How to Talk to Your Boss About Being Overworked

Ongoing communication with your supervisor about your workload is key to pushing back.

Thu, January 18, 2007

CIO — Twelve-hour workdays packed with mile-long to-do lists and meetings on top of meetings. Cell phones and BlackBerrys that are always on, and laptops you take home to squeeze in one more hour of work. With companies firmly focused on growth after several long years of belt-tightening, employees’ workloads are heavier than ever. What can you do to cope with on-the-job scope creep? Stand up and say something before your head explodes. 

To help you effectively broach the subject of your insane workload with your boss, heed the following advice from executive coaches and leadership gurus. 

First of all, don’t complain if you’re the root of your problems. In other words, if procrastination or other bad work habits are the reason why projects are piling up on your desk, you can’t expect your supervisor to be sympathetic to your plight. You have to "earn the right" to tell your boss you’re swamped by meeting or beating your performance expectations, says Curtis Crawford, president and CEO of XCEO, a leadership development consultancy. He notes that overworked individuals often get that way because they’re good at what they do and because they get things done. Consequently, management gives them more responsibility. By contrast, Crawford adds, "A person at 50 percent of their sales plan would have great difficulty talking to me about being overworked."

Even if your performance is respectable, you shouldn’t bring up the subject of feeling overburdened out of the blue; the conversation should be part of a series of ongoing discussions with your supervisor about your priorities, goals, performance and workload. Use these talks to keep your boss informed of your ongoing projects and the work requests you’re getting, counsels Bob Whyte, CEO of Integrated Performance Technology, a Los Angeles-based IT and motor sports consultancy. Over-communication is a valuable tool in combating heavy workloads: If your boss knows what’s on your plate, he’ll be less inclined to add more.

Steady and honest communication with your supervisor allows you to take the next step: pushing back when the boss tries to heap more work on you.

"At the moment of additional assignments, it is critical to not immediately say yes," says Kay Cannon, a professional business coach in Lexington, Ky., and president of the International Coach Federation. But you also can’t simply say that you have too much work to take on new projects. "Coming in only with problems makes you look like a victim. You want to be perceived as a leader," says Barbara Somma, a former longtime director at Johnson & Johnson who’s now a professional business coach in Sarasota, Fla.

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