Whether you’re pursuing your passion or celebrating a job well done, there are a lot of little (and big) wins to experience at work every day. But if you frequently feel stress—instead of satisfaction—you could be suffering from overwork.
It’s great to work hard, but it’s equally important to live well. The key to preventing overwork is to prioritize impact—not output.
If you’re personally feeling overworked, you can address this by setting boundaries and communicating them to your manager. As a manager or team lead, you can prevent overwork within your team by supporting team members and providing context and clarity for their work. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some common signs and causes of overwork, before diving into how you can prevent overwork as an individual or team lead.
Maybe you’re feeling stressed at work—but how do you know if it’s overwork? Overwork happens when you work too hard, too much, or too long. If you feel like you’re exceeding your capacity at work—whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional—you’re likely suffering from overwork.
Prolonged overwork can lead to burnout. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 71% of knowledge workers experienced burnout at least once in 2020. Of those knowledge workers, nearly half (46%) of respondents cited being overworked as a key factor contributing to burnout.Read: Overcoming burnout in a distributed world
Stress is just one sign of overwork. Additional side effects of feeling overworked include:
Lack of energy
Constant stress at work
Anxiety before beginning work, such as the Sunday scaries
Difficulty disconnecting from work
Feeling like you can’t keep up with your regular life because of work related stress
Feeling disconnected from friends and family
Reduced quality of work, despite your best efforts
Overworking doesn’t just feel bad—prolonged burnout can also impact your health, leading to impaired sleep or lack of energy. Finding a healthy balance between your job and your life is key to good mental health and increased well-being.Read: Sabbatical leave: How it works, key benefits, and FAQs
You may be feeling overwhelmed and overworked—but where do these feelings come from? The sensation of being overworked isn’t something in your head—these feelings are being caused by real issues at your organization or within your work culture. The first step to fighting overwork is understanding where these feelings come from.
Work about work is any activity that takes away from work that makes an impact. This includes searching for documents, chasing approvals, and following up on the status of work—just to name a few. We tend to take work about work at face value, and assume that these tasks are just part of the working world—but the time we spend on these rote tasks takes away from focusing on high-impact work.Read: How work about work gets in the way of real work
According to the Anatomy of Work Index, the average knowledge worker spends 60% of their time on work about work. That means only 40% of each workday is spent on high-impact work—the tasks and projects that you were hired to do. The thing is, we have the same number of hours every day. So when work about work consumes hours of work time, knowledge workers feel like they need to work longer to keep up.
Another common workplace stressor is siloed work. When you don’t have clarity on what team members are doing or why your work matters, you can’t effectively get your work done. Without transparent communication, knowledge workers spend time searching for information and duplicating work. In fact, the average knowledge worker spends 13% of their time on work that’s already been completed, up from 10% in 2019. Over the course of a year, that’s 246 hours lost to work that’s already been completed.
It’s critical to understand how the work you do impacts your company. Without that bigger connection, it can feel like you’re working in a void. Worse, you don’t know what work to prioritize—which makes everything feel like top priority.
Alternatively, when you understand how your work contributes to team and company initiatives, you’re better equipped to navigate shifting priorities or deadlines. Instead of frantically searching for information or figuring out how to re-prioritize your tasks in light of a new project or an adjusted timeline, you can effectively get your most important work done.Read: How to create a pyramid of clarity with Goals in Asana
We live in a distraction economy, and increased pressure from our always-on working world makes employees feel like they need to work longer hours just to keep up with expectations from work. How many times have you checked your email first thing in the morning, or responded to a quick work question on the weekends? These practices have become standard parts of how we interact at work, but they are key contributors to overwork and burnout.
Research shows that the average knowledge worker switches between 10 tools up to 25 times per day. Nowadays, it’s pretty standard to do work in one tool, track that work in a second tool, and communicate about that work in a third tool. But app switching can lead to missed information or details that fall through the cracks—in fact, over one-quarter (27%) of workers say that actions and messages are missed when switching apps.
Additionally, 80% of knowledge workers report working with their inbox or other communication apps open. But employees who switch between apps are also more likely to struggle with effectively prioritizing work. That’s because every notification feels like it's the highest priority and needs to be addressed right now.Read: Four ways to manage tight schedules and shifting priorities
If you are feeling overworked, you shouldn’t try to ignore it. And, if possible, don’t run from it either. It can be tempting to solve overwork by finding a new job. Finding another job is an option—and sometimes, it’s even the best option. But if you just run away from this problem, there’s a chance it can pop up again in the future. Instead, by learning to pinpoint the cause of your stress and overwork, you can practice advocating for your needs at work.
This isn’t just good for you personally, either. When you demonstrate how you can reduce overwork to focus more on important work priorities, you’re showing your manager that you’re thinking about the impact you have on the team and the company—instead of just productivity for productivity’s sake. Prioritizing health and happiness will also improve your overall work performance by increasing your capacity.
Ultimately, the best way to advocate for yourself is to talk to your manager about your workload and co-create a solution. Before having that conversation, prepare a plan to make the conversation as actionable as possible.
If you aren’t sure exactly why you're feeling overworked, start by tracking the tasks you work on every day and how long you’re spending on each task. If applicable, write down any work you do outside of work hours, or messages that you feel compelled to reply to that happen after hours.
