Work Overload: An Increasing Problem

Work, Burnout, Overload, Overloaded, Business, Mental Health

Ahead of World Mental Health day which falls on 10th October this year, I want to raise an issue that is, I think, particularly important to small business owners:  Work Overload.

Work overload results when the demands of the job role exceed the limits of reasonable human endurance.  People are expected to, or try to do, too much, in too little time, with too few resources.  It’s characterized by a combination of factors including:

  • Pressure to work long hours
  • Heavy workloads which cannot reasonably be completed by a normal person within the hours allotted to the tasks.
  • Few breaks, little time off and few or no holidays.
  • Unrelenting, constant and highly pressured working pace.
  • Unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved with the available time and resources
  • Carrying out, or trying to carry out, more than one role at once.

There is a lot written about work overload within large corporate and public sector environments but all of the points above afflict small business owners too.  The pressures which lead to the overload are different but the results are the same.  And those results can be devastating.  Particularly for small business owners who in most cases cannot easily choose to walk away from the business and do something else.   This element of having no choice can make the effects of work overload feel even worse.

When work overload is persistent rather than seasonal or occasional, then our bodies can’t recover, rest and restore balance.  Every role has busy periods but if we know it will be followed by a slack period when we can recover, this makes it possible for us to keep going.  That feeling that the work will just keep coming at you constantly with no respite or let up is true overload.

Do I have Work Overload?

Work overload isn’t just about work quantity but also the type of tasks that you have to deal with.  A busy workload with very clearly defined tasks and boundaries is actually good for your mental wellbeing.  What is destructive to mental wellbeing is a chaotic workload.  Competing priorities, extra tasks with short deadlines, being unsure what the day will throw at you, and trying to do tasks for which you feel unqualified.  Working like this means you cannot plan your day effectively, cannot meet everyone’s expectations and never feel you’ve finished your work.

Technology also adds to the pressure.  Work messages ping onto your phone all evening when you are trying to relax.  Home becomes an extension of work, particularly for staff who work from home and home-based small business owners.  Many articles suggest shutting the door of the home office.  This only works if the phone is trapped in there being ignored.  And how many of us do that?

When work bleeds into our home life the work overload affects our family too.  Couples end up spending more time working than they do with their family.  There are constant pressures to be the perfect parent, and the perfect worker, with Social Media telling everyone they can have it all and it’s easy.  But it’s not is it?  Something has to give and that something is often the couple’s relationship with each other and with their children.

What can you do to avoid work overload?

date night, holding hands, relationshipsMake home life and health a priority

Ensure you do not neglect your social life and any artistic or cultural activities which you value.  Whether you like to go to Rock Concerts, read quietly in a corner, create Airfix models or work in your garden, make sure you find time each week for these activities.  Schedule them into the diary if you can and make sure that you don’t make excuses not to do them.  Don’t neglect Date Nights with your significant other.  It’s important to ensure your relationship remains healthy so you can support each other when you each need it.

Get Enough Sleep.

Make it a habit to always ensure you get adequate sleep.  This has a huge impact on health and wellbeing.  Views vary on what the ideal amount of sleep is, but 6-8 hours is good unless you really are one of those rare people who only need four hours.

Exercise

Just three hours a week spread throughout the week will have a positive effect.  Ideally include both aerobic and strength training but if you aren’t that athletic, even a simple daily walk will help.  And if you choose the walking option, try to look around you as you walk.  It’s easy to plod along, looking at the ground, pondering about work issues.  Instead look at the leaves, the trees, listen for the birds, watch dogs running in the park.  If you are in a built up area, look up at the architecture and sky, or at the plants in people’s gardens.  Concentrate on the air you are breathing, notice how the earth smells in the rain, how the sun feels, or how the cold air is so fresh in the winter.

Relax your mind and body

Meditation can be very helpful in reducing stress on a daily basis.  If you make it a habit for the start and end of the day this can have a really positive impact on stress reduction.   It can also be helpful to take a couple of minutes in the daytime if things are particularly fraught, and just breathe in, and out, slowly whilst thinking of a calm and quiet place.

Frequent three day weekends can be a great idea, particularly for small business owners who struggle to get away from the business for a longer holiday.  When you are feeling overworked it can feel stressful to go away for a longer holiday as you may feel worried about what you are going to get home to.  Long weekends are a great alternative.  Try to do something truly relaxing with your long weekend.  Something that fulfills you but is not goal driven.

Feed your health

Restrict caffeine and alcohol since they produce chemical stressors on the body which can make stress worse.  Ensure you are taking in enough potassium as this affects the adrenal glands which produce the hormones that govern our fight or flight and stress response.  Potassium is found in fruit and vegetables particularly bananas, oranges, raisins, potatoes, mushrooms, cooked broccoli, spinach and soy beans.

In the workplace

There are some steps you can take to control your workload so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming. These include:

  • Setting aside blocks of time for work and for appointments, and putting this in the diary so you have a shape to your day and know when you are working and can plan tasks that will fit the time you have available.  As mentioned earlier, it can be useful to block out time for relaxation too… it gives a goal and an end point when things are fraught and is something to look forward to.
  • Discouraging people from just “dropping by”.  The latter can be a real problem for home-based workers as friends seem to think you will be able to just stop what you are doing and have coffee with them whenever it takes their fancy.
  • Learn how to say no really diplomatically.  Someone once told me that the epitome of diplomacy was the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that the person really enjoyed the journey.    It is OK to say No.  No one ever died from being told No.
  • Leave your phone in another room whilst you are working, turn off the notifications or put it on silent.
  • Prioritise emails and correspondence.  Try to avoid the knee jerk response of “ooh, email… must answer now”.  Look at it dispassionately.  Do you really need to reply to that now?  Will it wait?
  • Break large tasks and projects into smaller bits and tackle them one at a time.  It’s easier and less overwhelming.  I’ve recently written blog posts about successful project planning here and here which you may find useful.
  • Learn to delegate.  No one can do everything.  I do lots of things myself but I have an absolutely lovely lady who does my accounts.  This was the first thing I ever outsourced because I knew that the time saved and the reduction in stress would be completely worth it.  If you aren’t sure what to delegate or how to do it, I wrote a blog post here.  However, in essence it recommends that you either automate or outsource the tasks you hate, are not good at, or those that take forever to complete.

And if the things you hate to do are admin related, you can get in touch with me here.  Let’s have a chat about the things that are causing you stress, eating into your time and stopping you from increasing your business revenue.