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Feeling Overwhelmed at Work? Here’s What to Do
Sarah Brodsky / OCTOBER 11 2021

Having a lot to do at work is usually better than having extensive down time. It means you’re challenging yourself and staying engaged. But sometimes, your workload can grow so large that it tips the scales from challenging to overwhelming.

If that happens, you risk suffering from burnout, and your mental health can take a big hit. It’s best to deal with the causes of feeling overwhelmed right away so the pressure on you doesn’t keep building up.

Identify the problems

First, think about what’s going wrong at work and try to figure out why things feel out of your control. Write a list of the issues you’re dealing with. For example, maybe you’ve encountered a spate of belligerent guests, or maybe you’re experiencing conflict with a coworker and that person isn’t cooperating with you. Long hours, tight deadlines, or extra busy shifts could be contributing to your feelings, too.

Talk to your manager

Let your manager know that you’re overwhelmed, and ask for help with reducing the stress. Possible solutions are to change your schedule, give you more time to complete a project, offer additional support or training, or move you to a role where you feel more comfortable. Your manager may not be able to banish your sense of dread instantaneously, but if you work together and make adjustments to your assignments or routine, you should begin to reclaim your well-being on the job.

Fix one small thing

Don’t despair if many factors are causing you to feel overwhelmed. Just start by eliminating one difficulty. You might pick something that’s small and easy to fix, or the first snag you run into in your schedule. Correcting one problem will reassure you that you can find solutions and will make your job a little bit less overwhelming right away.

Write a detailed to-do list

If your to-do list is full of very general items like “reach out to prospects” and “finish the sales presentation,” it may help to get more specific. That’s because writing down information frees your mind from the work of remembering it all. If you’re mentally juggling lots of ideas for prospects to contact, for example, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the number of calls you need to make.

Instead, write an in-dept to-do list with lots of small steps. After you complete each step, mark it as finished. You’ll start seeing your progress immediately, and the accomplishment can also help renew your sense of confidence.

Limit multitasking

Trying to divide your attention between multiple things at once is another common cause of feeling overwhelmed. If you can, select one project to work on at a time, and decide in advance how long you want to concentrate on it. If you’re working at a computer, turn off email notifications and close your other browser tabs during the time you’ve blocked off.

Of course, in some roles, like server or bartender, you have no choice but to multitask because you need to attend to several guests simultaneously. In that case, you may want to follow a system as closely as possible to help you stay organized. For example, you might check on tables proactively rather than waiting for guests to call you over, and try to consistently visit tables in the same order when bringing refills or clearing plates.

Practice calming your mind

Find some words or an image that you can think about to ground yourself when you’re feeling stressed. This could be a mantra, a prayer, a line from a song or poem, or the image of a beloved person or a favorite place. Before work, practice focusing on that calming thought. Then take a second to remind yourself of it at various times throughout your work day.

Express your emotions

Struggles often feel more manageable when you talk about them. Find someone you feel safe confiding in about the situation at work, whether that’s a friend, family member, therapist, or coach. Alternatively, you could express your feelings through journaling or creating art or music. When work is overwhelming, don’t keep your thoughts bottled up inside. Expressing yourself is a good source of stress relief, and by facing the situation, you may come up with new ideas about how to improve things.