25 Mar

Feeling tired? Overwhelmed at work?

We all know that when we are tired, it’s good to take a break. They say that ‘a break is as good as a holiday’!

I actually took a break from blog posting for a while. The break came when it was hard to devote the time to explore blog topics amongst other projects. I felt that a break might refresh the old leadership brain cells. So hello again friends! And thank you for your patience in my absence.

While I took the writing break, I continued with my coaching practice, supporting leaders across the globe in their various roles and industries. And in these discussions I am hearing many ‘burnt-out’ stories. People, it seems, are tired. Actually, they are EXHAUSTED!

Some people are leaving jobs they like because they can’t cope anymore. Some are taking extended breaks. Others are taking time off work altogether – ‘early retirement.’ Still others are choosing to stay and trudge on, even while feeling spent.

I’m concerned whenever a client has a period of exhaustion, or overwhelm. I am most concerned when they tell me they know what will help them reduce stress and  overwhelm, yet somehow can’t find the time or motivation to take the action they desperately need. Because this often seems like an added burden when many of these people berate or blame themselves for not committing to taking a stance or making a change. So the spiral of negative thoughts, and sometimes feelings of helplessness escalates.

Take it from me, what I describe here is in no way isolated to a few people. It’s widespread. So if any of these descriptions sound like you then the first thing to say is – YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Sometimes even that knowledge in itself is helpful.

The next thing to say might be a bit harder to process…only YOU can make a change. Ouch! While your boss, your company, your colleague, your team might be able to help in several ways, they won’t necessarily make the first move, or take action. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed, we fall into the ‘blame game’. This is where we blame our boss, the pandemic, our employees for us feeling overwhelmed.

When we blame other people, we can forget that sometimes they don’t even know we are in danger of ‘burn out’. People don’t usually ignore our pain on purpose. At times they might know we are struggling, yet unable to know what assistance to offer.

When we blame circumstances such as the pandemic, or government restrictions, or change in organisational structure, we can get stuck in what many call ‘victim-thinking’. I see this as when we lay blame on things beyond our immediate influence, and then sit back assuming there is nothing we can do.

So…if you are felling burnt out or overwhelmed, what CAN you do?

  1. Take a break
  2. Gather your thoughts – be specific and honest
  3. Identify options
  4. Make a change

Take a break

Our brain is an energy hungry organ. The part of our brain that needs a lot of ‘feeding’ is our Pre Frontal Cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for our logical thinking, problem solving and decision making activities. To operate effectively, it needs fuel, especially glucose and oxygen. When we are tired or emotional, we are not able to give this thinking zone what it needs to be its best. Often our emotional brain centres are busy draining the energy supply when we are overwhelmed.

Before we can make any decision about what to do, we need to let our brain recharge. So please take a break! Some of you will be thinking that you can’t because…you are so busy. Well, if you don’t, then busy will consume you. And it will further deplete your brain’s resources. And on and on the spiral continues.

All you need is 5-10 minutes. Hey, if that’s too much, take 2 minutes. What about 2 minutes now to get outside, have a cup of tea, walk down the hall way, take a nap, play with the dog, listen to music?

Regular breaks help your brain. And by doing so, they enhance your ability to problem solve. And in some respects, overwhelm at work is another problem to solve. Breaks also help us be more focussed when we get back to tasks. This can mean better productivity to get through the work.

One thing I sometimes see with those in a state of overwhelm, is that they spend so much time feeling overwhelmed and thinking about how tired they are, that they have no focus to achieve goals.

If you need more information on how breaks help your brain, then check out Psychology Today where they have a good article that goes into more detail. And of course, if the overwhelm has progressed to a state of depression, severe lethargy, or anxiety, then please do see a trained professional. If truly ‘burnt-out’ then recovery may start with some additional psychological or medical assistance.

Gather your thoughts

This step is important. So, take a nice slow deep breath and answer these questions:

  • What specifically do you believe is driving your sense of overwhelm? The key here is to be as specific as possible. Rather than saying “I don’t have enough time in the day”, think exactly about the main cause. For example, it might be that you have 5 projects with the same deadline and the work required for each project would result in a 100 hour week to achieve the requirements. Or, it might be that your manager gives you tasks to do at short notice, and you are finding it hard to fit them amongst the more longer term projects.
  • Is there anything that you are doing/not doing that might be adding to the issue? This is where we must be honest with ourselves. For example, does procrastination factor in? Do you spend excess time chatting to colleagues? (I’m not saying chatting is a bad thing!) Do you put off discussing your challenges with your boss? Do you struggle to negotiate different deadlines with colleagues? Do you say ‘yes’ to work that isn’t in your role, or that you know will overload you?
  • Of the causes and issues above, which are you able to influence?
  • How committed are you to resolving the overwhelm?

Identify options

Now that we have an outline of the specific issues, it’s time to think about possible solutions. I suggest a blank piece of paper and list as many possible solutions that come to your mind in 3-5 minutes. Try not to limit your brainstorming with ‘that’s silly’, ‘that won’t work’. Just start by listing ideas, no matter how realistic or workable they might be.

Once you have the options to reduce your overwhelm, go back over them and highlight those that sound reasonable, achievable, or worth exploring further.

Then identify the one that you think would be the best to start with. It might be ‘best’ because it’s a quick win to get you motivated. It might be best because it will reduce your workload the most. It might be best because it involves the whole team. Whatever the reason it is best, simply choose.

Now identify 3 more options that are ‘next best’.

For the chosen options, what is the first step in making them happen?

Make a change

Now comes the opportunity to take action! Using your options above, starting with the ‘best’, begin to implement them. This may take planning and courage if the option involves a difficult conversation. Or it may be an option that puts you outside your comfort zone. Making change and taking action is not always easy. Yet what if taking this step actually helps?

Time for a deep breath and a dose of self-courage. Even small changes, like implementing regular breaks, or sticking to a set ‘finish’ time can be enough to shift the balance so you can reduce the overwhelm.

The truth is, life can be busy, work can be complex and hectic. And all of us have the same number of limited hours in the day. So taking action and making change will definitely need to start with you. It may not solve everything, yet you do need to start somewhere.

These steps are only starting points, and I get that sometimes we can all do with extra help and planning. If you would like some support to address the work overwhelm, then I am available for professional coaching! Just contact me to find out more.

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