How to Deal with Feeling Overwhelmed at Work

Three out of four people say workers today have more job-related stress than they did a generation ago.

Published: Jan 21, 2020

There are many reasons why workers today are far better off than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The lightning-speed availability of information and the explosion in new technology, not to mention a trend toward greater workplace flexibility, have all led to a modern workforce that’s able to do more and move faster than ever before.

But that reality has left many workers feeling overwhelmed. According to a study by the American Institute of Stress, 75% of people say workers today have more job-related stress than they did a generation ago. The study reveals that 40% of workers characterize their job as very stressful or extremely stressful, and one in four say their job is their biggest stressor in life. With stress now medically linked to everything from memory loss to heart disease, it’s a serious problem. “Workplace stress is an epidemic,” says Shannon James, a career coach who works with entrepreneurs and C-suite executives.

The key is to turn stresses into isolated instances, not everyday occurrences.

Here’s how to deal with feeling overwhelmed at work.

Know your triggers.

The difficult thing about stress is that it tends to snowball; one or two triggers could make you feel like nothing is going right. Pay attention to the moments that make you feel overwhelmed, says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Nancy Von Horn; then focus on how to set boundaries. You can, for instance, work with your manager to reduce the number of meetings you’re in, or limit the interaction you have with a Debbie Downer coworker. The key is to turn stresses into isolated instances, not everyday occurrences.

Take a hard look at what you can outsource or delegate.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 46% of all workplace stress is related to workload. But some of that stress is self-perpetuated. Millennials in particular are prone to subscribing to the “work martyr” belief that if they delegate their work, they’ll be seen as more replaceable. If you’re struggling with letting go, get perspective by asking yourself how you would help someone else in your shoes. “You’ll almost immediately find more clarity” about what you can pass off to your direct reports, James says. In situations where you might be asking a colleague at your level or above to take a piece of your workload, have a conversation with your manager; they can determine next steps and communicate any redistribution of work instead.

Break problems into parts.

To cope with feeling overwhelmed by a project or responsibility, break it down into more digestible pieces. Von Horn suggests starting with the end goal. Then list five or six action items that you will need to achieve in order to reach that goal. After that, take those action items and cut them down further, if needed, so you have something that you can turn to immediately. Don’t forget to schedule in mini-celebrations as you finish different action items, Von Horn says, especially if the project will stretch for multiple weeks or longer.

Know that this isn't forever.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s easy to feel like life will never return to normal. But thinking back to the last time you felt overwhelmed and working through how you reduced that sense of pending disaster will help you cope with feeling overwhelmed today. “Nothing is permanent,” James says.

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