When you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, even a small thing can push you over the edge to an emotional reaction such as anger or crying. For many people, working in a constant state of overwhelm has become normal and even celebrated. They consider it a badge of honour to show how busy and important they are. However, ongoing overwhelm has a darker side, that can damage our health and cause burnout.

In this article, we’ll explore the causes of overwhelm, and how to establish a routine and mindset that ensures you do not have to live with intense overwhelm.

This article does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a severe health condition, then you should consult a medical professional.

What is overwhelm?

Overwhelm describes a feeling of having too much to deal with, and a sense of being on the edge of an emotional breakdown. A little overwhelm is normal when we start something new or are pushing ourselves to achieve bigger goals. However, when this becomes long-term and extreme, it’s generally counterproductive.

Most of us relate to the feeling of spinning many plates across our work and personal lives. With extreme overwhelm, all of your plates are teetering on edge. Any addition or interruption can bring them all crashing down.

Problems that you would usually find easy to deal with can send you spiralling into an angry or upset outburst when you are stretched that thin.

You may look at your to-do list with a spinning head and have no idea where to start.

Feeling overwhelmed at work

What causes overwhelm?

Overwhelm typically results from:

  • Too many responsibilities.
  • Too much complexity within your responsibilities.

In the book, Immunity to Change, two Harvard professors- Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan, argue that we experience overwhelm “when the complexity of modern life surpasses our complexity of mind”, in other words, the level of complexity in our lives stops us from functioning effectively.

What are the signs of overwhelm?

The following can all be signs that you are approaching a state of overwhelm:

  • You feel under significant pressure
  • Your mind is racing
  • Your brain is not functioning as it usually does
  • Your energy is dropping
  • Your stress levels are high
  • Physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, or feeling the need to use food, alcohol, nicotine or drugs as a coping mechanism
  • Struggling to prioritise your to-do list, with no idea what first thing to action from your workload
  • Feeling you are unproductive and wasting time.

How to deal with feeling overwhelmed at work

As a coach specialising in stress and burnout, I support many clients who are facing overwhelm at work and their home lives. The following are the strategies I have found to be the most effective in combatting overwhelm in my life and with my clients.

Get support to prioritise your to-do list

If you have lost perspective on what you need to get done first, ask your boss or supportive team members to help you categorise which tasks are high priority, what you can delegate to someone else, and what can stop.

Your manager may not be aware that you are dealing with impossible workloads and feeling stressed, so give him or her the opportunity to support you to make your workload manageable. It’s down to us to put in boundaries between our work and home life, while also carving out self-care time. No one else will do that for us.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Focus on just the top thing on your list at one time, and try to forget the rest is there for now.

Recognise what’s necessary vs perfectionism

If you set high standards for yourself and your work, it can be difficult to do ‘just enough’ to get the task done when you’re busy.

When you already have an unmanageable to-do list, maintaining perfectionist standards is a surefire way to put yourself under excessive stress.

Set boundaries

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, don’t wait for someone else to notice and help. It’s down to each of us to take control of our work and home lives and set boundaries for what is acceptable. You are the only person who knows what you need to have scheduled into your day to perform at your best.

Decide what’s a reasonable amount of time to spend on your work, within the boundaries of your contract. Then hold yourself accountable for sticking to that.

Be strict on how often, if at all, you check your emails outside of working hours and be conscious of any precedents you are setting. If you are already overloaded, and someone tries to give you an additional task, let them know that you don’t have capacity. If the additional task is important, it will simply spark a conversation about priorities.

Re-energise through self-care

When you are under pressure, it’s easy to free up time by cutting out the things that are critical for a healthy lifestyle such as sleeping enough, eating well, exercise and breaks. Although it initially gives you more time to work through tasks, eventually it becomes counterproductive. You’ll find your energy levels and productivity drop and rather than blasting through your list, your wasting time.

Ruthlessly protect time for a self-care routine. For help with this, download the self-care checklist from the box at the bottom of this article.

Keep a sense of perspective

When I feel overwhelmed by things in my life, a visualisation that helps me to put everything in perspective is imagining seeing the Earth from space. There is something about the sheer vastness of that picture that helps me remember that my challenges, although difficult, are not the end of the world.

