I’ve been fortunate in recent weeks to take some amazing time off. I traveled with my family, saw new parts of the world, rested deeply, and I’m feeling super recharged.
Before we headed out, I knew how badly I needed a break. But candidly—given I’m my own boss—I have no one to blame but myself for the toll I let these last few months take.
Is Everyone Overwhelmed at Work?
Now, in this state of refresh and recharge, I’m noting how many people around me (some aware and some not so aware) seem equally overwhelmed. Overworked, overburdened, and kind of afraid of taking some breathing space.
We’re in this interesting moment. Workplace wellness is finding the spotlight. Leaders are recognizing the importance of having healthy, rested humans making up the workforce. And also, the economy has tightened on up. We’ve seen layoffs and budget cuts and customers demanding more and better. And leaders are feeling stuck in the middle. What would it be like to not be overwhelmed at work? How do we maintain healthy workloads while meeting customer demands and while resources are constrained?
There is, of course, no perfect answer. But let’s talk about some strategies we can all be using to keep the collective us in a high-performing but not working-to-the-bone zone.
1. Start with a check-in.
This can be with yourself, or with your team if you lead one.
There are no hard and fast criteria here. But just start with a scan. How do you or your people seem? How does the energy feel? What kind of hours are people working, really? How engaged do you or your team feel? Does showing up for work seem fun and exciting—at least sometimes? Or are you seeing a whole lot of eyelids only half open?
How do people seem to be handling stressful moments? What’s the collective mood like?
These questions—and any others that feel important—can help you paint a qualitative picture of how you or your people are faring.
In my experience, overworked people or teams tend to show up…
· A little dull and tired. Like they’d rather be anywhere but here.
· Less creative—like everyone is just going through the motions without questioning or experimenting.
· Less collaborative. Working together takes energy. And when our stores are low, we tend to isolate. To want to go it alone.
· Less open to conversation—focused only on timelines and deliverables.
· Less graceful in moments of stress or uncertainty. Because navigating these situations also requires energy. And when we’re overworked, when something goes even slightly off the rails, we can’t handle it.
There are no formal measures—it’s all relative to your normal. But take a look around. What are you seeing? Do you suspect overwork may be a foreign invader?
2. Take a hard look at your priorities
Because here’s the thing. Often when I ask a leader which priorities matter most, they say “all of them.” And I say [bleep]. Because that’s not an option.
When I ask them to force rank the priorities, we get somewhere. And I ask them to imagine just crossing off the bottom one. For now.
“If you achieve all but that one,” I might ask, “would your team still have achieved success?”
It’s nearly always a yes.
A priority on its own will always seem essential. The key is relativity. Being a leader in today’s world is all about making choices. Managing tensions. The right question isn’t “is this important?” but rather the better questions are:
· Is this the most important?
· Is it as important as all of these others?
· Is it important enough to risk the health of my team?
· What would the honest consequence be if we crossed off or even just postponed this one?
If you can’t find a way to make any adjustments at all, then—tough love—you’re not thinking critically enough about the bigger picture.
3. Get crafty and make real choices
Priorities ultimately translate into work. So if a priority is to enhance customer service, for example, the work might include things like reviewing a month’s worth of customer feedback or reviewing standard operating procedures in search of new efficiencies.
When you or your team is overworked, basic math states you have a few options (and ignoring the problem isn’t one of them):
· Do fewer things.
· Do things more creatively or efficiently.
· Do things to a lesser degree of perfection.
· Do things over longer stretches of time.
· Do things leveraging the help of others beyond just your team.
At least these are the options that come up for me.
So set aside some time—with yourself or your team—and start exploring.
Is there anything on your to-do list that can be crossed off or postponed, even for a hot minute? Before you say no, really challenge yourself.
Or what about streamlining how you’re getting certain things done? Like, instead of reading all the customer feedback from last month, can you start with 20% of it and look for patterns?
Or when you’re writing up the report to share your findings, can you choose and highlight a few key data points without crunching and analyzing everything?
Or can you choose just one process or program to focus on enhancing?
Or has another team undertaken something even a little bit similar? Can you borrow their insights or a dashboard they’ve created to move you from square zero to 2?
We—the royal we—tend to bring an all-or-nothing mindset into the workplace. But sometimes shrinking the scope can be just the thing to help us balance progress with human wellness.
4. Infuse support
I’ve mentioned before that I belong to a community of other service-based business owners. It’s something I value enough to pay for. Because as much as I love working for myself, my need for community remains present.
When you have a problem, you need a solution. But also, sometimes just knowing you’re not the only one experiencing a problem can offer a spot of relief. Plus, being part of a community gives you access to lots of brains all striving to solve that problem—more ideas, more places to test your hypotheses.
And I think this model works beautifully in the workplace. Leaders, if you’re having trouble solving the overwork problem for your team, then create a forum just for them. Where they can discuss their challenges, support each other, and maybe come up with a few ideas that you hadn’t thought of.
Better yet, partner up with other leaders in your organization to make this community even more expansive. Because an idea that worked in Finance may well serve the tech team and vice versa.
Whatever steps you take, please remember—for yourself and for your team—breaking points are real. We can postpone them for a while. But not forever. So infuse some relief into the system before something breaks. Repairing a fracture takes way more time and effort than finding small bits of relief along the way.