? 


Example 

Here’s a real-life example of how someone might answer each of these questions. 

Underlying thought: I’m falling behind at work and I’ll never catch up.

What’s the evidence that the automatic thought is true? Not true? 

Evidence for:

  • I missed a deadline today.

  • I have two project proposals due on Friday.

  • I’ve never written a project proposal before and I don’t know how.

  • I don’t have time to get things done because of all my meetings. 

Evidence against: 

  • The last deadline I missed was over two months ago. 

  • My coworkers have missed deadlines before and it was fine. 

  • I’ve been successful at work in the past—even if I sometimes felt overwhelmed.

  • In the past, I’ve been able to learn new skills at work. 

  • I can ask for help on my project proposals.  

  • I can ask my manager to help me delegate and prioritize tasks. 

  • I can move or cancel some of my non-essential meetings this week. 

  • I haven’t received any negative feedback on my performance. 

Is there an alternative explanation? 

Maybe I’m putting more pressure on myself than I should. I want to do everything perfectly, which might be keeping me from seeing that I’m actually doing a good job. 

What’s the worst that could happen? How would I cope? What’s the best that could happen? What’s the most realistic outcome? 

The worst case: I keep falling behind and I eventually get fired. 

How you would cope: I’ve been able to find a new job in the past and I could do it again. 

The best case: After this week my workload gets lighter and I can easily catch up. 

The most realistic outcome: It will take me a while to feel comfortable in my role because I need to learn new skills and ask for help. But I will eventually feel more confident in my abilities.

What should I do about it? 

  • Let my manager know I’m feeling overwhelmed. Ask her if I can push a couple deadlines in order to catch up and learn the skills I need. 

  • Ask for help with my project proposals. 

  • Prioritize my tasks and tackle the most important ones first. 

  • Delegate any tasks that I can. 

  • Move or cancel some of my non-essential meetings this week. 

If my best friend was in the same situation, what would I tell them? 

It might take a long time and you’ll need to ask for help, but you’re capable of catching up and learning the skills you need to feel confident at work.  


3. Take action 

Now that you’ve taken a moment to analyze your feelings and consider the big picture, it’s time to take action. You’ve already listed out next steps in the “What should I do about it?” question above—at this point, you just need to follow through on those steps. 

The actions you take will depend on your particular work situation. But if you’re stuck on what to do next, here are some common solutions to feeling overwhelmed at work: 

  • Talk to your manager: When you’re feeling overwhelmed, communication is key. Have a conversation with your manager and be honest about your workload. Let them know if you’re falling behind and need help prioritizing work and adjusting deadlines. Managers are there to help, and chances are they’ve felt the same way before. 

  • Ask for help or delegate: The drive to help others is hardwired into our genome—meaning people are more willing to help than you think. Asking for help is actually a great way to build rapport with colleagues. When delegating, just be sure to provide plenty of context, clarify the priority of the task, and give your teammate plenty of credit. 

  • Prioritize: Prioritization is the best way to make sure you’re tackling the most important tasks first. Try creating an Eisenhower Matrix to divide tasks into four boxes: The high-priority tasks you’ll do first, the tasks you’ll schedule for later, the tasks you’ll delegate, and the tasks you can delete.

  • Break up larger tasks: If you’re intimidated by a big project, try breaking it up into smaller tasks. This makes it easier to see how you’ll complete your initiative. Plus, creating more accessible short-term goals helps you get started, fight perfectionism, and achieve quick wins right away.

  • Start saying “no”: If saying yes to too many requests is making you feel overwhelmed, it’s time to start saying no. Pushing back on stakeholder requests can be hard, but it’s often critical to maintain a reasonable workload. Be transparent with stakeholders about your bandwidth and ask your manager to step in and back you up if needed. 

  • Adjust deadlines: Everyone misses deadlines sometimes. When you miss a due date, the most important thing is to update it to when you can realistically complete the task. That way you have a concrete plan you can share with stakeholders, rather than an overdue task sitting around and stressing you out. 

  • Set boundaries: When you feel overwhelmed, it’s tempting to double down and work longer hours to catch up. However, that can quickly lead to burnout and end up costing you more time in the long run. Instead, set boundaries to ensure your work life doesn’t infringe on your personal life—and remember that work-life balance and time off is essential for you to recharge. 

  • Focus on one thing at a time: It’s equally tempting to multitask in the hopes of getting more done in less time. But multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves, since it takes significant effort for your brain to switch between tasks. Instead of multitasking, set aside distraction-free time blocks to focus on a single task. As you work, remember to build in short breaks so you can recharge. 