Still your mind

Feeling overwhelmed often leads to racing thoughts and brain fog. One of the techniques I use to stop feeling overwhelmed is to calm my mind through guided yoga or mindfulness.

Be around nature

Getting out in nature has a host of mental health benefits. Just 20 minutes in a park at lunchtime can make all the difference when you feel overwhelmed. It gives you a moment to step back and focus on your needs.

Woman in nature

Get help to address the root cause of ongoing overwhelm

In some cases, feeling overwhelmed at work may be very short-lived. Perhaps you have a project to get through a deadline, or you are covering for your boss temporarily. When we know it’s just temporary, it’s easier to keep perspective and focus on good time management.

However, when there is no end in sight to feeling overwhelmed at work, it’s time to step back and get help. Work with your boss to identify:

  • If there’s a resource gap in the team
  • What your priorities are
  • If you need some additional training or coaching to help with any complexity overwhelm, or to improve time management.

In the corporate world, it can be challenging to open up about feeling overwhelmed. However, the longer you work under extreme work stress, the more likely you will see a dip in your performance and negative impacts on your wellbeing. Living in survival mode long-term can destroy your confidence and health. Take a breath, and reach out for support.

Test and challenge your assumptions

When you are under pressure, it’s easy to let assumptions block you from asking for help. Notice the thoughts running through your mind – perhaps journal on them if it helps – and start to challenge them.

You may find you are telling yourself some of the following:

  • I have to do it all.
  • I’ll ruin my reputation if I ask for help.
  • My boss won’t want to hear about my work stress.
  • My colleagues are too busy to help me out.
  • If I just work harder, I’ll get it all done.
  • If I miss exercise this week, I’ll get more done.
  • I’ll just work this one weekend to catch up.

Try reframing your thinking with some of these:

  • I am enough.
  • I am worthy.
  • If I prioritise my self-care, I will be more productive.
  • I will work through my priorities one at a time.
  • My manager and team want to help me.

Test it out and see if it helps you to stop or reduce feeling overwhelmed at work.

Feeling overwhelmed at work, when working from home

Organisations are increasingly giving employees the flexibility to work from home regularly. This trend has accelerated due to the pandemic, with many workers now forced to work from home and homeschool at the same time.

On the face of it, working from home should be a great way to reduce work stress: no more long commutes twice a day, the ability to get more sleep and more family time. However, in practice, some people feel a higher degree of work stress when based at home. The reasons for this overwhelm include the following:

  • For some people, it’s easy to feel like you’re alone. Talking to colleagues around the coffee machine or heading to lunch together can be a great way to share what’s on your mind and help you identify with being part of a team. Without that, you may find yourself just sat staring at a screen all day.
  • There are less boundaries between work and home life. You may find you are constantly checking your emails if you live and work in the same space. Or you may keep working into the night to finish the next task.
  • You may feel overwhelmed by regular video conferencing while juggling homeschooling in a hectic environment.
  • The simple loss of routine is enough to lead to many people feeling overwhelmed.

The following tips can help you to stop feeling overwhelmed when working from home:

  • Keep a regular schedule. As humans, we like certainty and consistency. If you stick to waking at the same time each day, and schedule regular exercise time, breaks, regular meals, and time with your family, it brings more structure to your day, which creates less stress.
  • Try to work in a separate part of your home to where you relax, if possible. The less cluttered your working is, the easier it will be for your mind to focus. If you don’t have the luxury of a home office, take the time to set up a workspace and remove it at the end of each working day, to avoid the temptation to keep heading back to check emails or progress more tasks.

Conclusion: prioritise your self-care

While a level of feeling overwhelmed is normal in new circumstances or on a one-off busy project, living in constant overwhelm causes stress that hurts our health and can lead to burnout.

The bottom line is your primary job is to keep yourself fit and well. Once you have strong self-care foundations in place that are non-negotiable, you can achieve anything!

To help you to set your own self-care schedule, I’ve created a free self-care checklist for you to download (just pop your details into the form below). The first page of the checklist gives you some inspiration for self-care rituals you can follow, and the second page is blank for you to complete with your personal plan.

Please share any questions and tips in the comments below or email emma@defeatburnout.com.

We will defeat overwhelm and burnout. You are enough.

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