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Overwhelmed at Work? Here’s How to Have the Conversation with Your Boss

Thanksgiving is the only time when having too much on your plate is a good thing

Overwhelmed woman

Image courtesy of Obi Onyeador

Sometimes it can feel like you’re treading water simply trying to keep yourself afloat at work. Your schedule leaves you feeling exhausted and frustrated. You don’t know when you’re going to have the time to complete your assignments because your to-do list feels never-ending. 

Speaking to your boss about the topic might feel intimidating, especially if you think it might make you look lazy, unproductive, or unmotivated. Whether what’s causing you to be overwhelmed is coming from inside or outside the workplace, it’s important to know that you can often approach your boss about the problem. 

It's important to broach the subject because being overwhelmed can lead to burnout. According to Pew Research, not only are women spending more time doing paid work than they have in the past, they’re also spending more time doing unpaid work, like housework and child care. And according to a January 2020 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women in the U.S. spend 37 percent more time on unpaid household and child/elder care work than men do. 

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Do I Talk About Mental Health with My Boss—or Prospective Employer?

How to talk to your boss about being overwhelmed

Identify why you’re overwhelmed

Michelle Merrit, managing partner at Merrfeld Career Management, suggests that you plan out what you’re going to stay before you meet with your boss. She says to ask yourself, what do I know for sure? And, what is the reality of the situation I’m facing? 

Identifying the source of the stress can equip you to ask for the right kind of help. Are you feeling overwhelmed because a coworker is not pulling their weight? Then you may need to ask your manager to balance the work. Are you overwhelmed because you have a sick child at home? You may need to ask your boss for the ability to work from home, change shifts, or flex your hours.  

Talk with them in person 

Have the conversation with your boss in person if possible. If that’s not possible, have the conversation over a video platform. Email, which should only be used as a last resort, can leave room for misunderstandings or miscommunications. 

Elissa Weinzimmer, voice and presence coach and founder of Voice Body Connection, offers an example of what to say when you have the conversation: 

I am feeling overwhelmed, and I think it is because of _____. It is making me feel like I cannot ____. What I really want is to be an excellent employee, so can you help me figure out how / help me _______?

Read more: The Beginner’s Guide to Professional Communication

Be honest

Honesty is always the best policy. Be upfront and straightforward with your boss, but don’t feel obligated to tell your boss all of the details if the source of your stress is outside the workplace or personal. For example, if you’re experiencing a personal medical matter, you can say just that. 

If the issue causing you to be overwhelmed is in the workplace, you should be as specific as possible about the problem so that they can help you to address the situation. 

Read More: When It’s Time to Take a Mental Health Day & How to Ask for It

Have a specific request

When you talk to your boss about being overwhelmed, propose a specific way they can help you. 

For example, you might say:

I’m currently caring for a family member due to illness, and this makes it tough for me to work my normal shift. I’d like to switch to an earlier shift so that I can both do my work and care for my family.

Or, ask if you can outsource some assignments or delegate certain tasks to another employee:

I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate, and delegating these tasks would really help. Clarice has been wonderful in client meetings—I recommend passing these responsibilities to her.

Or, you might ask your boss to help you make a plan and prioritize your tasks to avoid burnout.

I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of my work to meet deadlines, but I’ve been overwhelmed lately. Could you help me prioritize these tasks and review the deadlines with me so that I can stay on track?

Read more: 6 Time Management Strategies to Remove Work Friction

About our sources

Business coach, writer, advocate, and speaker Michelle Merritt is the Managing Partner of Merrfeld Career Management. Her previous roles as a Fortune 500 Recruiter, corporate culture executive, training manager, and chamber of commerce vice president led her to create Merrfeld Career Management to serve in a way that encourages, promotes, and enables people to be their very best. Her top 5 CliftonStrengths are positivity, communication, connectedness, arranger, and relator.

Elissa Weinzimmer is a vocal health educator, presence coach, and the founder of Voice Body Connection. After suddenly losing her own voice at age 21, Elissa began studying the mechanics of voice. Over time she developed a unique, concrete approach to coaching that empowers performers, leaders, and speakers to optimize their voices and share them more authentically. 

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By Lilly Washburn

Editorial intern

Lilly Washburn is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who has a passion for writing about marginalized communities, specifically women and the HIV/AIDS community.

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