Five techniques to outsmart overwhelm at work

The problem with overwhelm though, is that if we don’t manage and monitor it, it can grow and turn into the beast that is burnout

Deadlines approaching, to do lists that don’t end and back-to-back meetings. Argh! Overwhelm at work is more a case of when it is going to happen, not if it will happen. Thankfully, Lynne Cazaly has all you need to combat it…

Few people get to work overwhelm-free and all EAs have pressures and expectations to reach targets, achieve what’s asked and do a good job. Work can overwhelm with quantity or workload as well as information overload and the emotional overwhelm of having to show up and ‘carry on’. Meanwhile, employers are making big decisions and big changes, announcing restructures and new systems, while you deal with challenging colleagues, bosses and customers.

The problem with overwhelm though, is that if we don’t manage and monitor it, it can grow and turn into the beast that is burnout. Researcher Jennifer Moss reported in Harvard Business Review that from more than 1,500 people surveyed in 46 countries, 56% said their job demands had increased. And 62% who were struggling to manage their workloads had experienced burnout ‘often’ or ‘extremely often’ in the previous three months.

Burnout, as the World Health Organisation says, is “more than just an employee problem; it’s an organisational problem that requires an organisational solution” and it comes when we experience ongoing stress with no relief. Not even a weekend in the country or a week by the beach will fix it.

We need new ways to outsmart overwhelm before we reach burnout – beyond just calling for more self-care. Start with these five techniques that will help you stay alert to rising levels of overwhelm at work:

  1. Know your triggers. What gets on your nerves or winds you up? Knowing what accelerates or advances your overwhelm is important. See these things ahead of time and they’ll have less power over you.
  2. Write out the work. Instead of juggling your to do list in your head (you know, those 3am wake-up-in-a-sweat moments) make them visible by writing them down. Even though the number of things might be more than you’d like to see, ‘externalising’ information is a powerful technique in the process of outsmarting overwhelm.
  3. Stop juggling so many things at once. It’s impossible to multitask all day and expect to feel good at the end of it.
  4. Conserve your energy and focus on fewer things. Doing fewer things but doing them well, or at least finishing them, helps take them out of your mind. If you do still wake in worry, see point #2 and write your thoughts down. You’ll get back to sleep easier.
  5. Manage yourself. One of the best career success tips is to be a good manager of yourself, your workload, your time and your energy. Knowing what you’ve got on and when it’s due shows you’ve got your head around the work to be done. That’s much harder to do when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is an important part of our human functioning and we need the extremes of “It’s easy, I’m chillin’” through to “I’m smashed, it’s too much” to know where our boundaries are. But we also need to know that too much of anything isn’t healthy. Working longer hours, stressing over deadlines and worrying about reports isn’t a sustainable way to work long-term.

There’s a middle line here of balance – it’s where you can get good work done and achieve your goals while being aware of the rise of overwhelm and its damaging effects. It’s rewarding to still be able to reach a deadline and high five someone (even if it’s yourself) rather than drowning under the weight of everything being too much to cope with.

Lynne Cazaly is speaker and award-winning author on new ways of working. She helps individuals and organisations think and work in more productive, collaborative, creative and effective ways