How to Manage Your Team if They’re Feeling Overwhelmed with Their Workload

Today, we’re going to address the challenge of how to manage your team if they’re feeling overwhelmed in their day-to-day work. 

This is a particularly common challenge, particularly for those of you who work at agencies, along with in-house teams who are affected by industry seasonality. Even if you don’t fall into one of these categories, the chances are that at some point, you’re going to be in a situation where your team (not just an individual or two) will feel overwhelmed and probably stressed by their workloads.

It’s important to solve this challenge because if you don’t, it can lead to a bunch of problems such as:

  • You won’t get the best performance out of a team who feel stressed and overwhelmed.
  • Being busy is a good thing for a team, but if the feeling of being overwhelmed is the one that becomes normal, they will struggle to tell the difference between this and “good” busy, therefore they’ll reject the latter and confuse it with “bad” busy.
  • You’ll lose trust because your team won’t feel that you have their backs and are happy with them always feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
  • Your team won’t feel that they have time or headspace to work on their own personal development because they are too busy with their regular workload.

Ultimately, you need to find balance between someone’s day-to-day workload and their own personal development time. 

How most managers get this wrong

Typically, most managers take the wrong approach to solving this challenge, and some will not even be aware of it! Before exploring the right approaches to take, let’s briefly cover what not to do when trying to solve this challenge.

Most managers wait for it to get better on its own and it rarely will

Being busy is definitely a good thing and even if a team feels overwhelmed, it’s easy for a manager to think that it’s better to be busy than not. As a result, they may not prioritise trying to get on top of the problem and worse than that, they will just wait for the influx of tasks and the heavy workload to get better on its own. Of course, in most cases, this doesn’t happen and even if it does, the restbite is short lived.

Most managers will feed the feeling of being overwhelmed and not try to fix it

The feeling of being busy is contagious, even if you yourself are not as busy. Of course, being busy isn’t a bad thing at all, but there is a fine line between being busy and feeling overwhelmed. It’s very, very easy to fall into this trap and accidentally fuel this feeling that your team has. Some managers will even do it deliberately in an attempt to build solidarity with their team.

Most managers pretend it’s not happening and continue with their own plans

This is a surprisingly common one and tends to happen after a manager has waited for things to get better on their own, but they never have. So instead of taking action, they continue with their original plans and ignore the problem. For example, they’ll continue to do personal development plans but don’t talk about how no one can work on them due to feeling overwhelmed. Or they will continue to run team lunches or social events despite them adding stress to the team due to taking time out. 

How to get it right

Now that you know what not to do, let’s look at a few ways that you can solve this challenge effectively.

Acknowledge it and own it, don’t bury your head in the sand

Regular readers of The New Leader will know that I’m a huge fan of taking ownership of challenges. This challenge is another great example of where taking ownership is the first step towards solving it.

If your team is telling you that they are too busy, leading to them feeling stressed and overwhelmed, listen to them and acknowledge their feelings. Even if you think that they only feel overwhelmed (and actually their workload is manageable), still acknowledge how they feel and promise to work with them to solve the problem.

Give them time and space to tell you what is going on. Importantly, take this as an opportunity to dig deeper and ask questions about how they’re feeling. For example, if they are saying that they don’t have enough time to complete all of their projects, ask them what this means in reality – the time they have and the time that they think they need. Ask them how long they have felt like this and whether they see an end in sight or if it’s always going to continue.

Most importantly – ask them what they think needs to change and whether these changes are realistic. 

You need to get to the root cause of the problem. So acknowledge the problem and listen to your team’s point of view of what is causing it. 

Review all projects and help your team to prioritise – together

This is a particularly important action if you’re a new manager and have just taken over a team who are saying that they are busy and overwhelmed. But even if you’re not, then take time to sit down with your team and review all projects that you’re working on.

Doing this together can help spot when pressure points are and whether certain individuals are shouldering more work than others. It can also help you spot if the actual problem is certain projects, rather than all of them.

For example, it’s pretty common in the agency world for a single, difficult client to make an entire team feel stressed and overwhelmed, even if all of their other clients are perfectly reasonable and not causing any problems. Reviewing all projects as a team will help you spot if this is the case or not. 

Get hands on with helping with their to-do lists

If a team member is feeling overwhelmed and like they can’t complete all of their work, you need to take a close look at their workload and importantly, how they are managing their own workload. 

It’s pretty common for a workload to be completely reasonable and doable, but for it to feel like it’s not because someone hasn’t organised themselves effectively. Or it may be that their workload is manageable, but they haven’t taken the time to assign deadlines to each task, so everything feels like it needs to be done straight away, but it doesn’t. 

Related: I go into a lot of detail on how to prevent burnout and help your team feel more in control in this article: Feeling Overwhelmed: A Manager’s Guide to Helping your Team Focus and Beat Burnout.

Don’t stop personal development time and give them permission to spend time on it

Finally, the one common consequence of a team feeling busy, stressed and overwhelmed is that they don’t spend enough time on their own personal development. To some extent, this is normal and is something that you need to manage anyway with a busy team, but you need to be careful not to let it become the norm that personal development time is always deprioritised. 

The consequence of this is that your team will think that you don’t care about their personal development – not a place where you want to be!

If you’ve spent time working with them on their projects, priorities and organisation, you should feel comfortable with assigning them time to spend on personal development. It’s then simply a case of ensuring that they actually spend that time.

You may find that you need to clearly give them permission to put their day-to-day work on hold for a few hours or a day in order to do this. If so, do it and tell them that their personal development is important and you’re committed to helping them spend time on it.

Again, this is why it’s important to understand their priorities, tasks and organisation so that you can feel comfortable giving them this time. 

Finally, it should be obvious that this feeling isn’t sustainable and can lead to longer term problems if you don’t deal with it. It’s a challenge that can take time to solve over time, but if you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to a team that is “good” busy and not overwhelmed by a manageable workload.

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