By Patricia Bouweraerts, Editor
Workers continue to put in long hours despite the Recession being a somewhat distant memory — they do the nine-to-five gig but bring work home, swing shift it and then some, or “grave the yard” at night shift.
There is not much question that many working people simply have too much to do in their day, or their night.
“In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours,” according to an August 2014 article on News.Gallup by Lydia Saad.
Gallup reports that data from 2013 and 2014 Work and Education polls show 18 percent of U.S. workers 18 years and up work 60 or more hours a week.
In the U.K. having too many tasks at work is one of the leading causes for employee stress.
“The research by CV-Library found that 60.9 percent of U.K. employees feel overworked and a quarter of them admit to having taken time off due to stress,” wrote Karen Higginbottom, contributor in a November 2015 article on Forbes.com. “…The survey also explored the biggest causes of stress in the workplace, with feeling overworked and feeling under-appreciated being cited as the top two causes of stress.”
The study also found that there is a stigma attached to admitting to the boss that one is stressed, Higginbottom added.
WorkplaceStory connected with job and management experts in the U.S. and U.K., and they offer some tools and tips for communicating with colleagues and supervisors when employees begin to feel too loaded down.
How do you tell your boss you feel overworked?
Nevada-based international speaker and author Chantel Mathson and founder of Tea With Chantel workshops says that it is understandable to have difficulty expressing to a supervisor that one has been given too many tasks.
“It can be a challenge to communicate when we feel overwhelmed,” she said. “One of the best things to do is to have a plan in place for how the work could get done if they weren’t doing it themselves. If an employee lets the boss know upfront that they have a solution for the workload, then they should be more open to hearing the concerns and shifting the workload. They could lay out a plan to create a task team that they could lead or they could offer a solution to stagger the workload so that they can really focus on one task at a time.”
Approaching the supervisor this way makes the conversation more about solving the problem collaboratively, rather than being seen as simply complaining about being overworked.
“Coming up with a solution shows the boss that the employee cares and allows them to be more open to hear the concerns,” Mathson said. “Strong communication is also a two-way street, so an employee needs to listen to the response of the boss and not go in with assumptions about how the boss will respond. They should go in with a positive outlook and the sooner they can communicate the stress the better, as it can become a bigger situation if it is left for too long.”
Dianne Lowther, executive coach of leadership and engagement in technical environments, and owner and director of Brilliant Minds, a firm based in the United Kingdom, agrees that employees should be prepared when approaching their boss.
“My suggestion in respect of your question about how an employee can alert their supervisor to an impossible workload without seeming to be inefficient or just complaining, is this: gather the data,” she said. “For example, ‘there used to be six people in the department and now there are two of us. In one of the departments we support there used to be ten people and now there are eight.’ Or, ‘The number of customers has doubled and although they’re doing 50 percent more business online, the number of calls to our department has remained the same.’”
Pulling up one’s sleeves and handling extra tasks shows commitment to the company.
“Also, demonstrate your willingness to work more hours or more intensively in the short term and explain to your supervisor that this work rate is not sustainable,” Lowther said. “Acknowledge the need for the company to cut costs and to operate efficiently as well as putting your own case.”
She suggests underlining how colleagues are working together, but also providing a look to the future.
“’Since there have only been two of us in the department we no longer take a lunch break because it puts too much pressure on the person left at their desk,’” Lowther added. “Neither of us minds supporting each other like this in the short term, but what’s going to happen when one of us is on holiday? We understand that the company needs to keep costs down, so it’s not going to help anyone if we get so tired and stressed we can’t do our jobs properly.’”
Brigid Schulte is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play when No One has the Time,” and was an award-winning journalist writing for The Washington Post. Schulte and fellow researchers have developed materials to help both employees and their bosses.
“We’ve created a Better Work Toolkit based on some of our original research on behavioral science and work-life conflict and health, to help give employees the tools they need to approach employers about redesigning work and work systems,” Schulte said. “The evidence-based tool is also meant for managers to help them make the case for change.”
What if a manager doesn’t agree an employee is overloaded?
When communicating to a manager that the workload is becoming overwhelming, what does a person do if he or she starts to sense that the boss doesn’t agree a staffer has too many tasks or projects? Politely re-state, or back off until another time?
Mathson suggests that it may be about the timing.
