How to Deal with Work Overload and Say to Your Boss You're On the Brink of Burnout

Dr. Ryan Giffen

In 2020, the world changed in various unexpected ways, forcing people into lockdowns and interrupting the normalcy we once knew.  Besides living with a fear of COVID-19 infections, people also had to adapt to the new realm, virtual collaboration, and work. Although not a novelty, work from home was the emergency response to in-person contacts becoming dangerous.  Most companies introduced telework, even though not all of them had remote work policies and regulations. As a result, the shift to this form of work was abrupt in many cases, leaving employees confused and with more tasks than they can handle.  

Despite all the benefits, telework also makes it easy to blur the line between working hours and leisure time. Moreover, employees often find themselves feeling pressured to be available at all times and prove their productivity and commitment. Indeed, workers were already dealing with more stress and anxiety than ever before 2020. But the pandemic exacerbated these issues, adding additional strain on the workforce.

The Pandemic Exacerbated Burnout in Already Overworked Society

COVID-19 increased the pain of having to achieve great results at work and stay focused. It’s no surprise that 29 percent of the workforce is depressed due to the coronavirus. Overall, the pandemic impacted the health of 55 percent of the global workforce.  That results in the sad reality, where 85 percent of employees experience high levels of burnout, and 41 percent report a decline in work-life balance. As a result, 34 percent have lower trust in leadership.  

In an ideal world, a workplace would be where employees do what they’re passionate about, practice their knowledge, and improve their skills. Instead, work is the source of anxiety for many people. For instance, 80 percent feel stress on their jobs, and 25 percent see their work as the number one stressor in their lives.  That also causes health problems, such as work-related neck pain, difficulties in sleeping, and stressed-out eyes. A 2021 research even found that people working more than 54 hours a week are at risk of dying from work overload.  But three-quarters of a million people die from work-related diseases and long working hours. That means that more persons die from overwork than from malaria.  

An overwhelming number of employees reports that companies are pushing them to their limits, requiring availability beyond work hours. Because of that, teleworkers put in an average of six hours of unpaid overtime a week, while on-site workers put in 3.6. That proves that increases in working hours are the inevitable follow-up of recessions as people feel forced to work more to compensate for the job losses. Considering that many societies glorify the hustle culture, work overload and burnout are deep-seated in the workplaces of the 21st century.  

Overworked employees have more tasks and responsibilities than they can handle or their job role allows. They either feel intrinsic pressure to go the extra mile due to a competitive workplace atmosphere, or their managers impose these expectations on them.  If you recognize yourself in the definition above, here’s what you can do to restore the work-life balance.

4 Tips on How to Deal with Work Overload

1. Prioritize What’s the Most Urgent

No matter if you’re an on-site worker or teleworker, when planning your daily tasks and activities, first complete those that are the most important. Consider deadlines, amount of work, and urgency to identify which assignments need the most attention. If you don’t decide alone about priorities, discuss it with your boss or team. Let them know how much time you need to do your part and agree on the timeline and workflow.  

When creating a to-do list, always include first tasks that take more time and you need to deliver soon. It’s also recommendable to only write the minimum you can do in a day instead of loading your plan with unnecessary assignments that make you feel under pressure. That way, you’ll liberate yourself from additional stress. But if you find time for these extra tasks without overwhelming yourself, finish them after completing the urgent ones.  Remember to revise your list of assignments every day and plan. Ensure you always know what and when you’ll do the next day to avoid feeling lost.

2. Manage Your Time Efficiently

Time can be your worst enemy if you don’t learn how to keep it under control. Indeed, it’s challenging to follow a plan unconditionally and always know how many hours or days you’ll need for a particular task. However, use your previous experience to calculate how much time, more or less, more demanding assignments take.  Avoid waiting for the last moment to start, no matter how tempting procrastination can be. Try to begin each task one or two days before you need it, giving you enough time in case something unexpected happens.  

It’s essential to maintain your work-life balance and leave enough time for leisure activities and your loved ones. Ensure you don’t sacrifice your personal life to stay longer at work and set boundaries. If you’re a teleworker, decide when your work start and when it finishes or talk about it with your manager. You’re not obligated to go beyond your working hours unless you genuinely want.

