Work overload is a common problem in most workplaces. But it’s not just about working long hours. Work overload can also mean having too many items in your task list, that you simply never finish.
I’ve worked in roles where I worked very long hours for long periods to finish everything. I’ve also managed teams where there was so much going on that it wasn’t possible to finish it all. In that case, we had to choose what wasn’t going to get done.
So how do you know whether work overload is a problem for you and your team? If you look for the right signs, it’s usually not hard to tell.
Signs of work overload
1. People constantly miss deadlines.
If you’re in a situation where deadlines are missed consistently, you may have work overload. Usually this indicates that you don’t have capacity in the team to take on the work, so people keep pushing it to the back of the queue.
2. Errors start to appear.
In work overload situations, issues start to happen. People miss things, because they take shortcuts. Nobody is focusing too hard on each task because they are busy worrying about the next one.
It becomes more about ticking the task off the list, than making sure it’s done properly.
3. People start to become “frazzled” or stop caring.
Sometimes the most dangerous part of work overload is when overloaded people start to become overwhelmed and “frazzled”. This is usually because there are many competing priorities and people aren’t quite sure what to focus on. It also occurs because people feel upset and feel that they are letting others down.
People may also give up and stop caring. They feel like they can’t succeed, so why should they bother even trying?
Take note of people complaining, looking stressed, being frustrated or overwhelmed. These are telltale signs of work overload.
How to avoid work overload
The signs are relatively easy to spot. But what can we do about them? It’s easy to do nothing and wait for the weekend, but guess what? It will still be a problem on Monday.
Let’s look at some ways to handle work overload.
1. Understand the problem.
One of the biggest challenges with work overload is that it’s hard to measure. Just how much work can Brett the maintenance worker handle? It’s hard to tell, because everyone has different limits of stress they can take.
Many leaders struggle to call out work overload, because they feel they’ll be criticised for being “soft” or jumping at shadows. That’s why you need to understand the problem properly.
In the areas of most concern, start to map out all the work that people are involved in and when it’s going to happen. You’ll soon see if you have a problem because some people will have many priorities next to their name in a short period of time.
Only once you have understood and articulated the problem properly will you be able to actually help anyone.
2. Start saying “No”.
One of the critical leadership skills that many people overlook is how to manage up and say No. The real problem is that many people think that saying “No” isn’t an option. Remember that it always is, and remind your team of this too.
You don’t want to surround yourself with people who always say Yes. They will overpromise and underdeliver, and eventually burn out. You want people who push back when you’re being unreasonable, and you need to do this to your boss too. To improve this skill, read the Managing Up guide by clicking the image below.
3. Give people permission to stop doing things.
When you’re in a work overload situation, you need to protect the wellbeing of the people around you. One way to do this is to give them permission to stop doing things if they’re too busy.
Identify some of the less important tasks that your team performs. Give your team permission to let them slip or cancel them for a month. This gives your team room to breathe and they don’t feel bad, because you said it was OK.
4. Keep close with your team and communicate.
The last way to avoid work overload in your team is to understand what they are working on and to keep communication lines open. Make yourself available when people need to talk. Try to give your team every opportunity to raise issues, if they need to.
Even when everyone is busy, you need to make time for this. It may just help you avoid an unfortunate burnout situation.
Work overload is never fun, and you want to avoid it in your team. Even though it seems like a good idea to push your team hard and get everything done, you need to understand the cost of doing so.
There is no point completing amazing amounts of work if everyone is burnt out and unhappy at the finish line.