Overwhelm in the workplace

Overwhelm in the workplace

When was the last time you felt completely on top of everything you need and want to do in your work? This week? Last month? Last year?

An increasing number of our clients are reporting feelings of overwhelm in their work. It’s not a surprise: prior to the pandemic, organisations were already having to accelerate their pace of strategy delivery and change simply to keep up. Now, against a background of even greater uncertainty and volatility related to Covid and/or Brexit, many organisations need to pivot entirely, expand or extend the changes they’ve made so far, or ‘make up for lost time’. These pressures are felt right across leaders, managers, and their teams and when you feel like you are running just to stand still it can feel completely out of control.

Oxford Languages’ definition of overwhelm is “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass of something”. In the workplace it might feel like we’re being buried in meetings, emails, and deadlines – with no time for thinking or deep work. It might be feeling drowned by a surfeit of projects and initiatives, particularly if they don’t feel coherent or have elements of ambiguity. It might be feeling that the pressures of ‘business as usual’ are preventing us getting to the new ideas and strategic opportunities. It might be a loss of the boundaries between work and home-life.

Of course, pressure and stress in the workplace isn’t always bad. It can help us focus, be energised, and step up our performance to meet new challenges. The problem arises when stress is (a) significant and (b) sustained. Many of the leaders we speak to are feeling that they’re now operating at full speed, all the time. The most recent Labour Force Survey report (November 2020) reports that work-related stress, depression, or anxiety has increased markedly, and now accounts for 51% of all work-related ill health (a rate of 2,440 cases per 100,000 workers)[1].

Furthermore, stress and overwhelm are likely to be exacerbated if our normal coping techniques and resources are depleted. Clients tell us that the wider implications of the pandemic have increased the likelihood of overwhelm at work. Remote work has blurred the boundaries between home and work: some of our clients have fallen into the habit of working extremely long hours to try to keep up; others miss the thinking or decompression time provided by a daily commute. Technology has made it possible for us to be ‘always on’ and available, and as a result perhaps it’s become harder to say “no”. Working online can also make it harder for individuals to admit they’re feeling stressed (particularly if it looks like their peers are coping fine), and harder for managers to read the signals on behalf of their team-members.

Here are two examples of how overwhelm is playing out for some of our clients – either scenario may be familiar to you in your workplace:

  • Organisation A: Several senior leaders feel that their organisation is trying to implement too much change and they are feeling personally overwhelmed by the number of initiatives they and their teams need to deliver at pace. As individuals, they are excited about what the organisation is trying to achieve and are positive and enthusiastic about the need for change – just not at this scale. They have not yet raised their concerns with their Executive team.
  • Organisation B: There are significant differences in resilience levels between teams and individuals; some parts of the organisation are working excessive hours, others are not. As a result, there is an uneven rate of stress, and the potential for resentment to build between teams. In the teams that are most overwhelmed, it has become a vicious circle: conversations that need to happen are being de-prioritised.

As a leader, how can you look after yourself when feeling overwhelmed?

  1. Awareness: take a moment periodically to check-in on your stress level; consider whether the level is increasing, decreasing or stable; and identify what is driving the greatest amount of stress at that time.
  2. Prioritisation: have a clear view of your personal priorities; identify what’s urgent versus what’s important; carve out ‘do not book’ time in your diary for important tasks that tend to be de-prioritised. Give them a label in your diary that means others will not override the time with more meetings!
  3. Honest conversations: be courageous in conversations with your peers or manager about how you’re feeling and what support you need; you can use our overwhelm coaching questions to support this (see below), either on your own, or with a coach, mentor, or trusted colleague.
  4. Self-care: have explicit conversations within your team about the boundaries you all need to sustain performance; make time for activities that recharge your resilience (it might be sleep habits, exercise, family time, being in nature, mindful breathing).

And how can you look after your teams and colleagues?

  1. Role-modelling: By role-modelling the steps above, you can help to re-set expectations about speaking up, prioritisation, effective performance and healthy boundaries.
  2. Reviewing plans: Review strategic and operational plans regularly to determine the absolute priorities, and be ruthless about what can be stopped, delayed, or done in a different (more manageable) way; if the overwhelm feels systemic, work with your colleagues to identify a constructive way to escalate to the Executive team.
  3. Listening: If your teams are reporting being overwhelmed, take the time to listen to them, and even experience their work if you can; use our coaching questions to help them to identify their own improvements to the situation.

Overwhelm at work is real – and it affects individual health and organisational performance. Pecan can help you navigate and manage the causes of stress and their implications. Our Inclusive Culture Health-check and Hybrid Working Toolkit include conscious approaches to get under the skin of what’s driving overwhelm in your workplace (including the unwritten rules and cultural habits), and how to evolve them (keeping what works, and transforming what’s getting in the way). We’d love to share more detail, so do get in touch.

Pecan’s coaching questions to help reduce overwhelm:

  1. What is driving this feeling of overwhelm for me?
  2. What is the highest (or best) use of my time?
  3. What can I stop, delay, delegate or do differently, in order to reduce this sense of overwhelm?
  4. What conversations and with whom can transform this for me/us?
  5. What conversations am I avoiding and why?
  6. What am I assuming that is keeping me feeling overwhelmed?
  7. If I say yes to this (e.g. a new priority), what am I saying no to?

These coaching questions can be used by individuals or adapted for team / organisational use.

(Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash)

[1] Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2020; Health and Safety Executive; November 2020.

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