3. Be Confident About Saying No

When employees accept all assignments without ever expressing it might be too much, employers likely won’t suspect they are struggling. It’s why it’s crucial to be confident about admitting when the number of tasks is overwhelming. If possible, be selective and choose those that align the most with your skills and job role. Avoid automatically taking all the assignments if your schedule is full or they’re not compatible with your qualifications. After your manager or clients get used to you saying yes to every task, they will believe you can do it or take advantage of your fear to say no.  

4. Remove Distractions

Procrastination and distractions are among the main enemies of efficient work. Employees tend to delay their tasks when they have too many, but that also happens due to external factors interrupting the focus.  Keep your workspace uncluttered and remove anything that disturbs your attention. Avoid opening unnecessary tabs in your browser, scrolling through your social media, or checking the phone every minute. Set the time for breaks and use them to unwind and regain your energy. After you go back to work, dive into the matter and eliminate anything that distracts you from completing it.  However, sometimes handling work overload on your own isn’t enough. If the pressure from above is too intense, you should reach out and let your boss know you’re struggling.  

4 Tips On How to Tell Your Boss You’re On the Brink of Burnout

1. Clarify What You’re Going Through

Warn your boss what you want to discuss and set a meeting to avoid making them feel ambushed. Adopt a productive approach to the conversation and explain that reaching out wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s critical to tackle the issue. That way, you’re more likely to entice empathy and encourage your boss’s receptiveness. Clarify what you’re going through and the symptoms you’re experiencing.  

Instead of explicitly saying you’re stressed out, explain that you’re feeling overwhelmed with the number of assignments you have. Note that while it didn’t use to be a problem, it’s getting too difficult for you to handle all the deadlines and stay efficient.  Your boss must understand what changed and what’s causing challenges as that’ll allow them to understand you’re the same, but the scope of your tasks surpasses your time and capabilities.  

2. Acknowledge The Impact of Your Burnout  

When employees are near to feeling burned out, that often shows in their behavior, relationships with managers and coworkers, and work quality. Be confident about acknowledging that the stress might have affected your team or project results.  Take responsibility for the impact of your work overload. Apologize if that caused any trouble for your boss or the company. However, don’t say sorry for feeling overwhelmed. Only admit that might have affected people around you.  By taking this approach, you’ll show a sign of goodwill, trigger sympathy, and encourage your boss to take responsibility for their part of the problem.  

3. Avoid Complaints and Accusations

You must avoid making your appeal sound like you’re accusing your boss of nearly burning you out. Because of that, choose the right timing and talk when calm and feeling ready for a constructive conversation.  Exclude emotions from the meeting, especially if your boss isn’t particularly empathetic. Also, prepare yourself for your employer potentially acting defensive and not understanding the core of the issue.  It’s why you should make it clear that you’re not blaming anyone. Instead, say you need help because you love your job and want to restore the quality of your performance without impacting your well-being.  Your boss will see you aren’t only reaching out but also ready to suggest solutions.  

4. Offer Potential Solutions

Even if they know what the conversation will be about, your employer could feel confused and fearful they don’t know how to help you. Think about what you need to feel better and enjoy your work again before setting the meeting. Consider whether a more flexible schedule, reducing the number of assignments, or extending deadlines could alleviate the stress. Or, perhaps, you need more resources or different kinds of projects? Come prepared with solutions and show that the meeting is goal-oriented. Expose the problem but also offer potential solutions. Your boss will likely appreciate your proactivity and that you know what could help you be happy in your workplace again.  

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Workplaces of the 21st century have been increasingly stressful, but the pandemic intensified the issue. Many workers had to work longer hours to compensate for lay-offs and hiring freezes. Others felt they should go the extra mile to help their companies, pushing themselves over the edge in the process. With the stress of coexisting with a virus and adjusting to a new reality, it’s easy to understand why many employees are burnout. But by acknowledging the problem, thinking of potential solutions, and reaching out, it’s possible to reduce the stress and restore work-life balance.  

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About Dr. Ryan Giffen

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Ryan Giffen is an expert in human relations and business culture. His career began in hospitality, leading operations and human resource departments for Fortune 500 companies and the like. Not long after, Ryan found his passion for teaching and consulting. He earned a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management with a Human Resources focus from Iowa State University and now works as an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. For over a decade, he continues to research and speak on organizational culture, relationship intelligence, and leadership effectiveness. Ryan is also the founder of Inospire, a company helping bosses and employees build stronger relationships with one another. Lastly, Dr. Giffen is producer and host of the Corporate Shadow Podcast, a show helping everyday employees build stronger relationships with their bosses and organizations.