Lots of us feel overwhelmed and stressed at work, particularly if we have too many responsibilities or if our bosses are piling on the pressure.
Nearly two-fifths of UK businesses (37%) have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, with heavy workloads and poor management style to blame, according to a 2019 report from the CIPD and Simplyhealth.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, it’s hard to get anything done. So what can we do if things get too much?
Focus on one task at a time
“We can often feel overwhelmed when we feel a lack of control,” says Life Coach Directory member Felicity Dwyer. “It’s worth taking the time to think about what is in your control and how you can organise those elements of your working day.
“Our brains work better if they focus on one task at a time, so as far as possible I recommend grouping tasks together, for example, working through your emails in blocks of time rather than checking constantly.”
If the nature of your job requires regular email checking, then be disciplined about prioritising opening emails that may need an immediate response, Dwyer adds. Dealing with them as soon as possible is a good idea, as allowing a lot of half-finished tasks to build up can be a big cognitive load.
Track your time
Constant interruptions can also contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed or feeling out of control, particularly if we have a lot of tasks to get through.
“Some interruptions are inevitable and can’t be foreseen, so aim to build in contingency into your week,” Dwyer says. “If everything goes smoothly, you can use your contingency to get ahead in your work, get organised.
“If the nature of your job is that it’s largely reactive, then you need to plan for this. A good strategy is to keep a time-log for at least a week, maybe longer if your work has a monthly cycle,” she adds. “Work out how much of your time is typically spent reacting to calls, short notice requests and so on, then you know the time you have for other activities and can avoid over-commitment.”
Prioritise your tasks
The key to all of this is prioritisation and agreeing priorities with your manager. “If you can’t do everything, make sure you identify the priority tasks each day and week and get those done,” Dwyer says.
“If you have competing priorities, for example if you are working for more than one manager, then make sure you have conversations about what is most important. Also be clear about the standards expected so you are delivering good work, but not getting caught up in an unnecessary level of perfectionism.”
Step away from your smartphone
If constantly checking your emails, messages, WhatsApp, Slack and social media accounts leaves you wanting to cut off all contact with the outside world, you aren’t alone. Technology overload has become increasingly prevalent in the workplace - but you can take control of this by limiting some of the information that comes at you each day.
“For social media, switch off all non-essential notifications and check messages and posts in your own time,” Dwyer says. “You might like to experiment with a digital detox by taking all non-essential apps off your phone for a week, and observing the effect.
“If it’s hard at first and you feel drawn to your phone or bereft, then bear with this for a few days to see what happens,” she adds. “As you get out of the habit of checking, you may find that you have more time and headspace in your life. It’s certainly worth a try and with any strategy the key is to give it a fair trial, and observe how it works for you.”
Take a break
When facing a heavy workload, it’s common to feel like a “deer in the headlights” and get very little done - which in turn, leads to even more stress.
“Feeling overwhelmed is often a result of anxiety about how much we have to do,” Dwyer says. “If you feel your thoughts spiraling, take some time to connect with the present moment. Consciously take a few deep breaths, and allow your outbreath to be longer than your in-breath as this has a calming effect.”
No matter how busy you are, it’s crucial to take a lunch break. Even just a short walk can help clear your head and get your blood flowing, making you far more likely to be able to focus on work afterwards.
Consider moving jobs
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed at work, it may well be down to the management style and the way the company is run, as well as being overloaded with too much work. This might be likely to change in the near future, but if not, it might be worth considering moving to a different company.
Leaving a job is a serious decision, so it’s important to do some preliminary legwork when it comes to job searching before you jump ship. Spend time seeing what's out there and subtly identifying some other companies you might apply to.
If you want to know more about a potential company and the way they work, it’s a good idea to check reviews on sites like Glassdoor. After all, you don’t want to end up with the same problems you faced before.