Many people that I work with tell me that they have so much to do at work that they cannot manage. They feel overwhelmed, and that there is never enough time. They never get to finish something properly because the next thing has already started. I have one friend whose boss schedules her meetings to happen two at a time—how is she supposed to handle that?
The trouble is that when you work this much it is hard to feel a real satisfaction in what you are doing because everything is moving so fast. This undermines our sense of accomplishment at work, as well as our personal wellbeing. It is also not a sustainable way to work and could all too easily lead to burn-out. It simply does not produce the best results.
So, what can we do about feeling overwhelmed at work?
Let’s look first at what we can do about how we are with ourselves—our attitudes and assumptions.
Celebrate your capacity
When we are free to work in our own way, we have a tremendous capacity. The trouble comes when we are at work, following someone else’s schedule. If we feel we are being asked to do too much, or work in a way that feels too intense, then we more easily feel stretched and overwhelmed.
This sense that things are not in our control is a major factor in building up stress. It helps if we can find ways that we can take control and being able to freely access our own capacity is one way to do this. So, don’t react to work overload by trying to protect yourself and limiting your own capacity. It’s energizing to connect with your capacity and to celebrate it. If we drop our worries about achieving everything we need to achieve, ironically, we can do so much more.
When we can connect with our full capacity then it is a natural step to allow our inspiration to blossom. Can you remember what attracted you to the work you are doing now in the first place? Go back and recall why you wanted your present job. Take a few moments to savor the reasons and then look at how you are working now. Is there any of the previous inspiration that you can inject into your current situation? Has your job evolved from when you started with it? Identify what keeps you doing it and allow those insights to inspire you.
When we get up each morning to go to work, we need reasons that continue to make sense for us. Make sure that you know what your reasons are.
Give up trying to be perfect
Let’s face it—there is the work we are asked to do and then there is the way that we do it. Most of us have a lot invested in our working life. It’s where we get to do something that we hope will be of benefit in the world and we want to give of our best. Sadly, that can often mean that we ask way too much of ourselves. It’s one thing to have a demanding boss—at least we can moan about it later—but when it ourselves driving us, that is harder to deal with.
So, in looking at how to deal with overwhelm at work, we need to see that perfectionism is a frustratingly unattainable goal. In fact, we even need to allow ourselves to make mistakes sometimes.
I love this quote from Thomas Edison,
A lot of the time we want to be perfect so that people will approve of us and accept us as being worthy of their attention. It tends to come from a place of insecurity. Edison’s approach turns all this on its head—making mistakes is an essential part of learning and growth. Adopting this approach releases a lot of the pressure we are putting on ourselves. We don’t need to add to our stress levels by trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist in the first place.
Come home to yourself
We each need to find a way that enables us to find a place of ease with ourselves. When we are too busy and feeling overwhelmed, we tend to be focusing our energy outwards, looking for ways to cope. Having a simple, accessible way connect with ourselves at anytime, anywhere will help us to puncture the feeling of being overwhelmed.
This is what I do—I call it a STOP MOMENT.
Take a few deep breaths
Pay attention to your body—do you have any tight places, are you tired?
Check in on your mood—how are you feeling?
At each stage, just pay attention. Don’t try to change anything. Don’t judge.
Rest your attention on your breath.
Try to keep it there for a few moments.
Continue with what you were doing.
Try doing several of these during the day—especially when you feel busy. It only needs to take a couple of moments but each Stop Moment will help to ease your tension.
With your boss
It will often be our boss that we feel is one the causing us to have such a heavy schedule. Here’s a few ideas of how we can tackle him/her. A lot will depend on what kind of a person our boss is—receptive or dogmatic; open or insecure? Whatever the case, it’s worth trying these simple steps to see if you can improve conditions for yourself.
You owe to yourself and your boss to communicate as clearly as possible. If we are nervous and afraid of offending then we will be unlikely to give a clear account of how we are experiencing our workload and the effect it is having on our productivity.
If you are already using the strategies listed above to do with working with ourselves, it is going to be easier to find a good place to talk to our boss. To do your job well, you need to be able to say what helps you to achieve at your highest capacity. Maybe your boss won’t listen. Maybe they will think they know better but you need to feel that you have done all you can. If it will help, document your concerns and keep them on file. Who knows when they might come in useful to put your case.
