Regardless of where you work, jobs can be stressful and it’s normal to be overwhelmed at work for short periods of time. It’s just the nature of employment that every job comes with its good and bad days.
Unfortunately, over the past 18 months, working adults have seen more bad days than good, with COVID-19 causing havoc around the world.
But being overwhelmed at work is not just a phenomenon caused by a global pandemic. The daily stresses of a job and its constant demands were here before the pandemic, and they will be after.
So what should you do when you’re feeling totally overwhelmed at your job and don’t know what to do next?
First, let’s understand the what and why of feeling overwhelmed – the signs and causes of why your job makes you feel defeated daily. Then we’ll delve into how to stop being overwhelmed at work.
What does it mean to feel overwhelmed at work?
Feeling overwhelmed at work usually means you’re in over your head and either can’t keep up with all the demands or don’t have the necessary skills to do your job. Feeling overwhelmed at work can also mean you don’t feel like you have support available to help you deal with the situation.
Consider all the demands that are placed on you every day.
You have deadlines to meet, projects to start, projects to finish, calls to answer, emails to reply to, team members to help, and on and on.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re hourly or salary, blue-collar or white-collar, entry-level or C-Suite, or work from home or at the office or on the road, every job carries with it emotional, mental, physical, and social stress.
If you’re unable to maintain a healthy balance or sense of self within your professional life, it’s easy for one, two, or all four of the above stressors to cause you to lose engagement with your job.
When you feel overwhelmed at work, you’re trapped in a never-ending cycle of stress and confusion. You constantly operate with the sense that you’ll never get ahead and are always working from behind.
It becomes increasingly difficult to focus. You struggle to manage your time, and instead of moving forward with your tasks, you often feel paralyzed. Mental fatigue is the norm for you, and you regularly deal with creative block.
Signs you’re overwhelmed at work
There is no single tell-tale sign that you’re overwhelmed at work. The signals vary from person to person and can prove very subtle, such as gradual loss of appetite.
Or they come all at once in force, like sudden irritability or a wave of sleepless nights.
Of course, sometimes these things are the result of a bad day or having to work with a really difficult person.
So how can you tell whether you’re feeling stressed due to unique circumstances that will soon change or because of the very nature of your job, which won’t change?
Here are some common signs that it’s your job that is causing you to constantly feel overwhelmed, and that you may need to make some kind of significant change.
You always feel helpless
You feel like you’ve lost control or like you have no direction in your professional life. Without a clear path, the sense of feeling trapped becomes really strong and overwhelming. When it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, you start to experience burnout, depression and anxiety. You have a constant sense of need to make a change but don’t know what that change is or how to do it.
Work is constantly on your mind
This is less about being a workaholic (there’s plenty of people who enjoy working a lot) and more about the job dominating your every waking (and sleeping) thought, especially if you try to avoid it. Even when you’re relaxing or hanging with friends and family, work keeps coming back to your mind.
Sleep is difficult
When you feel overwhelmed at work, sleep becomes increasingly difficult. Your job stresses you to the point that you’re up at all hours with anxiety and dread about what the next day will bring. When you do fall asleep, the resulting shut-eye doesn’t do much for you, and you wake up feeling both tired and anxious.
You’re always exhausted
Everyone becomes tired and worn out by their job from time to time. Usually, a day off or a weekend away is enough to recharge the batteries. But when you’re overwhelmed, you can’t escape your exhaustion and perform poorly at work, develop a short fuse, and lose your drive to succeed. And the more exhausted you are, the more overwhelmed you become.
Your eating habits change
Over or undereating is common for people under a lot of stress. Anxiety about your career may result in a dramatic loss of appetite, or drive you to binge eating in an effort to self-medicate.
You get sick a lot
Being under a lot of stress and feeling overwhelmed can create significant health issues, including:
- Stomach or chest pains
- General malaise
Anxiety about your professional life isn’t limited to emotional problems. It can manifest itself physically, leading to serious health issues.
You feel increasingly hostile and pessimistic
A bad mood amid a lousy day at the office is one thing. However, if your daily outlook on work (and life in general) casts a dark shadow over everything you do or everyone you interact with, it might be time to stop and assess what’s driving the negativity.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of signs that you’re overwhelmed at work, but it should at least give you a sense of what to watch out for. If you find yourself regularly experiencing any of these things on a regular basis, it’s probably time to step back and look at the big picture.
Why do I feel overwhelmed at work?
In order to overcome feelings of burnout and being overwhelmed, you need to know what’s causing you to feel that way in the first place.
There are many different things that can cause you to start feeling completely overwhelmed at work, including:
- Feeling like you have too much to do, and not enough time to do it
- Feeling you aren’t being paid fairly for all of the work that you
- Saying yes to too many requests and stretching yourself thin
- A supervisor who demands more than your job description
- Not having the necessary skills or tools to do your job effectively
- Multiple impending deadlines
- Lack of sufficient support from your supervisor or coworkers
It should also be noted that physical and mental disorders can contribute to feeling overwhelmed. For example, if you struggle with an anxiety disorder or depression, even simple tasks can seem intimidating, let alone challenging work tasks. If you believe you are experiencing something like this, it’s important to see a medical professional as quickly as possible.
Ultimately, the reason you’re feeling overwhelmed is unique to your circumstances, job, demands, etc. It can come solely from what’s happening in your job or it can be a combination of personal and professional reasons.
