What To Do When Your Employee Is Overworked And Overwhelmed

Any one overworked and overwhelmed staff member can have a high impact on your team's performance and productivity. Which is why it's important you can spot it as as soon as possible and know how to handle the problem well.

Your first task as a manager is to pinpoint and understand the cause then chart a course of action to avoid the problem spilling over into more difficult capability issues or erodes team motivation and performance.

General Information

Stress isn’t always bad. In fact, a little bit of stress is what many people use to help them stay focused, energetic, and able to meet new challenges in the workplace. Good stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation or alerts you to prevent accidents or costly mistakes. This stress is overcome or managed by actions we take. However, the 21st century workplace is crammed full of these 'little' stresses, which, when left unchecked or pile in on top of each other, rapidly turn into stress that is not able to be recognised or easily managed. Long hours, tight deadlines, and ever-increasing demands that are not easily resolved or changes, can leave you feeling worried, drained, and overwhelmed. In short it is when stress exceeds your ability to cope, when it stops being helpful and starts causing damage to your mind and body—as well as to your job performance and satisfaction that it is problematic and leads to being overworked and overwhelmed.

Managers and employees alike need to come to terms with knowing they cannot control everything in the work environment. However, this doesn’t mean you’re powerless or even stuck in a difficult situation. When stress interferes with your work performance, health, or personal life, it’s time to take action.

First, you need to pinpoint what the cause of the stress is. Some of the most common causes of workplace stress include:

  • Too much work, unrealistic timeframes and due dates, lack of resources

  • More overtime due to staff cutbacks

  • Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations but with no increase in job satisfaction

  • Pressure to work at optimum levels—all the time!

  • Lack of control over how you do your work

It is most likely to be a combination of smaller things that when left unchecked have built up into overwhelm or being overloaded. Therefore it's also important to consider:

  • Have there been any recent changes? e.g. changes to workloads, responsibilities or personal circumstances

  • Are there additional external pressures that may be placing undue stress on an area of work or the employee?

  • Does the employee hold an unrealistic expectation of what they are need to do or achieve?

Warning Signs

When you feel overwhelmed, the first thing that happens is a loss of confidence. A loss of confidence however is not always visible or easy to spot. As a manager you should be aware of signs of the employee becoming angry, irritable, or withdrawn. Other signs and symptoms of excessive stress at work include:

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed

  • Apathy, loss of interest in work

  • Problems sleeping

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Muscle tension or headaches

  • Stomach problems

  • Social withdrawal

  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

  • Increases in behaviour such as absences, leaving work early and/or arriving late

It's because of this behaviour, that you may not spot the real problem, of an employee being overworked or overwhelmed. Ensure you have carefully considered the root of the problem before taking action. Targeting an employee because of their consistently being late may exacerbate the real issue of work overload rather than getting to the core problem.

Course of Action

Many managers take a far too simplistic view to problem solving overwork and overwhelm. Your job as a manager is to do more than offer words of encouragement and support. To truly help a staff member who is in overload or overwhelm mode you can consider taking the following courses of action.

Practical Help

Prioritise tasks 

Work with the employee to identify high-priority tasks that can be tackled first. It may also be helpful to break the list further into identifying unpleasant or difficult tasks and strategise a plan to get them done. It may also be helpful to set rewards against each of the tasks so there is an incentive for the employee to focus on priorities or those tasks that they have been avoiding.

Break tasks into small steps

Often tasks can be overwhelming if they are overly complicated or rely on others for decision making or releasing of information. If the overwhelm is coming from such as task, help the employee to break the task into small, easy to achieve steps. Help set timeframes, identify who else might be able to assist and where you can find leveraged to unlock information or resources. Help the employee to focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.


Employees who do not have the authority to delegate or co-opt assistance are often overwhelmed. As a manager you have the ability to help share responsibility, delegate tasks to others or give authority to staff to ask for assistance from other. This may mean as a manager you will need to let go of your own need to control every little step. However it is a powerful way to 'share leadership' and eliminate unnecessary stress in the process. Something as simple as empowering an employee to make decisions can help to de-escalate high workloads.

Be willing to compromise

Consider if high expectations are creating unnecessary overwork or overwhelm to deliver. If you or the employee are able to adjust your expectations a little, you may be able to relieve some of the stress and find a satisfactory level of performance that still gets the job done.

Resist perfectionism

This is one of the most common contributors to workplace stress and overwhelm, particularly when it comes from a manager. When you set unrealistic goals for others, you’re immediately setting them up up to fall short of your expectations. It can be difficult, however it is critical to examine your own expectations of performance. Are you asking your staff to aim to do their best or your best? Remember, if you are able to make adjustments now, you can still work toward your high standards in the long term.