4. Give yourself some grace

When you feel overwhelmed, it’s often a sign you need to pause and focus on yourself. Your physical and mental health should always come first, so take the time you need to recharge and reset. Take a break, take some deep breaths, go outside, or talk to a friend. And remember that even if you still feel overwhelmed or anxious after going through these steps, that doesn’t mean you’re not handling the situation well. You’re doing everything you need to do to acknowledge and deal with your work situation, and you won’t always feel as overwhelmed as you do right now. 

Read: What is intrinsic motivation and how does it work?

Advice for managers: What to do if your direct report feels overwhelmed

As a manager, it can be disappointing to discover a direct report feels overwhelmed. You might wonder if there’s even anything you can do about it. But as their manager, you’re actually in the best position to help. 

Here’s what you can do: 

Listen

It’s hard for someone to admit they’re overwhelmed, so listen actively to your employee’s concerns. That means avoid interrupting, listen without judgment, and model positive nonverbal behavior like maintaining eye contact and nodding your head. Once your employee is done speaking, paraphrase what you heard back to them in your own words to ensure you understood. 

Read: What makes a good manager? 11 actionable tips to help your team succeed

Be compassionate

It’s common to feel alone when you’re overwhelmed, especially if you’re working from home. In fact, research suggests that 41% of workers feel more isolated when working remotely. 

To make your employee feel less alone, affirm their perspective. If you’re comfortable, you can also share that you’ve struggled before too. Emphasize that you’re unconditionally on their side. It’s not your goal for them to be hyper-productive and efficient at the expense of their well-being—instead, you want to prioritize their well-being so they can feel engaged and empowered.

Remember that every employee’s output is different. If a team member tells you they’re overwhelmed, they aren’t just being lazy—this is a serious concern you need to address. Avoid comparing them to yourself in their shoes or to other employees. Instead, focus on giving them the tools they need to succeed. 

Offer help

As a manager, there are many ways you can help your employee get a handle on their workload. This includes prioritizing tasks, adjusting your employee’s workload so they don’t have so much on their plate, and saying no to cross-functional partners on their behalf. 

That said, sometimes you can’t totally remove things from your employee’s plate because you have an important deliverable to complete. In that situation, see if there’s anything else you can do. Are there less important tasks you can deprioritize, or other collaborators who can chip in to lighten the load? You can also help your employee audit their meeting schedule and determine if they can replace any in-person syncs with asynchronous updates. And if your employee needs to learn new skills, offer to teach them yourself or connect them to the people or resources they need to learn. 

Make responsibilities clear

Clear responsibilities ensure your employee doesn’t need to waste time figuring out who should do what. They help your direct report stay within the scope of their role instead of doing extra work, which can protect them from overwhelm and burnout. For example, at Asana we give team members clearly defined areas of responsibility (AoRs). Each AoR lists out specifically what that person is responsible for—plus, it’s documented and clearly accessible to everyone at the company. 

Read: 10 things great team leaders do

Give feedback

When employees are overwhelmed, they often feel like they’re failing or doing a poor job. To combat this, draw attention to their strengths by offering positive feedback. Share how their unique contributions benefit the team, and show appreciation for all the work they’ve accomplished so far. List out specific achievements to provide concrete evidence that your employee is doing ok in their role. 

Sometimes, overwhelmed employees may actually be performing poorly at work. This can be for a million and one reasons, including: 

  1. They’re stressed out about doing a bad job, which makes them perform even worse.

  2. They don’t have the necessary tools and skillset to perform well, or the support they need to improve.

  3. Basically anything else—concerns in their personal life, health issues, and more. 

If necessary, work with your employee to create a performance improvement plan (PIP) to create actionable steps, goals, and support metrics to help them get back on track. 

Check in regularly

It can take time for employees to recover and get back on track when they feel overwhelmed, so set aside time in your weekly or bi-weekly 1:1 meeting to check in. Ask how your employee is feeling about their workload, how their projects are going, and what you can do to help. If they’re still struggling, continue to work with them to adjust their workload, prioritize their tasks, and improve their time management

Simplify your task list with project management software

Project management software like Asana can help your team simplify their collaboration, organize work, and feel less overwhelmed. Instead of switching between multiple apps throughout your workday, you can store everything and communicate with your team in one central place. That means less confusion, less wasted time, and more clarity for your team. 

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