Stand your ground
Don’t wait for a crisis to put your position across. The danger is that you will be emotional and reactive and the exchange could easily get heated. If you prepare well and can give examples that support your case, you will have more chance of success
Any attempt to point out something to your boss that they might not want to hear is going to be a challenge. Remember that you are wanting to do your best at work and the suggestions you are making will help to contribute to that in your view. If you can stand your ground with a certain confidence it will make a more convincing case for your boss. Standing your ground does not need to be assertive, it can simply be reasonable and well-argued.
Put yourself in their shoes
This is very important. If you can enter the conversation—or series of conversations—with your boss having thought carefully about how things are for them, they will feel less defensive. You will be coming from a place of understanding and they will feel that. We all appear to be very different, with our own individual interests and goals. However, when we scratch the surface we don’t have to look too far to find common ground. We all want things to go well and we don’t want things to get messed up and cause problems. Just as you want to give of your beset at work, so does your boss. Perhaps you have different ways of showing it but deep down you want the same thing.
If you can spend some time reflecting on what your boss is facing and how they might be feeling it help you to broaden your attitude towards them. We all like to be understood and if you can demonstrate some knowledge of the challenges your boss is facing then they will feel more secure in listening to your concerns.
With your team
It’s pretty likely that the team you work with is also feeling overwhelmed at work and challenged by the amount of work that needs to be accomplished. Working together with your colleagues to find ways of easing your joint burden is a good investment. Remember, it’s not just about reducing your own feelings of stress and over-work but creating a more sustainable working environment.
All too often the way we listen is clouded by our own agenda. Recently I came across an article introducing the HEAR system of listening and found it relevant and easy to remember.
Halt whatever you are doing and offer your full attention.
Enjoy a breath as you choose to receive whatever is being communicated to you—wanted or unwanted.
Ask yourself if you really know what they mean and if you don’t, ask for clarification. Instead of making assumptions, bring openness and curiosity to the interaction. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Reflect back to them what you heard. This tells them that you were really listening.
If people feel properly heard it is already a way of cutting through feeling overwhelmed because something in us is reassured by knowing that someone else has really listened to us and understands how we are feeling.
It’s a funny thing about kindness—we may feel that it is all about reaching out to other people and enabling them to feel better but research shows that kindness benefits ourselves as well. When we show kindness to other we feel better about ourselves and our own wellbeing is enhanced. On top of that—kindness is contagious. If we see other people being kind to each other—even when we are not involved—we also feel better. All too often when we feel under pressure, our expression of kindness goes out of the window. We feel it is just one step too far. The science tells a different story, so however busy you feel, make time for small acts of kindness at work. It will help you as well as the people you are being kind to.
Avoid stress addiction
When everyone is very busy and things are tough, it is all too easy to become attached to our own stress as a kind of badge of honour—I must be doing a good job, look how stressed I am!
Some years ago, I worked in a tough inner London school where the challenges were certainly plentiful but the teachers made it all much worse by bonding together over how stressed they were. It became impossible to show happiness with your work because you were considered to be letting the side down, or not trying hard enough.
Stress closes things down and makes it harder to change the situation. Although it is inevitable that we will feel stressed from time to time we can try to maintain a sense of humour about it as well!
With your work environment
We have looked at how to cope with feeling overwhelmed with yourself, with your boss and with your team but let’s finish by taking a few moments by looking at your work environment. Each of us might relate to our work environment as ‘something out there’ that we can do little about—whereas the truth is that each one of us has a big impact on it.
Slow things down
It might sound counter-intuitive but when things are moving fast, it helps to slow down a little. It is all too easy to get caught up in the whirl of activity and lose our ground.
We already mentioned focusing on our breath as a way of settling ourselves when things intense. It is a skillful way of slowing ourselves down without becoming distracted. Simply take a few deep breaths when you feel overwhelmed and then carry on with your activity. It provides a brief moment to regroup.
Be in the present
When we are harried and overworked it is all too easy to worry about what we need to do and to keep going back over what we have already done and check that we got it right. Going a little slower, using our breath to enable us to focus both help us to stop ruminating and worrying and to be more in the present moment—which is the only moment we can do anything about.
Remember to smile. Pressure can make us grimace and look severe—whether we feel that way or not. When people see us smiling we appear accessible and they are reassured.
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