There are a few benefits to tracking your current work:
Identify time-draining tasks. A common cause of overwork is perfectionism. Look for simple tasks that you’re spending too much time on simply because you want to get them just right. By tracking your time, you can identify tasks that are taking up more time than you expect them to, and course-correct if necessary.
Gauge notification-based distractions. A lot of distractions at work happen when we see a notification icon pop up on screen. This can interrupt the flow you’re in and cause you to deviate from your work plans for the day. Consider turning on Do not Disturb mode when you’re settling in for deep work to reduce the urge to check in.
Unmask hidden work. Another reason for overwork is hidden work—these tasks aren’t things we plan to work on. If you haven’t already, make sure you’re tracking every task in a to-do list tool so you have a clear understanding of what you need to do each day.
Compare your responsibilities to your job description. Have you picked up extra responsibilities over the months and years? If your current duties far exceed the original job description, ask your manager about updating your job title or pay structure to include those responsibilities.
Determine if there’s just too much work. Sometimes, the cause for overwork is obvious: you simply don’t have enough hours in the workday to complete your tasks. If this is the case, you can work with your manager to prioritize your highest-impact work, and try delegating or deferring less important tasks.
Understanding how your work contributes to team and company goals can help you best prioritize the projects you’re working on. To be an effective team member, you shouldn’t try to do as much as you possibly can—rather, you should be focusing on your highest-impact work.
Before you talk to your manager, think through the goals you have. What initiatives does your work support? Alternatively, are there things you’re working on that don’t connect to your goals? Is there anything you can delegate to another team member or defer to a later point in time?
Talking to your manager about overwork can be intimidating—but it’s an important conversation for you two to have. Your manager wants you to succeed, so let them know your stress levels have increased and your workload doesn’t feel sustainable. Consider bringing this up during your next 1:1 meeting. Alternatively, if you don’t meet with your manager frequently, request a 1:1 to talk about bandwidth.
Maybe you aren’t feeling overworked, but you think a team member is struggling with burnout. As a team lead, you can help ensure they’re feeling supported by giving them the information, context, and tools they need to get their highest-impact work done. Here’s how.Read: A manager’s guide to combating burnout
The simplest way to combat burnout is to ask your team members if they’re feeling overworked. This is especially true if you notice a team member working long hours or replying to an email over the weekend. Some people like this style of work, and doing an email here or a quick task there doesn’t cause them stress. Others might be quietly struggling, but unsure what to do about it. By asking about burnout, you can give overworked employees a chance to begin the conversation, share their feelings, and get on a sustainable path.Read: Why 1:1 meetings are crucial to your team’s success
To prevent overwork, ensure team members have the context they need to succeed. This includes how their individual work relates to company goals, what other team members are doing, and what the status of various work initiatives are. When you share this information, you’re giving team members the context they need to better understand the work environment and prioritize key initiatives.Read: Heavy workloads equal more stress. Here’s what you can do about it.
Another great way to support team members is to give them the autonomy to get their best work done. Once team members have the context they need to succeed, they also need the autonomy to make it happen.
Encourage team members to prioritize impact, and normalize how that happens on your team. For example, encourage members to:
Decline unnecessary meeting invitations. According to our research, unnecessary meetings cost individuals 157 hours of productivity over the past year. Empower team members to decline meetings they don’t need to attend.
Delegate low-impact work. If a team member is working on a task that doesn’t align with their goals, encourage them to delegate that work to a team member who is more closely aligned with the initiative’s purpose.
Say no—but share the reason why. One of the most powerful things your team members can do is say “no” to work. This can be difficult. A good shortcut is to provide the reason for the “no.” That way, team members can respond, “I don’t have the bandwidth for this task right now because I’m prioritizing X and Y instead.”
A huge part of work about work is manual work—things like chasing approvals, following up on the status of work, or switching between business tools. All of these tasks take time and mental energy. Instead, check to see if your work tools offer any business integrations with other relevant tools. Or, look for ways to automate routine tasks to give your team more time back for high-impact work.
Workload management is the process of efficiently distributing and managing work across your team. Effective workload management maximizes impact while reducing chaos, so your team members feel satisfied—rather than overwhelmed.
If you don’t already, use workload management practices to not only reduce burnout for stressed employees, but prevent them from feeling overworked in the first place. You can do this by identifying and tracking team member capacity with workload management tools.Read: How to effectively manage your team’s workload
The most powerful thing you can do is to show your team members that you value their time and energy—by combating overwork in your own work life. If team members see you replying to emails on the weekend, they’ll likely feel pressure to do the same.
There are a number of ways you can lead by example to demonstrate how you’re keeping your work life and your personal life separate. Some strategies include:
Saying no to additional work
Taking time off—and encouraging your team do to the same
Not checking in during vacation
Avoiding sending messages or requests after normal working hours
Making sure your calendar reflects your work schedule—including blocking personal time off for things like doctors appointments or family time
Whether you’re trying to manage your own feelings of burnout or supporting overworked team members, the key is clarity and communication. Finding a healthy balance between working hard and living well can help you thrive in the workplace and beyond.