How to stop feeling overwhelmed at work
Thankfully, being overwhelmed at work doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. There are concrete actions you can take to relieve the burden you’re feeling.
More than simply identifying the specifics of why you’re feeling overworked or underappreciated or at the edge of your capabilities, you must also take steps to correct your trajectory.
Here are five ways (and a critical action item) to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and getting your professional life back on track.
1. Understand the things that trigger feeling overwhelmed
Feeling overwhelmed doesn’t come from nowhere. Rather, specific things happen that trigger those feelings. Maybe you feel overwhelmed when your boss makes a last minute request. Maybe it’s when you look at your task list and realize there’s no way you’ll get everything done by the specified due dates. Or maybe it’s when you don’t make nearly as much progress in a day as you thought you would.
When you start to feel overwhelmed, ask yourself why. Be as concrete as possible. The more you can nail down the specific causes of your bad feelings, the more you can specifically address them.
When you start to understand your different triggers, you can then create coping strategies for when they occur in the future. For example, if you start to feel anxiety when you look at your task list, you can prioritize your most important tasks and then ask for help or delegate less important ones.
2. Unload everything in your mind
Write down everything on your mind to help clear out whatever may be overwhelming you. This can include your daily schedule, tasks you need to complete, triggers you’re dealing with (or anticipating), or your thoughts on addressing your struggles.
What you’ll find is that writing everything down helps you map out your concerns and get clarity on what steps you need to take. Your daily schedule is easier to organize when on paper and not in your head. You can better prioritize tasks. And you are able to get a concrete understanding of what’s overwhelming you. That alone makes it less of a burden when you can “see” it coming. It’s something you can strategize for and not obsess over.
You may want to consider adopting the habit of “morning pages”, a concept originally created by Julia Cameron to help artists overcome creative blocks. But as many people have discovered, it’s a powerful exercise that anyone can benefit from. Tim Ferriss calls it the “most cost effective therapy I’ve ever found.”
The concept is simple. Fill three pages with longhand, stream of consciousness writing, first thing in the morning (ideally). Do you have to do three full pages? No, of course not. That’s just a guideline. It provides you with enough space to dump what’s rattling around in your brain without taking an excessive amount of time.
3. Use Parkinson’s Law to your advantage
Named for British historian and author Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law says that your work expands to fill up the time you allocate for its completion. In other words, if you give yourself a week to complete a task that should only take a couple of hours, you’ll unnecessarily draw out the task over a week.
Instead of procrastinating on tasks until the last minute, which typically leads to feeling overwhelmed, make deadlines work to your advantage.
Start by breaking larger projects into smaller tasks, each with its own time frame and deadline for completion. Then work hard to complete each task by the deadline you created. The more consistently you do this, the more progress you’ll make in a shorter amount of time. Instead of feeling anxious as tasks pile up and deadlines approach, you’ll steadily check off tasks.
4. Set appropriate boundaries
When overwhelmed at work, most people’s first instinct is to fight through it, double their efforts, or work longer hours. But if you’re nearing burnout, trying to push through will only compound the problems. You need to determine how you got to where you are in the first place.
Step back and look at everything that’s contributing to your feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Where did those things come from? Did you say yes to unnecessary requests from your coworkers? Did you wait too long to start on a project or underestimate how long a task would take you? Do you regularly work outside of normal work hours, which has created the expectation that you’re always available to your boss or team members?
Once you’ve identified what has brought you to where you are, determine appropriate boundaries that you can set in place. This could be something as simple as not responding to email or Slack chats after 5 pm.
It’s important to note that you may have to have challenging conversations with your supervisor or coworkers when you put these boundaries into place. One way to frame these conversations is in terms of doing your best work. Explain that as much as you want to do everything, you end up being spread so thin that the quality of your work suffers.
If your work culture expects you to always be connected and work long, crushing hours, it may be time to reevaluate whether you’re in a sustainable position for the long term.
5. Delegate and ask for help
One of the fastest paths to feeling overwhelmed is being overloaded with too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it. If this is a familiar scenario, it’s time to delegate and ask for help in getting things done.
Delegating is simple if you take the time to organize all of your responsibilities and sort them into the four quadrants of the Eisenhower Box:
- Important and Urgent: Do it now.
- Important but Not Urgent: Schedule a time to complete it (adhering to Parkinson’s Law while you’re at it).
- Not Important but Urgent: Delegate it to someone capable of completing it.
- Not Important and Not Urgent: Delete it.
Focus on what’s essential, delegate lesser tasks, and get rid of those items that don’t matter and you need not be overwhelmed by.
Take some form of action – specifically take time for yourself
Take a break. Take a breath or at least a minute to stop and breathe. Take a moment to plan. Take lunch with a coworker to talk it through. Take a meeting with your supervisor to express your frustrations (professionally, of course). Take an entire night to sleep. Take a vacation.
Take some time for yourself.
The point is to take action to help get out from under the rut you may find yourself in. Taking a moment to distract yourself and evaluate your current situation allows you to see things more clearly.
Only then can you genuinely identify what’s overwhelming you at work and then take action to address it.
Take Back Your Life
Being overwhelmed at work isn’t just a professional issue. It can also negatively impact your personal life, your relationships, and your health. However, taking steps to understand where the burdens originate and then developing strategies to address them will get you back in control of your professional journey.