“A critical component to successful communication is choosing the right time to express concerns,” she said. “So, if one’s boss is not ‘hearing’ the complaint about an overstressed and overloaded employee, then the best thing to do is back off and re-evaluate. But, one thing that may help it from coming to a situation where the boss isn’t ‘hearing’ the employee’s concern is to make sure the meeting and discussion is at a good time of day. Each of us have high stress times where we are less likely to agree to something or even be able to hear someone. If they know that their boss is in a more relaxed mood in the late afternoons for example, then it would be best to schedule a meeting at that time.”
Managers also don’t like to be surprised, and an employee can provide a heads-up for an upcoming meeting.
“They should also communicate in advance what the meeting will be about so that they don’t take the boss off guard,” she said. “The more honest and open we are in our communication the more likely we will be to connect, collaborate and get our ideas across.”
Lowther added that sometimes a situation may not be feasible.
“Ultimately, if your employer is making unreasonable demands on you, you can choose to leave and work somewhere else,” she said. “In the U.K., this is sometimes regarded as ‘constructive dismissal,’ i.e. making the job so unpleasant that the person resigns. Most companies are keen to avoid such charges, so they will listen if there is a genuine problem.”
Additional tips are enlisting the help of co-workers, or re-framing a project
In a January article posted on Harvard Business Review, HBR.org writer Rebecca Knight interviews Liane Davey who is co-founder of 3COze Inc. and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.
“When the boss is unwilling to make changes, Davey recommends giving your teammates ‘a heads-up’ that you’re feeling swamped,” Knight wrote. “’If your boss won’t cut you some slack, they might,’ she (Davey) says. Perhaps they can take something off your plate or work around a delay on your part. ‘And even if they can’t help, they’ve at least been given a warning’ that you’re overextended and therefore unable to give it your all, and you’ve ‘headed off anything that would erode their trust.’”
Eilene Zimmerman interviewed business professionals for her story in The New York Times, including Evelyn Williams, a professor teaching organizational behavior at Wake Forest University, in North Carolina. She said that workers might decide to re-frame their thinking about a new time-intensive project if it might further their careers.
“If the project could improve your skills or get you noticed by those who can promote your career, it may be worth losing sleep over, Professor Williams says,” Zimmerman wrote. “’Will the task or project be a good thing for your career? Will it build your network?’”
Being overworked is a popular topic on the crowd-sourced discussion site, Quora
Jeff Shih, founder of Swarm Intelli Games (SIG) in Los Angeles believes that employees can practice preventive care for an eventual possibility that one is assigned too many projects to handle.
“Step #1: on days when your workload is light, volunteer for assignments that your co-workers avoid,” he wrote on Quora.com. ”If possible, help other people finish their work. Step #2: repeat step #1, until you’ve earned +2 respect. Step #3: when you start to fall behind in your work, tell your boss that you are ‘falling behind in your work.’”
Additionally, health care professional Debbie Schwartz advises workers to not tell their supervisor they have too much on their plates.
“No lunch, no breaks but to pee working 12-hour shifts as a nurse in a hospital,” she wrote on Quora.com. “Good luck but never tell a boss that it is too much work only makes you look inadequate. Just have to figure out a way or try and move on.”
A wrap-up for the day
Worldwide, every two seconds there is a new tweet about stress, according to JustPark.com.
“11.3 million working days were lost in the U.K. last year due to stress, anxiety and depression,” posted JustPark. “That’s almost three times as many as workplace injury.”
When an individual is managing too many projects, he or she may gather data, ask to meet with a supervisor at a pre-arranged mutually beneficial time, and offer workable solutions. An employee may also be willing to cover the extra projects for the short term and be open to to alternatives the supervisor suggests.
If all else fails, in choosing to leave a workplace, it may be reassuring to take away something learned from the experience — including skills of information-gathering, better planning and preparation for meetings, and improved communication in stressful situations.
In the current workplace culture, it is apparent that experiencing overwork is more likely than not to recur. Mary Foley is the author of three books, speaker, and holds an M.S. in Organization Development from Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management. She agrees that heavy workloads are on the rise.
“Overworked and overwhelmed is an epidemic that I don’t see going away … unless we take proactive action for ourselves,” Foley said.
- “Brilliant Minds: Dealing with Workload Challenges,” by Dianne Lowther.
- Communi-Tea with Chantel Mathson; education, youth, motherhood, military, and more.
- “How to handle workload overload,” by Mary Foley
- How do you tell your boss that there is too much work?, Quora.com question.
- How do hard workers burn out?, Quora.com question.
- “Why Your Best Productivity Hacks Still Come Up Short,” a March article by Brigid Schulte, FastCompany.com.
- The Better Work Toolkit, by Brigid Schulte, Dan Connolly and Uyhun Ung.