How to cope with feeling overwhelmed

Too much to do and not enough time to do it? We can all feel overwhelmed at work from time to time. Here’s how to ground yourself and stay productive
by Bethan Rees


When work is piling up, your phone won’t stop ringing and your calendar is full of meetings, there’s a chance you could begin to feel overwhelmed at work. This feeling can halt productivity and allow stress to take over. Here’s how to manage.

What triggers you?

There’s a difference between being busy and being overwhelmed, and you need to know when that balance tips into feeling overwhelmed, and what it is that has shaken the balance. Figure out what that is, writes Sarah Shearman in a Guardian article. “Do you have too many responsibilities, or feel there are too few hours in the day? Is your boss piling on the pressure? Or is the company culture getting you down?” she writes.

Quoting Diana Dawson, career psychologist and owner of career consultancy firm Working Career, the article reports that feeling overwhelmed is a stress response we engage when there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. It can trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, Dawson explains. She recommends keeping a diary of your feelings and actions to see patterns of behaviour and identify what triggers this emotion, which will then enable you to build strategies to cope.

Write everything down

Notes can also help you offload your mind,” writes Carl Pullein, a productivity and time management coach, in an article for Lifehack.

“For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section ‘things to do’ and the other ‘what’s on my mind’,” he writes.

Share your woes

If you are feeling overwhelmed and can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, speak to your manager. However, Shearman adds that if this is a daunting prospect, make sure you make a plan pre-discussion. She quotes Sarah Connell, a business psychologist and founder of MindingMe Psychologists, who says: “Explain to your boss the tasks you are involved in, how long they take, the resources they require, why you find them challenging, and practical suggestions for a solution.” She also says to not think of asking for help as a sign of weakness. “Your manager may not realise how much work you have on,” Connell is quoted.

In an article for The Muse, writer Erin Greenawald believes sharing your problem with a colleague can help. “This is one of my favourite strategies for dealing when my mind is spinning with all the tasks I have to do,” she writes. By talking through what you have to do with your colleague, the tasks can begin to feel more manageable. “The simple act of saying everything out loud helped me process and organise my to-dos into something I could tackle,” says Greenawald. She also adds that a colleague may be able to give you sage advice for dealing with similar feelings.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, you’re probably not the only one and talking through these feelings can help, says Johnathan Steiman, founder and CEO at Peak Support, a US-based service support provider for growing businesses, in an article for Inc. “There is no shame in sharing your emotions. But it's not just about venting emotions, it's about airing them out to others so they can help,” he says.

Learning to say no

The word ‘no’ may strike you as unhelpful, or uncooperative. But you shouldn’t take on more tasks than you can manage. In a Forbes article, writer Avery Blank explains how to say no politely. “If you have a lot on your plate and are approached with a task that does not further the organisation’s current priorities, try to ‘punt’ the task,” she writes. “Communicate what you are currently working on and inquire if you can consider the task at a later date. Or suggest a colleague that is working on a project that more aligns with the suggested task.”

Adding to this, Shearman’s Guardian article quotes psychotherapist and life coach Hilda Burke, who believes the ability to say no is her “top tip for life as well as work”. Burke says that saying yes to everything may be instilled from childhood but in a working environment, challenging this can take time but can be achieved. “I understand the temptation to say yes to new projects, but if it gets to a point where your existing projects or clients are suffering then it’s time to take stock,” Burke is quoted. 

Take a break

It might sound counterproductive, but taking a break when you feel overwhelmed can help. Feeling stressed can send your body into “survival mode”, says Gary Wood, psychologist, author and life coach, in Shearman’s Guardian article. “Stress actually closes off the more creative parts of our cognitive processes and also distorts our perception of time,” he’s quoted.

Steiman also believes breaks are beneficial. “Even if I'm facing an overwhelming to-do list, I can take five minutes and breathe. But taking longer breaks is critical as well,” he writes. In an article for Psychology Today, former clinical psychologist and researcher turned writer Alice Boyes PhD explains that allowing your mind a break and letting it wander can “re-charge your creativity”. She reports that by doing this, “problems that seemed difficult can instantly become clearer”. She recommends that if you work in an office you should find a reason to wander to the other side of the office, or do a mindless but necessary task like photocopying a bunch of documents, in order to help your mind take a break.

What are your tips for coping when feeling overwhelmed? Leave your comments below.

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Published: 03 Jan 2020
  • Soft Skills
  • The Review
  • Career Development
  • stress
  • work-life balance
  • Career advice

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