Having too much work has become the new normal. With the economy still volatile and employment opportunities still tight, the perfect environment exists for overwork. Employers keen on doing more with less keep resources lean and don’t give managers the budget to do otherwise. Employees nervous about dwindling options take on the extra responsibilities and don’t push back. Everyone suffers when there is too much work — decreased quality, lower morale, increased burnout. Ideally, the entire company is in on the fix – additional resources are brought in, emphasis is renewed on sustainable work/ life balance, key priorities are clarified. However, until there is a clear directive that the workplace will change, your work still needs to get done. Here are 5 strategies for coping with too much work:
Prioritize like the ER at a hospital
When it’s clear that you have too much work, you need to make the hard calls on what will not get done. Get to know the stakeholders behind all of your projects and prioritize by proximity to senior management and company goals. Organize your activities not just by absolute deadlines but also by impact on the powerful, the influential and the complainers. (You may not want to keep complainers happy but doing so buys you quiet time to finish your other work.) Remember to also include your career goals in mind as you select what to prioritize. Keep up the work for your supporters, mentors, and people you want to be your advocates.
Let your boss decide on tradeoffs
When your boss gives you yet another project on top of already too much work, be ready to discuss what you currently have on your plate and ask him or her to make the decision on what gets pushed back. From an information standpoint, your boss knows more about upper management priorities so is in a better position to decide this. On a practical level, having your boss decide helps to shield you from fallout if something gets dropped. In order to implement this strategy, you need to stay on top of your work and know exactly how much you have. You don’t want to say Yes and then remember you promised 3 other people some big deliverables. On the flip side, you don’t want to push back and then realize you really could have done it all and made a fuss for nothing.
Delegate with win-win in mind
Don’t feel guilty suggesting to your boss that other people take on this new project or help you with the project. Some colleagues will not be as busy as you are. More importantly, some colleagues will gladly welcome this extra work. Think of people in your group for whom this assignment would be a stretch role or a chance for increased visibility. When delegating a task means you develop someone else or give them an opportunity to shine, it is a win-win for both of you.
Delegate outside of work
There will be some projects you have to do yourself. There will be genuine crunch times where you have to work late and on weekends and this may extend over weeks. I once worked with a financial institution undergoing a government review (a stress test on their reserves), and I was brought in to talk work/life balance no less. Instead, I talked about coopting friends and family to take up the slack on personal commitments because there would be no work/life balance till after the stress test. Sometimes the answer is simply a prolonged work push. The life side of the equation can be delegated to take-out dinners and bringing in additional help on the home front.
That said, you still need to rest and refresh. When it’s crunch time, the temptation to work without stopping at all is so great, you may skip lunch or stay well into the night when you are no longer productive. Schedule breaks every 60 to 90 minutes into your calendar – even if it’s just 5 minutes to drink some water or walk up and down the hall. This will not kill your momentum. Forcing yourself to slow down will actually increase your productivity.
Prioritizing by stakeholder, letting your boss make tradeoffs, delegating to colleagues and family, and remembering to take breaks are strategies you can adopt to get through too much work. However, longer periods of rest and refreshment and your ideal work/life balance need to come back into play every few months. If you’re finding this is not the case and if there is no top-down change upcoming in the company, you may need to make a more drastic change, such as finding other employment. The antidote to too much work is not working too much, and you may only be able to do that elsewhere. Always be open to considering leaving – it will either make you realize that you choose to be where you are or that you can choose to leave. Knowing you have choices is a big comfort when you have too much work.