People are increasingly overwhelmed by their work

I confess it happens to me sometimes. So, how do you avoid it and what do you do about it when it happens? There are a set of practical steps that you can take to get back on track. Follow this list and get back on top of things, and stay on top of things.

The first step

Talk to someone about it. Talking to someone else will bring some objectivity and balance. At the very least it will give a different perspective. Perhaps be bold enough to discuss it with your boss. Employers have a duty of care, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Trust me when I say that it is generally not in your employer’s financial interests to kill you off! At the very least, they would have the costs of training a replacement.

Over Doing It

Being overwhelmed leads to high levels of stress, resulting in the fight or flight response. That is a useful if you are a soldier in a war zone, but not in the modern office environment, however war-like the politics may get at times. So, if you are feeling stressed, it can be useful to get out and run! At least take a walk or have a swim to burn off that extra adrenalin.

Get some rest, start with an early night. If you can, take a few days break. It might seem counter intuitive, but having a break means you will have more energy to tackle work when you get back. Even just that decent night’s sleep will help you regain a healthy perspective. Longer term, you may want to think about increasing your level of fitness by planning some regular exercise. If you are generally not sleeping, you might want to seek medical help. The source of stress must be dealt with, or the fight or flight response gives way to the general adaptation syndrome, and eventually burnout.

Invest an evening or a half day in catching up. The harsh reality is that it is going need an additional push from you to get back on top of things, but it is an investment of time that will be returned to you. Procrastination certainly isn’t the answer, even though your brain might want it to be.

If you are already working every weekend and evening, some serious intervention is required. If your employer views this as a mandatory part of the job, I would say book some holiday and use it to find a new job. Unless you love your job more than anything or anyone else, it isn’t worth it, life is just too short. If you are self-employed and have to work at this level, then pick an end date, write it in your diary and determine that you will step back the time requirements by that date. For the majority of people that sort of work regime is not sustainable in the long term – it will do you harm.

Modern work has no natural bounds

In the days of ploughing fields, you knew when you had completed the job and could head home. With today’s knowledge-based working there is a lack of clear endings, and inappropriate use of devices like BlackBerrys isn’t helping in defining limits. You must create bounds and agree them with those that define your work. These have been some of the best conversations I have had with managers and leaders. You will be surprised at the results – if you are not, tell me about it. When you need additional resources, ask for them. If you can’t have them, renegotiate the work load. Remember, you are not bonded labor. Slavery is illegal in most countries around the world.

Most employment contracts will have working hours written into them. Yes, I know that most companies delight in ignoring these. It is very short sighted of them. At least use these hours as a reasonable target. For the self employed, I suggest you make a contract with yourself and have your partner or friends hold you to it. Be reasonable with yourself and others. In the long term, a productive person working less hours is significantly better than an unproductive person working excessive hours. This is true for the company and the individual.

Get to a work rate that you can sustain

The only long term fix is to balance work inputs and outputs, a sustainable work rate. Without this, even after you catch up, you will find yourself behind again. With a fix in place, you won’t get behind, other than for brief periods of time. The final piece is to clear that backlog. Start by writing a quick inventory of what it is overwhelming you. It may not be as bad as you think. Look at the list:

  • Can you renegotiate some of your commitments, to create some freedom.
  • Look at the largest and most important. Can you enlist help or reduce the scope of the work?
  • Are there any that feel like ‘impossible tasks‘? Break them down into smaller chunks.
  • Would some of them benefit from some planned abandonment.

Once you have rested, through that early night or short break, book that block of time to catch up. This might mean getting into the office very early for one or two days, a trick which can be amazingly effective. You might choose to stay very late one day instead. Just don’t burn the candle both ends at once! Use this additional work time exclusively for that backlog list. With some focused effort, you will churn through it quickly. As you feel the load lightening, your daily productivity will pick up and you’ll soon be permanently back on track. Now you can focus on staying there, and enjoying life!

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