What to do when you feel overwhelmed at work

a woman with yellow hair appears to be overwhelmed at work

Meeting requests keep piling up, push notifications constantly flash across your screen and despite the extra hours you’ve been putting in—it feels like you’re not making a dent in your projects. If this sounds familiar, it’s no wonder you’re feeling overwhelmed at work.

Rest assured, you’re not alone. COVID-19 has sent the world reeling, and many workers are struggling to keep up with the onslaught of changes and challenges it brought with it.

Below, we’ll discuss work overwhelm, job burnout and tips for decreasing the stress at work.

Table of contents
What does being overwhelmed at work look like?
What is burnout?
3 reasons you’re feeling overwhelmed at work
7 ways to de-stress when you’re overwhelmed at work
There’s hope for those feeling overwhelmed at work

What does being overwhelmed at work look like?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to overwhelm is to “give too much of something to.” When you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, you might notice the following behaviors:

  • Procrastination
  • Missed deadlines
  • Subpar work quality
  • Feeling behind no matter how hard you work
  • Avoidance
  • Tiredness
  • Fantasizing about quitting your job

What is burnout?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work and fail to address it, it could lead to something more serious: job burnout. The Mayo Clinic defines this term as: “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” 

The World Health Organization includes burnout in its International Classification of Diseases, but stops short of calling it a medical condition, opting instead to label it as an "occupational phenomenon."

Though burnout is not considered to be a medical diagnosis, it still can harm your physical and mental health and should be taken seriously.

3 reasons you’re feeling overwhelmed at work

1. The shift to remote work is taking its toll.

Much of the world made a sudden shift to remote work at the start of the pandemic. And with that came a whole slew of stressors, such as navigating a changing world both personally and professionally, acclimating to several new apps you’re supposed to use now and struggling to find a quiet place in your home to make a work call.

These new challenges have led to documented remote work burnout. According to a July 2020 survey by Monster.com, 69% of workers are feeling burnout symptoms while working from home—up by nearly 35% since May 2020.

2. You lack remote work-life balance.

Now that we’re more virtually connected than ever before, it’s hard to separate work and personal life. Between smartphones, laptops, Zoom meetings with colleagues and Skype game nights with friends and family—everything blends together. On top of that, our homes are now our offices too. Striking the right remote work-life balance is a constant struggle for many workers during this pandemic.

3. You have too many responsibilities at one time.

You might feel overwhelmed simply because you’re taking on too much right now. It’s important to assess your true capacity and what you’d like to see changed. You’ll also need to communicate this with your boss, which we’ll talk about in detail below.

7 ways to de-stress when you’re overwhelmed at work

1. Delegate or eliminate.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, pay close attention to when you feel that way. Is there a particular task that overwhelms you? If so, can someone else do that task? Even better, can it be eliminated altogether?

For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed every time you open your inbox, and you realize that you’re checking your email twice every hour—how about cutting that out entirely? Set specific times of day that you’ll check your inbox. Try limiting it to once in the morning and once in the afternoon and see if that makes a difference.

2. Take more breaks.

Taking breaks can help you get more work done and feel better about it too.

  • Take frequent breaks during your workday. Few people can sit at their computer for three hours straight doing productive work. Our brains just aren’t wired that way (and our bodies would probably protest all that sitting too!). Instead, research suggests that frequent breaks during your workday can refresh you and help you do your best work.
    Productivity tracking software DeskTime analyzed the work habits of its most productive users and found a commonality: effective breaks. To be more specific, these users worked for 52 minutes and then took a break for 17 minutes.
  • Use your vacation days. Even if you’re not able to jet off on an international vacation right now, you could benefit from a staycation where you disconnect completely from work and just focus on family and self-care.
  • Consider a sabbatical. And if you really need to recharge, consider an extended break from work. Sabbaticals typically involve travel, but there’s no rule stating you can’t take a sabbatical from the comfort of your own home. The true purpose of a sabbatical is to rest and enrich your life and career with a project you’ve always wanted to work on, like writing a book, delving into research or studying a language—all things that can be done from home or locally. 

3. Move more.

Staring at a computer with your hands propped up on a keyboard is not a natural state of being (even if it’s our default these days). Our bodies need to move. Plus, it benefits our work. A Spanish study published in BMC Public Health found that higher levels of physical activity were linked to better well-being and improved productivity.

  • Use the Pomodoro Technique to remind yourself to stand and stretch every 20 minutes. Think 20:8:2. Sit for 20 minutes, stand up for eight, move around for two. That’s what Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, recommends for striking the ideal balance between sitting, standing and moving.
  • Put together a standing desk. To help you get more standing time in, consider making a standing desk area in your home. Now, this doesn’t have to involve one of those fancy $300 standing desks. I recently bought an inexpensive laptop stand and paired it with an external keyboard and mouse to create a standing desk area on the kitchen counter. It’s made a huge difference in my neck and shoulder pain that was caused by sitting in a poor posture at my tiny laptop for hours every day. I also find it helpful for those mid-afternoon slumps when I feel like I might nod off at my desk. Standing helps me feel more alert.
  • Try walking meetings. Instead of holding all your meetings as video chats where you’re seated at your desk, why not turn it into a conference call and go for a walk? A study at Stanford University found that walking increased people’s creativity by an average of 60% compared to sitting. And if you can’t get outside much, even just walking around your house could provide some benefit. In one experiment, the Stanford researchers found that walkers produced twice as many creative responses as sitters—regardless of if they walked outside or walked indoors on a treadmill facing a blank wall.

