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Stress, burnout and feeling overwhelmed are common challenges in our workplaces.

These problems have always been there, but thankfully there seems to be greater awareness of them these days.

But … even with greater awareness, I’m not seeing these challenges disappear.

Managing large workloads and stress levels is a common challenge that isn’t going away.

So in this post, I’ll be taking a look at some ways that you might be able to help your team members work through the situation.

If My Team Is Feeling Overwhelmed, Is It All My Fault?

Not necessarily.

Yes, leaders have a part to play in work allocation and maintaining oversight so the situation doesn’t get out of hand.

But often, overwhelming workloads are not completely within the leader’s control, either.

There are a number of factors that can contribute to this problem, including:

  • Necessary work: Sometimes, the work you do is important and impacts people. Saying “No” is not always an obvious option. I find this particularly impacts organisations who provide support for the public, such as in healthcare or social services.
  • Lack of visibility: You can’t be everywhere at once, and sometimes the signs of overwhelm aren’t obvious. You may also lead team members who may be scared to admit they are struggling.
  • Leading “people” people: You know those people who love helping others? They’re great – until they take on too much work, because they are so helpful. Sometimes it’s hard to stop our people from doing that.
  • Multiple channels: For many teams, the work doesn’t come only from the leader. It can come from customers, other teams, senior managers… the list goes on. Sometimes work can pile up from different channels that aren’t immediately obvious.

So no, this isn’t all your fault. But we do need to help our people navigate the situation!

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #197: Stressed Team Member? Look For These Common Causes.

A Note On “Unstructured” People

What I’ve noticed during my travels is that many people aren’t structured by nature.

They don’t log every task they do. Most likely, they don’t block out their whole day in the calendar to create a detailed schedule.

They don’t estimate in meticulous detail and watch every minute they spend.

Trying to get “fluid” people to use structured systems is fraught with danger. It might have some benefit initially, but it often isn’t sustainable.

Unstructured people

After a while of trying to get people to be someone they’re not, the system collapses and they go back to their old ways.

So the ideas in this post are intentionally simple – to hopefully make them easy to implement, rather than a constant struggle.

We don’t want people fighting against their nature… we want them to be themselves, with some simple tweaks that help them reduce their feelings of overwhelm.

Learn More:  Forget the Tools, Master These Top 3 Time Management Skills.

How to Help Your Team, When They’re Feeling Overwhelmed

During my time leading teams and coaching leaders who are feeling overwhelmed, I’ve noticed something.

One of the biggest causes of overwhelm comes from uncertainty.

Uncertainty comes in a few different forms, phrased as questions:

  • Can this work even be done?
  • Is the work possible in the time I have?
  • How should the work be packaged up, to be achievable in my role?
  • What work is the most important?

We want to help our team reduce uncertainty if we’re going to drive down our feelings of overwhelm.

Help Your People Find Out If They’re Screwed Or Not

When I was a consultant, I started to realise that it’s important to know if you’re screwed or not.

Stressed team memberBy “screwed”, I mean in trouble, unable to hit the deadline or finish the work.

What I mean by this is that the uncertainty is a killer. If you feel anxious because you don’t know if you can get the job done by the deadline, you’re in limbo, anxious and stressed.

You need to clarify the situation by finding out if you’re screwed. If the answer is yes, now you can do something about it.

If the answer is “I don’t know”, you continue on the same path, feeling overwhelmed and anxious, failing to make the changes needed to succeed … because you *might* be OK.

“I don’t know” leads to inaction. We want to provide your team with certainty, so they know they need to act, or whether they’re on the right track.

So here we go.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #65: How to Deal With Uncertainty: Working “In the Grey”.

1. Find Out If It’s Possible

Let’s start by helping our team members find out if their workload is possible in the time available.

This can be super simple.

Map out the work week. Use big blocks, like 8 hour days, or whatever is a “normal” day for them.

If the overwhelm includes their personal life, use full days, instead of just work hours.

Next, help them do a ballpark estimate of each piece of work they have on.

Sum them all up to create a total.

Are there enough hours available to fit the tasks? Is it close … or way off?

This might not be scientific, but it can be a good starting point to work out whether the team member needs to look for alternative options, or can stay the course to get the work done.

2. Help Your Team Member Categorise Their Work

Top priorities - productivity problemWhen you’re looking at a task list of 20 items, it’s hard to tell what’s important, and what’s not.

So instead of trying to prioritise on a task level, start by grouping the work of the team member into categories.

Categories help you to abstract the work into more manageable chunks.

Once you have the categories, see if you can help your team member work out which categories of work are more important than others.

Obviously different pieces of work will have different deadlines, but this is a good starting point for prioritisation.

If your people aren’t clear on which categories are most important, you can guide them. This gives them permission to prioritise their work.

Prioritisation takes the guess work out of what work to do next. When they have the categories prioritised, they can use these to guide the priority of each task that arrives.

Learn More:  Too Many Priorities: What to Do When You’re Asked to Do It All.

3. Stop Team Members Feeling Overwhelmed by Working Out the Time Blocks

Every role is different, so we can’t think about managing our workload in the same way all the time.

In some roles, interruptions are a key part of the job, especially if you are required to answer phone calls or customer enquiries.

In others, team members will have long stretches of time where they can work freely without interruption.

The important question to ask is:

“On an average day, what’s the average amount of time you can work without being interrupted?”

The answer is important, because it helps you to work out the blocks of working time that a team member has at their disposal.

If a team member has a maximum of 30 minutes at a time without interruption on an average day, it’s counterproductive for them to divide their work into 2-hour blocks.

Trying to squeeze 2-hours of work into half an hour is difficult, and has the potential to make the task feel overwhelming.

This can be a big source of procrastination… “I’ll just start it tomorrow”.

If you can help your team member break their work down into appropriate sized chunks, they can grab chunks that will fit into their work blocks and complete them in the time available.

Learn More:  Time Management For Leaders Online Course.

4. Help Your Team Members Set Limits

This is a simple idea that I worked on with a coaching client recently.

This client was very busy, and would often forgo healthy actions (such as exercising) to spend more time working.

My client noticed decision points throughout the day and week where they would make this choice.

So, I asked:

“How many times would you need to exercise in a week to feel satisfied about the amount of exercise you’d done?”

They worked out an appropriate number.

Setting Boundaries at work - drawing circle

Then, each time they were tempted to skip the exercise, they’d see how many times they’d exercised already that week.

They’d use the target number to help them make the decision.

This strategy certainly doesn’t guarantee success, but it does make the decision making process much more intentional.

Rather than just being on auto-pilot, you’re consciously making a choice.

It doesn’t necessarily need to relate to exercise – is there another way you could adapt this simple strategy with your team members?

Learn More:  Setting Boundaries at Work: Why It’s Crucial.

It’s Not About Controlling the Work, It’s About Helping Your Team Control Their Work

When team members are feeling overwhelmed, it’s tempting to run in and save the day for them.

Cancel tasks, push back or even do the work yourself.

But this doesn’t provide any long-term benefit for your team – it makes them rely on you like a crutch.

They’ll always need you to be there, to save the day.

Instead, could you help them apply these simple strategies?

How do you coach your team when they’re feeling overwhelmed? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!

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