Managing stress at work is difficult even in the best of times.
As we all know far too well, these are hardly the best of times. Just when we thought we had COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror, case counts are now climbing steeply again in much of the country. A survey by Pathways at Work, a mental and behavioral health provider, found that 76% of employees are concerned about coping with stress and anxiety during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Almost 70% are concerned about maintaining a reasonable work-life balance as work has gone remote, a practice that continues for many.
They’re right to be concerned. Data reported by Bloomberg earlier this year found that in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., working from home has resulted in a workday that is 2.5 hours longer than before the pandemic. And that’s not only because employees find it hard to “switch off.” It’s because their workloads have increased.
Think about it. When the pandemic forced layoffs at many companies, the tasks didn’t go away just because the people who had handled them did. Instead, employees who remained found more work added to their already full plates. As the not-quite-post-pandemic recovery proceeds in fits and starts, businesses across the country are having difficulty finding people to hire. That means the cavalry may not be coming for overburdened workers anytime soon.
What can you do if your too-heavy workload is stressing you out? The following strategies can provide welcome relief.
1. Speak up
If you’ve been suffering in silence, you need to stop that right now. Working all hours to complete your tasks isn’t sustainable — that way lies burnout, or worse. Furthermore, your boss won’t know they need to reconfigure your workload if your midnight oil burning has left them unaware of the true situation.
Yet how can you speak up without sounding like a whiner or — what you probably really fear — implying you’re not up to a leadership position? Start by relating how much time you spend on particular responsibilities and ask whether that’s in line with expectations. If the answer is yes, you can demonstrate that those responsibilities, added up, significantly exceed a standard workweek.
Together, you can determine which tasks can be reassigned, put off, performed monthly instead of weekly, or done without entirely. Prioritization is key.
On the other hand, they might be astonished to learn you’ve been investing annual-report levels of care in reporting monthly KPIs. Perhaps you inherited this reporting duty from a laid-off predecessor and followed in their 20-point footsteps, not realizing that a five-metric snapshot would do. With this more accurate view of expectations, you can streamline your process and decrease the hours you spend on the task.
2. Maximize the amount of work not done
In 2001, a group of software developers drafted “The Agile Manifesto,” their people-centered, stripped-down vision of how software development should be performed. Their ideas soon filtered into the business world more generally, and “agility” has become something that companies worldwide aspire to.
One of the agilists’ core principles is simplicity, which they express as “the art of maximizing the amount of work not done.” This may sound like a celebration of shirking, but what it really means is finding the work that provides value and doing that work well. Work that doesn’t provide value — like calculating those 15 unnecessary metrics each month — should be actively avoided.
Keep your goals in mind and then identify the least effortful way of achieving them. Say you’ve been asked to present on your next marketing campaign to the executive board. Sure, you’ve come up with the campaign themes and deliverables, and you’ve generated all the budget numbers, too. But putting it all into PowerPoint? That’s a job to delegate to your assistant or an intern. Once they’ve produced a draft, you can spend minimal time double-checking the figures and putting on the finishing touches.
3. Seek assistance from tech
In addition to the time you spend tackling your too-heavy workload, you might devote a nontrivial amount of time to simply coordinating it. As a manager, you’re responsible for assigning projects that then need to be delivered to someone else (a marketing executive, the CFO, etc.).
Doing this coordinating work via spreadsheets and email is both time-consuming and error-prone, even if you’re leveraging templates. You still need to craft, tweak, send, keep an eye out for, and respond to multiple messages from multiple parties. Checking on agreed-upon deadlines requires either searching through spreadsheet tabs and email folders or transferring that information to a separate calendar program.
What you and your organization need is a robust project management system. Human help with your unsustainable workload might not be forthcoming, so spearhead the adoption of a project management tool that will minimize the burden of coordinating work — for everyone.
With a few clicks, project management software allows you to assign tasks, ensure resource availability, highlight project dependencies, keep track of deadlines and — best of all — automate reminders and handoff notifications. You may never have to send another “just checking in” email ever again.
The American Stress Institute has identified a too-heavy workload as one of the top workplace stressors in the U.S. If that’s been your life recently, you don’t have to resign yourself to your fate. By clarifying expectations and priorities, eliminating or delegating less critical tasks, and enlisting digital assistance, you’ll soon be breathing easier.
Rashan Dixon is a senior business systems analyst at Microsoft, entrepreneur and a writer for various business publications.