Advice from Spill's therapists
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Supporting an employee who's taking on too much work

Spill's qualified therapists answer real questions from employees struggling with burnout.

An employee that I manage has way too much work but cannot let go of any of it, and they continue to take on new projects on top of that. It's preventing them from progressing in their role and is harming the team's overall performance. How can I help them?

Our first therapist suggests...

Connect with one another

One of the characteristics of burnout is that the sufferer often loses the ability to think rationally and see the logical ways in which the situation can be improved.

Part of your role here is to help them see that the way they are currently behaving is counterproductive and, if they don’t respond to your attempts to help them emotionally don’t be afraid to come at the issue from the perspective of performance.

One of the reasons people get burned out in the first place is because they are so intent on proving their value that they lose sight of their own needs. So if you point out that the current way of working is actually having a detrimental effect on their objective to get more done I think you might find that they will listen to you.

Try connecting one with the other. For example:

“I’m noticing that your desire to push through and get everything done is both wearing you out and resulting in things getting missed. My main concern is for your welfare but I think if we work together in addressing this we’ll help you and the business to reach its objectives.”

Something like that makes the imperative of dealing with both aspects of the problem clear.

Recognise too that you have some responsibility here. If you are the manager and someone won’t let go of work, it might be time to step in and not allow them the choice. When it comes to helping your team maintain good mental health while delivering their objectives “tough love” is often required.

The way you phrase the problem in your question is perfect, that’s the way I’d be positioning it with your report.

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Our second therapist suggests...

Help set boundaries

This sounds a tough dilemma as you are seeing someone’s belief system getting in the way of them being able to work effectively. People pleasing can be driven by fear rather than compassion, and end in fatigue rather than support. Somewhere along the line, their choices will be driven by a fear, e.g. a fear of consequence (being shouted at if they say no), fear of rejection (the other person dislikes them if they don’t do the project), or fear of shame (not feeling good enough if they don’t do EVERYTHING).

Our fears may keep us in the passive style and we lose our voice and therefore our boundaries. We can even end up becoming resentful or annoyed that we are doing too much. It may be helpful to signpost your colleague to explore their behaviour with a Spill therapist and find ways to make choices based on their valued needs rather than their emotional ones.

It would be helpful for this person to learn how to put boundaries in place. We can only offer time and energy when we have it, otherwise we will build resentment towards those taking up our resources. A boundary states what is OK and not OK for us to offer. Do they know when they have the resources to give (OK) and when they are stretched (not OK)?

You could help this person by looking at their workload and exploring what resources they have to carry it out (including how they replenish their energy outside of work). In this discussion, you could also show the wider picture including the team ,and how decisions affect the dynamic and resources of the team. If we’re hijacked by our own emotional drivers, it means we’re dominated by our amygdala and this part of the brain is egocentric. By showing a bigger picture, it helps the person move from a subjective place to an objective one.

You can also show how to put in boundaries by modelling your own with this person and respecting others’ boundaries, like asking what is OK and not OK by them.

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Our third therapist suggests...

Tips for managers

Thanks for your question about your team member who tends to take on too much work. You would like to help them reduce their workload so they can progress.

You can help them by:

  • Being direct and honest about the issue. I once worked with a colleague who had the same problem. What I noticed was that my manager actually exploited this issue rather than letting her know it was a difficulty and that change was required. Avoid dropping hints or ignoring the problem — otherwise it will just continue.
  • Help the employee to understand the negative impacts of taking on too much. This may be things like stress and anxiety, burnout, preventing opportunities for others.
  • Help the employee to understand the benefits of taking on less in terms of their career progression and team performance.
  • Make it clear the employee not only has permission to delegate but that you recommend it for their benefit and the benefit of the team. If they are struggling to decide what to let go, offer to help them prioritise and eliminate tasks. Letting go of things gradually rather than all at once will make things easier.
  • Often people who take on too much at work are hungry for recognition and may have low self-esteem. It’s important not to make this process shaming for the person involved. Avoid any judgments about them and stick to the facts of the matter.
  • Do not praise the employee for behaviours that undermine themselves or the team. Offer praise for things like delegation, sharing information, saying ‘no’ to extra work, and taking breaks.
  • Don’t expect change overnight. Changing behaviours takes time. Do check in though on how things are going. It’s likely that conversations about workload will be ongoing.
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