Supporting someone who's overwhelmed with work
Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees looking for advice about managing others.
What is the best way to support someone who might be feeling overwhelmed with work?
Find out what's causing the overwhelm
The first step is to establish some clarity around exactly which parts of their role are creating a feeling of overwhelm.
Sometimes it might be sheer workload, but it could also be that there are tasks they are finding difficult to complete without feeling confident enough to tell you.
Revealing that you are feeling overwhelmed to your manager takes courage so make sure you make it clear that you’re pleased they have brought it to your attention.
When you are clear about the problem, work with your team member to find potential solutions. Try and get them to suggest a way forward, rather than you making all the decisions - finding the ability to solve the issue themselves with your support will in itself go some way to reducing their feelings of overwhelm.
If there are adjustments you can make in the workplace to support them consider doing so, but don’t assume that such changes are either necessary or helpful.
Flexible working, longer deadlines, reassignment of tasks, might be useful but they may also prolong the problem if they add to the persons feeling that they can’t cope.
Consider spending some extra time supporting and mentoring your team member for a while to see if you can help them to better organise, prioritise, and manage their time. If you can help them to work in a more efficient and effective way so that they no longer feel overwhelmed you will have solved the problem and done an excellent piece of career development at the same time.
Tips on how to have an effective conversation
Sounds like you’ve identified someone who needs some extra support at this time so an important conversation is required. Here are some ideas to help you build an effective chat with this employee:
- Remind yourself that, above anything else, you’re there to listen. You do NOT need to be the expert on what they are disclosing and you do NOT need to “fix” their situation. Listen and understand.
- Make sure you offer them the appropriate time and space (e.g. not rushed in between meetings, and in a private space where they feel they can talk openly).
- Ask them what they need. We are all different with different ways of coping. Don’t assume or guess what this person needs; ask.
Be mindful about trying to ‘rescue’ them and solve their problems; when we do this it’s more about OUR needs. WE want this person to be OK and WE want to make it all better for them. There may well be some things you can offer that can help but this happens AFTER you have listened and understood what they need.
- Be aware that the employee may want to chat…or they may not. And that’s OK. We need to respect the boundaries of others.
Create a psychologically safe workplace where they can tell you when they’re not OK without fear of consequence.
- If you have access to therapy paid for by your company, you can signpost them to a therapist for more professional support.
- Once you have understood their position, consider and offer adjustments in their workload that may help - e.g. delegate some work elsewhere, push deadlines back, let them work alone more or in the office more depending on what helps them, offer them some time off if it’s needed.
Lead by example
Thanks for your question on how to support someone who is overwhelmed with work.
Here are some thoughts and ideas to help you reflect:
- What makes you think this person is overwhelmed? Do you have any evidence? If so, what have you observed?
- If you are sure there is a problem, arrange a conversation with the person in question and share with them what you have observed in a non-judgmental way. Stick to the facts rather than anything you have heard or assume and, as much as possible, avoid making the individual feel singled out.
- If you are sure there is a problem, but the person denies it, hold on to your sense of reality. For example, if you think the person is taking on more work than they can reasonably manage but they say everything is fine, try to help them to understand that it is OK to set limits and boundaries at work and that these are skills which can be an asset to them and their team. You may need to repeat points over several conversations and talk about areas for development in reviews if you notice ongoing problems.
- Encourage the person to assert their needs with you. Do you have a sense of how you come across to staff? Do they feel that they can come to you with issues and that you have an open-door policy. What is the quality of your relationship with this person? We tend to open up to people we have a good connection with and who we feel listen to us.
- Model the behaviours you want to see. Do you set healthy boundaries and avoid overwhelm where possible at work? It may help to use yourself as an example when talking to the employee giving examples of how you have dealt with overwhelm in the past.