How to ask for relief when you have too much work

Overwhelming Workload

How many times have you felt overwhelmed by your job responsibilities, but unsure of how to let your boss know? You don’t want to seem incapable or like you’re not a team player, but you really need some relief.

You’re not alone! We’ve all been there. Here’s how to get over the fear of asking for relief, and advocating for yourself to get back in balance.

Does this scenario sound familiar?

A woman I mentor called me saying, “My life is completely out of balance but I’m afraid to let my manager know my workload is out of control.”  I could hear the frustration in her voice.

Julia was concerned about her workload which had been steadily increasing to the point of where she was giving up her nights and weekends. When she had a rare night off from work, she was too tired to do anything for herself, her family, or her friends. She had no energy to go to the gym or cook a meal, and she was losing sleep over this issue. She didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and was getting discouraged.

When I asked her why she didn’t discuss this with her boss, she said she was afraid to let her manager down and afraid of potential repercussions.  I could relate. I used to think that I had to say yes to every request, especially from my manager. It took me years to realize that if I didn’t share that there was an issue, my manager would never know. I could say, “Yes, but something else has to go,” without fearing I would lose my job.

A discussion about balance: fear vs. reality

Julia and I  spoke about her fears in raising the topic of her unsustainable workload, and how her manager might potentially react to each of her concerns.

“I’ll let my manager down if I don’t get everything done.”

Although she intellectually knew her workload was unreasonable, she prided herself on the quality and quantity of work she delivered, the reputation she built of being committed and reliable, and her sense of accountability, responsibility, and reliability.

We talked about the “deposits in the back” that she has built up based on her contributions over the past few years. This gave her the credibility to raise a valid concern.

Make it a point to respect yourself as much as you respect your work and those you work with.

“I could be fired if I say I can’t handle it.”

Julia was also concerned about being labeled as not being a team player, not able to handle the pressures of the office, or as a lazy or incompetent.

I encouraged her to raise her concerns about working hours since it is highly unlikely she (or anyone) would will be fired for raising an issue or asking a question, providing it’s done respectfully.

We talked about how much a company spends on hiring a person and getting them up to speed in their position. The last thing an organization wants to do is fire people who they have invested in simply for raising a challenging question or issue.

Speak in a professional and respectful manner, and raise relevant issues to the appropriate level of person.

“My boss doesn’t like me to raise issues.”

The reality is we often make assumptions about how others might feel, without truly knowing. In this case, we really don’t know if Julia’s manager understood the hours required to get her work done, or that the amount of hours she was working was a burden. Or, if her manager did know but didn’t care.

There’s only one way to find out - ask. Not only would she never know how her boss feels if she never asks, but her boss will also never know how serious the problem has become.   

Don’t stress over a reaction or response that may or may not happen. Don’t make assumptions about if others are willing to discuss a topic or not.

“They might think I’m not cut out for this job, so I better just keep my head down and plow through the work.”   

Julia’s concern here was again that she did not want to be seen as making waves by raising an uncomfortable issue. Accepting the status quo might sound easier at first glance… if she was willing to continue giving up her life for her work.

If she didn’t raise this topic, her manager might not even be aware of it. She owed it to herself to advocate for her physical, emotional, and mental well being! And she had to be her own fiercest advocate.

Your opinion matters. If something isn’t right or needs to be addressed, then don’t be afraid to address it.

“What can my manager say or do anyway? The work still has to be done.”

While this defeatist attitude might be a coping mechanism to soften a blow that may never come, it would also prevent Julia from asking to address something that has become unbearable.

It certainly is true that she might not get immediate relief for her workload. But, if she didn’t ask I could guarantee she wouldn’t get it since our managers can’t read our minds.

Here we pictured the end goal: a scenario where she left work at a reasonable hour and had weekends for herself. Next we talked about how to have a productive discussion with her manager that delivers an outcome that will meet both of their needs.  

Let others know your goals, plans, and needs.  If you don’t speak up, they may never know!

To address a challenging conversation, be prepared

To get comfortable addressing her workload more concretely, we talked through how to approach a conversation with her manager. We wanted to make sure she come across as a problem solver, a go-getter, and a leader, by offering suggestions and insights and by acknowledging her manager’s needs.

The goal was to get her manager’s support, buy-in, and alignment on expectations and a solution that would satisfy both of them.

We brainstormed on a few elements.

When would the best time be for the conversation?

Julia should schedule a discussion on a serious topic like this when she or her manager are not under a deadline, and when they have enough time to talk about potential solutions.

How could she raise the topic of her workload to point out the impact on results and not come across as whining?

She can start with the fact that this is unsustainable, followed by potential suggestions. “I have been working 60+ hour work-weeks for the past few months, but I simply can no longer put in those hours. I’d like to discuss a plan for a longer term solution to our team’s growing workload.”

There is never a need to explain what her personal obligations are. The key is to offer suggestions so as not put the problem squarely in her manager’s lap, yet to engage her or him in a productive conversation.

What should she bring to the meeting?

How many people or hours are realistically required to do the job? What deadlines are coming up? Are any of them flexible or are they all fixed? What are a few recommendations she can bring to the table?

What are some potential solutions?

The key is to work toward a solution that will meet her needs, her manager’s, and the organization’s. Some examples might be:  

  1. “What if we re-prioritize the work and align on the top 3 things that we can realistically accomplish within the next 30 days. Here are the 3 I think are most critical. Do you agree, or do you see it differently?”

  2. “What if we broke the workload into phases, with each phase lasting 2 weeks.  Here is how I would organize the 5 phases of this project.”

  3. “With our current staffing, we cannot meet the immediate priorities or timelines. Here are a few things I recommend we delay, and here are a few we can delegate to another team. Do you concur?”

What if her manager says no to all of her prepared suggestions?

She should not capitulate and agree to continuing her hours. Instead, she could ask more questions, again with the goal of bringing her manager into the problem-set.

“We still have the issue of my hours. What other options have you seen work in your past?”

“What other groups or people might have bandwidth to step in for a few weeks or months to help out since we cannot manage this amount of work with our current team?”

“What work can we reduce or eliminate altogether so we can meet our most important goals?”  

She was now ready to schedule time with her manager to begin the conversation to take back her life and advocate for herself. Regardless of the outcome, she will have practiced the skill of having a difficult conversation. This should help her get what she wants and deserves in other areas of her life as well.

What would you do if you had more time for yourself?

We all have many things we want to do but don’t have the time for. Some of these activities are work related, and others are more personal. The best use of any time you can free up is to do what your mind and body are telling you that you need at that moment, whether work, play, or rest. Addressing your workload with your manager is a great first step to get back some of your time.

For further reading:

6 Steps to Follow to Overcome Your Fears & Achieve Your Goals [LinkedIn]

Feeling Overwhelmed? 6 Ways to Take Control of Your Workload [The Muse]

How to Tell Your Boss You Have Too Much Work [Harvard Business Review]

Stretched Too Thin? 5 Strategies for Coping With Too Much Work [Forbes]