Flip negative thinking

As the manager and leader of your team if you are only focused on the downside of every situation and interaction, you’ll find yourself drained of energy and motivation and this will come across. On the flip side don't pretend everything is ok either. You should strive to think positively about what your aims are and avoid negative criticism where there are shortfalls. Celebrate small ins and offer encouragement when even partial expectations are met.

Don’t try to control the uncontrollable

If you really stopped to consider what you or your employee are in control of in the workplace, yo may be surprised to find that there is in fact very little that you do and can control. This is true most acutely when it comes to being able to control the behaviour of others. In these situations, it's not about merely focusing on what you can control. Your focus should be on how you respond and react. Consider how you model responses to things that happen outside of your control. Are your employees mirroring your same responses and reactions. Instead, when things happen outside of your control, focus on how you are going to react and respond and teach your employees the same approach.

Skills for your Employee

Reducing overwork and overwhelm is a joint responsibility of both the manager and the employee. Without each playing their part, the problem will continue and neither party will find any true resolution has been achieved. You should encourage, support and give your employee the skills to do the following:

Talk to your employer about workplace stressors

Rather than rattling off a list of complaints or letting off steam with colleagues, employees should know that they are able to come to you about specific conditions that are impacting their work performance and know that you will take your responsibility seriously.

Clarify your job description

Many employers add a rather large statement to jobs descriptions that simply states 'Any other duties as requested'. This simple but broad sweeping statement can often leave employees uncertain whether a request falls within the scope of their job. This is a joint responsibility between manager and employee. Employees should be empowered to ask managers for clarity or for an updated description of their job duties and responsibilities. You may find that some of the tasks that have piled up are not included in their job description and the workload has expanded above the parameters of their job.

Take time off or work from home

Employees who are able to take action to request time off or to work from home are often better placed than those who believe they have to wait for your to suggest the idea. Empowering employees to better manage their own workloads and time in this way can avoid more larger problems and help the employee to gain perspective, complete the work as requested or find other solutions.

Things to Consider

Many managers take a far too simplistic view to problem solving overwork and overwhelm. Common courses of action are include offering a few days off, allowing the employee to work from home, taking work from an employee or offering word of support. While these may provide some breathing space for an employee, in reality these merely offer a brief reprise. To truly tackle overwork and overwhelm you can also consider:

It's not just being overworked that can cause overwhelm

Feeling bored or dissatisfied with how you spend most of the workday can also cause high levels of overwhelm and take a serious toll on physical and mental health. But for many of us, having a dream job that we find meaningful and rewarding is just that: a dream. Consider whether your employee is finding their job mundane and feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to move on. Changing your attitude towards your job can also help you regain a sense of purpose and control.

Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions that affect their jobs

Get employee input on work rules, for example. If they’re involved in the process, they’ll be more committed.

Avoid unrealistic deadlines

Make sure the workload is suitable to your employees’ abilities and resources and can actually be achieved in the timeframe you have set.

Clarify your expectations

We all think we've been crystal clear about what we expect. However if the pressure is on to perform, subtle shifts can occur which means your employee ends up thinking you have set unrealistic expectations of their performance and/or productivity. Take time to reflect on what expectations you have set. Are employees’ roles, responsibilities, and goals clear to you and to them?.Are your expectations and actions fair and consistent with organisational values?

Offer rewards and incentives

Simple praise of work accomplishments verbally and organisation-wide can do wonders for employee feedback on their performance.

Understand your work cycles

Are you in control of your work schedules or cycles, or are these imposed? Are they predictable according to the time of year or dependant on orders? Consider how you may be able to schedule potentially stressful periods followed by periods of fewer tight deadlines. Consider how you can prepare employees for more stressful periods and offer them greater support or rewards and incentives.

Look for humour in the situation

This is often highly overlooked as a true management tool. When used appropriately, humour is a great way to relieve stress in the workplace. As a manager you can set the tone on using humour, particularly when work is being taken seriously or stress starts to impact people. Consider how you might be able to simply lighten the mood in the office.

Declutter and tidy up

A number of managers think they can't impose on how an employee keeps their desk. However we all know the benefit of giving our own homes a good tidy up, decluttering and putting things in order. The same is true in the workplace. Consider how helpful this could be to an individual who is in overload or for the team to get into a good habit of keeping a clean and tidy desk. A 5 minute tidy up and putting away of files and papers at the end of the day, does wonders for the mind and arriving at work each day to a clean and tidy desk means you are not immediately dreading stepping back into the workplace.

Cue Cards

Hi _____________ , how's you work/day/week been going?

I’ve noticed you seem to be under the pump lately. I just wanted to check in with you and if you are feeling pressure, ask how I can help and work with you. I don't want you burning out, you're a valuable part of this team.

I don’t want to pry, but I just wanted to check in with you about any outside work issues that might be going on for you at the moment. I've noticed you seemed a little more stressed lately and I'd like to help where I can, particularly with any work issues.

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