Let me paint you a picture… It’s Thursday night and everyone has stopped working but you. You’re exhausted because you got in at 8 am, but you keep telling yourself “30 more minutes”. Next thing you know, it’s been 2 more hours and you’ve now put in a 9+ hour day. Sound familiar?

If this scenario sounds remotely familiar to you, chances are you’ve experienced work overload; And, chances are you’re also still experiencing it now. Even if you haven’t experienced work overload, there is a good probability that at some point in your future you will. So, let’s learn how to avoid it so that it doesn’t kill your productivity and cause burn-out.  

What are the symptoms of work overload?

Work overload can cause employees to resent their workplace. Rather than going to work and enjoying their day, they are going to work stressed and staying long hours to complete their work. This unhealthy lifestyle can cause burn-out and negatively affect their well-being and quality of work. 

Here are some of the common symptoms of work overload:

  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Feeling overwhelmed 
  • Poor quality work 
  • Easily agitated
  • First one in the office, last one out
  • Bringing work home 

How do you handle work overload?

There are a few things you can do to handle work overload:

  • Communicate to your manager/co-workers that you are struggling
  • Take time off to work on your mental health 
  • Practice time-management and prioritization 
  • Don’t work overtime or bring work home (what doesn’t get done doesn’t get done)
  • Don’t check your work emails/messages after hours 
  • Meditate to limit your stress

Pro tip

Keep track of all your action items and meetings with a tool like Fellow so you know exactly what is upcoming in your schedule.

Common signs of work overload

Here are a few common signs of work overload to keep an eye out for:

1 Missing deadlines

Missing a deadline here and there happens to the best of us. However, if it becomes a regular occurrence, you may be experiencing work overload. In this case, the amount of work that you have is hindering you from completing it on time.

Consider talking to your manager about moving deadlines to compensate for your workload or reaching out to a co-worker for help. Remember, communication is key.  

2 Quality bar goes down

If you notice your quality of work has declined, it’s probably because you are experiencing work overload. When you have too much work, you are unable to put as much time and energy into one thing, thus, your quality of work will suffer. 

3 Unengaged or exhausted teammates

Similar to Zoom fatigue, work overload leaves employees feeling exhausted and burned-out. It is likely that they will also be unengaged during meetings because they are stressed that they are losing valuable time to get work done. So, ensure that your meetings are a time that works with everyone’s schedule, especially in remote workplaces when people are in different time zones. 

7 Hacks to avoid work overload

If you or your team member has experienced any of the above symptoms, here’s what to do…

1 Learn to say no

Most of us naturally feel an obligation to say yes to more work. Saying no puts yourself in an awkward situation. You want to foster trust and accountability by helping others, but it is also important to get your assigned work done and ensure you will have enough time before taking on more. 

So, knowing when your bandwidth is strengthened to its max and you need to say no to more work will ensure that your mental health and productivity don’t suffer. According to Ashira Prossack, Communications trainer and coach, 

“You always want to provide a sound reason, not an excuse, as to why you’re saying no. This helps the other person see things from your point of view and respond more rationally rather than reactively.”

2 Get rid of unnecessary meetings

Despite what most people believe, you don’t need to have a meeting for everything. If there’s no meeting agenda, the meeting is bound to be long, off-topic, and inefficient. Thus, when there is no meeting agenda, there is no need for a meeting. 

Also, what happened to emails and phone calls? In this new remote world, it’s almost an unwritten rule to use Zoom or GoogleMeet each time you communicate with somebody. But this should not be the case because the overuse of video conferencing applications can waste time and cause Zoom fatigue. Therefore, when applicable, consider shooting your co-worker an email or giving them a phone call rather than resorting to Zoom. 

“Try something like, ‘I’d love a break from video calls. Do you mind if we do this over the phone?’ Most likely the other person will be relieved by the switch, too.”

Liz Fosslien and Millie West Duffy, Harvard Business Review contributors.

3 Perform a time audit

According to Anthony K. Tjan, Harvard Business Review contributor,

“We end up doing the things that we are better at, simple things, things we enjoy, or things that seemingly just have to get done at that moment, instead of the things that are most meaningful and impactful.”

Performing a time audit will show you where most of your time is going. This is useful because it will help you delegate your time and prioritize more important things to ensure that all of your work is completed. 

Furthermore, time blocking is a method that allows you to focus all of your allotted time on one specific task; For example, delegating X amount of hours to your top priority. This helps you stay organized and on top of your tasks rather than an open-ended to-do list where people are often left wondering which task to start on. 

4 Leverage asynchronous communication

We already talked about the benefits of changing a meeting to a phone call or email, so now let’s talk about the benefits of changing meetings to an asynchronous form of communication

We spend so much time in synchronous meetings that take time out of our busy days. Our time is valuable, especially if we are experiencing work overload. So, to cut down on the time spent in meetings, consider switching to asynchronous communication.

Not only does asynchronous forms of communication save time, but it also helps prevent Zoom fatigue. Zoom fatigue will leave your team experiencing the same side effects of work overload, thus, is something we want to avoid at all costs. So, rather than having weekly team meetings via Zoom, have each manager write an update for their team and send it through Fellow. This will ensure that everyone is informed, yet doesn’t have to sit through a long meeting. 

5 Ask for help

Some people fear asking for help because it makes them vulnerable. Or, some people feel that asking for help makes them look clueless. But there is no shame in asking for help, rather it is something to admire. 

If you have too much work on your plate, one of the best things that you can do is ask for help. Ask your co-worker if they have any extra time to take on a few of your tasks. If they are too busy too, suggest working together to combat both of your tasks – this way, you are both benefiting!

Asking your manager for help is also a great way to avoid work overload. If you feel like your manager has assigned you too much work and the deadlines just don’t look reasonable, politely explain to them that you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can also ask them if they could assign some tasks to another colleague, help you with your tasks, or change some deadlines to give you some breathing room. 

6 Pick your objectives ruthlessly 

According to Mike Lamb, productivity coach, 

“Ruthless Prioritization is the elimination of what doesn’t drive you towards your goals. There is always too much to do, not enough time & time cannot be created. So, your limited time must be intentionally invested. Being clear on your goals clarifies where to invest time.”

Picking your objectives ruthlessly means deciding when your tasks will be completed, how you will move things along, checking in on the progress of your tasks (and your teams’ tasks for managers), and using technology to your advantage (for example, using Fellow’s streams). 

7 Delegate when needed

Sometimes it can feel like you are responsible for everything, especially when you are a manager. So, it is important to remember to delegate tasks to team members to ensure that you aren’t the only one taking on the responsibilities. 

This can be done by assigning action items via Fellow for team members to carry out and communicating when help is needed. 

Parting advice

Work overload can happen to the best of us. Oftentimes, your manager doesn’t realize they have assigned you too much work, so the best thing to do is communicate how you are feeling. If they are a good manager and foster a psychologically safe environment, they will prioritize your well-being over your work and want you to speak up if you are struggling. At the end of the day, work overload can cause serious repercussions so following the above advice to limit it or avoid it is crucial.