Deadlines approaching, to-do lists that don’t end and back-to-back meetings. Argh! The arrival of overwhelm at work is more a case of when it is going to happen ... not if it will happen.
Few people get to work overwhelm-free; we all have pressures and expectations to deliver reach targets, achieve what’s asked of us and do a good job.
The problem with overwhelm though, is that if we don’t manage and monitor it, it can grow and grow and turn into the beast that is burn-out.
Researcher Jennifer Moss reported in Harvard Business Review that from over 1500 people surveyed in 46 countries, 56% of people say their job demands had increased. No, it’s not our imagination; we’re having to do more. And 62% of people who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often” in the previous three months.
Burn-out, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, is ‘more than just an employee problem; it’s an organizational problem that requires an organizational solution.’
Burn-out comes when we experience ongoing stress with no relief. Not even a weekend away in the country or a week off by the beach will fix the feelings of burn-out. We need to look for new ways to outsmart our overwhelm and not just call for more ‘self-care’.
Our work can overwhelm us with things like the quantity or workload we’re trying to complete, information overload that we’re struggling to absorb and emotional overwhelm of having to show up and ‘carry on’.
We’re faced with employers making big decisions and big changes, announcing restructures and new systems, and all the while we’re dealing with challenging colleagues, bosses and customers. Plus, we might just be overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks we’re expected to complete … in not enough time!
Here are five techniques to help you stay alert to rising levels of overwhelm at work and how to outsmart them:
#1 Know your triggers.
What gets on your nerves or winds you up? Knowing the things that can accelerate or advance our overwhelm are worth being aware of. We can see them ahead of time and they have less power over us. We can then be prepared with methods to counteract the trigger, relieve the stress, and learn quicker and quicker over time. We’ll see that we are able to soothe ourselves, manage the effects of the trigger on us and we can come up with ways of adapting, responding, and making sense of the situation. This is all powerful self-management.
#2 Write out the work.
Instead of juggling all your ‘to-dos’ in your head (you know, those 3am ‘wake up in a sweat’ moments) make them visible and write everything out. Even though the number of things might be more than you’d like to see, ‘externalising’ information out of our head is a powerful technique in the process of outsmarting overwhelm. You could write them into a journal, type them into a productivity app like Trello or Asana or write each individual task onto a post-it note so you can focus on it until it’s done. This gives you greater perspective and objectivity about what really needs to be done.
Supplementary readings for you:
#3 Stop juggling so many things at once.
It’s impossible for us to multitask all day and still expect to feel good at the end of the day. We may panic a little when we are overwhelmed and so we can tend to panic-switch from one thing to the other. We do a bit of this task, worry we’re not getting the other task done and then switch over to that for a while, and then switch back to the original task. This is highly inefficient and often escalates the feeling of panic.
#4 Conserve your energy and focus on fewer things.
Doing fewer things but doing them well or at least finishing them helps take them out of our mind. It’s also a lot easier on our energy reserves. Our brain takes energy to fuel and if we don’t value that energy, it will soon expire! And if you do wake in worry, see point #2 and write your thoughts down. You’ll get back to sleep easier because there’s less floating about in your mind.
#5 Manage self.
One of the best career success tips is to be a good manager of yourself, your own workload, time, and energy. Knowing what you’ve got on and when it’s due shows you’ve got your head around the work to be done. That’s much harder to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Estimating how long tasks will take, scheduling them into your diary, and then focusing on them to complete them are all powerful personal management behaviours. It will be more accurate when you say ‘I don’t have time for this’ because you’ll know what you’re working on and how long you expect it all to take.
Overwhelm is an important part of our human functioning so it’s not like we don’t want to feel the rise of emotions or the stress of ‘too much’. We need the extremes of ‘it’s easy, I’m chillin’ through to ‘I’m smashed, it’s too much’ to know where our boundaries are.
But also know that too much of anything isn’t healthy. Working longer hours, stressing over deadlines and worrying about reports isn’t a sustainable way to work over the longer term.
There’s a middle line here of balance – it’s where we can get good work done and achieve our goals, but also be aware of the rise of overwhelm and its damaging effects. It’s rewarding to still be able to reach a deadline and high five someone – even if its ourselves - rather than drowning under the weight of everything being too much for us to cope.
Psst: Before you go, continue discovering how you can manage your stress levels at work. Watch this Leaderonomics video on 'Top 10 Ways to Reduce Stress Levels at Work'