4. Break big goals and tasks into smaller ones.

In our motivation research, we found that those who are motivated toward depth—a tendency to focus on details rather than the big picture—have a harder time prioritizing and delegating. This can lead to overwhelm, as you might feel like you have to do all the things

To combat this, write down (and track) your short-, mid-, and long-term goals. Tasks only make sense and have meaning when you can tie them to an overarching goal. Otherwise, it’s easy to feel like you’re just doing busywork. Keep a running document outlining your goals for today, this week, this month, this year and even the next five years. 

Also, keep track of progress and the milestones you reach on your way toward those goals.  This can ease that nagging feeling of “I’m working all the time but never getting anywhere.” When you start feeling that way, you can glance at your progress for proof that you are moving toward your goals.

5. Get organized.

Are you always misplacing your notebook? Can’t find that important document file? Constantly forgetting when a project was due? You might be feeling overwhelmed because you lack organization. Without a clear idea of what task you should be working on at any point in time, it’s easy to feel like there’s too much to do.

If disorganization plagues you, here are some helpful tips for combating it:

  • Create a to-do list the night before. If you’re having trouble falling asleep due to all the tasks flying around in your brain, put them onto paper (or into an app) and you’ll probably rest much easier. I like to use pen and paper or my iPhone’s built-in Notes app, but some other popular apps include ToDoist and Trello.
  • Implement efficient systems and processes. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when your systems and processes aren’t efficient. For example, as a freelance writer, if I kept all my assignments listed on a piece of paper, I’d quickly feel overwhelmed. Without seeing due dates on a calendar, receiving reminders on my cell phone and being able to move projects from “In Progress” to “Sent” to “Invoiced,” it would be hard for me to keep up with my work.

    So if you’re feeling overwhelmed despite having a typical workload, analyze your systems and processes and see if they could use some tweaking.
  • Stick to a routine. Routines get a bad rap for being boring, but the purpose of a routine isn’t to entertain you—it’s to conserve your energy. When you have a repeated way of doing things, this saves you time and energy because you’re minimizing the number of decisions you need to make each day.

    There’s a reason Steve Jobs is known for his iconic black turtlenecks and Mark Zuckerberg is often sporting the same gray T-shirts: it’s one less decision that could drain them of their work focus.

6. Eliminate or minimize distractions (especially your smartphone!).

Speaking of minimizing decisions, there’s yet another thing you need to cut out of your life if you want to reduce stress: distractions. They’re everywhere. If your inbox is brimming, push notifications are cluttering your screen every few minutes and your cell phone is ringing nonstop—of course you’re going to feel overwhelmed. 

  • Keep your cell phone out of reach. Research from The University of Texas at Austin suggests that just having your phone within reach can drain your brainpower. That’s because when you see that iPhone next to your laptop—even if it’s on silent—you’re constantly having to make the choice not to reach for it.
  • Turn off all push notifications. If you want to get deep work done and feel less stressed, disable push notifications. They’re the most distracting types of notifications because they pop up over your screen and always grab your attention.

    If you’re worried you might miss an urgent work message, first, ask yourself how urgent the average Slack message you get is. For true emergencies, tell your colleagues to call your cell phone, which should be set to Do Not Disturb during work hours. Even on Do Not Disturb mode, you can adjust the settings so that specific phone numbers (or all phone calls) ring through.
  • Use a website blocker. Distracting apps like Facebook and email are always within reach when you’re at your computer. To help with the temptation to check these sites while you’re working, consider using a website blocker like RescueTime or Freedom.

7. Talk to your boss about it.

Remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, it likely could be because you’re taking on more than you can handle right now. Be transparent with your boss about your capacity.

Here are some tips to help that conversation go smoothly:

  • Reflect. Before you rush to speak with your boss, pause and reflect upon what you’ve been feeling, what’s helped, what’s made it worse and what you ultimately want.
  • Have a general idea of the changes you’d like to see. It helps to have at least a vague idea of what you’d like to see change. This doesn’t have to be detailed; it could be something as simple as, “I’d like more time with my family” or “I’d like my team to help me out more.”
  • But be okay with not knowing the solution. Most importantly, realize you do not need to have all the answers before you talk to your boss. Ultimately, you should work together with your boss to come up with a plan to ease your stress so you don’t feel so overwhelmed at work. You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
  • Rehearse. If you’re nervous about the conversation (which is totally normal!), practice saying it out loud in front of a mirror or in front of someone you trust.

There’s hope for those feeling overwhelmed at work

Given that many people are being forced to work from home while a virus continues to wreak havoc globally, it’s completely understandable to feel overwhelmed. If the extra stress is getting to you, you may be able to find relief by trying the seven tips we discussed above. 

Talk to your boss about your workload and your needs to ensure you have someone in your corner to brainstorm solutions. Of course, if you think you may be experiencing anxiety, depression or another mental health concern, talk to a medical professional to get the support you deserve.

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