by Meridith Levinson

How to Talk to Your Boss About Being Overworked

Jan 18, 20075 mins

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

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.

Instead of complaining, Cannon advises, employees should negotiate new assignments with their bosses by explaining how this request impacts the priorities they previously agreed on and by suggesting new priorities in line with the business’s overall goals.

Sheleen Quish, a technology business consultant and former CIO of U.S. Can Co., recommends coming to the table with alternative ideas on how to better manage your work: “Say, ’We can take 12 days and $X and do this or a month and $Y and do that. Here’s what I recommend,’ ” she says. The idea is not just to say, “Here’s how I think I can handle my workload better,” but to present alternatives and potential solutions that help the boss decide what he thinks is best. 

Your human resources department can also be an ally in supporting your case for a lighter load. HR can provide data that demonstrates the dangers of overwork, such as job turnover stats or the number of sick days employees are taking. Don’t be afraid to cite these statistics when explaining to your boss how stress can impair one’s ability to function effectively, Whyte advises.

Talking with your boss may not immediately change your workload. In the interim, you can take a couple of measures yourself. First, delegate what you can. “Delegating develops trust and a great team. Don’t think for them, but teach them and help them be better trained,” says Cannon. Hand off a pet project to your team to demonstrate your trust in the group’s abilities.

Second, set hard boundaries about your work hours and e-mail and cell phone availability. These walls will keep work from leaking into other parts of your life, and thereby from overwhelming you and creating additional stress.

Managing your workload isn’t a short process. Initiate conversations with your boss about your performance and priorities today, and don’t say that everything is fine if you’re snowed under. Before you get to a crisis point, try setting your priorities on your own, then with your boss’s help. When the time comes to disagree, then do so. If your supervisor responds by giving you the “you’ve always come through” speech, or worse, by saying, “If you can’t get it done, I’ll find someone who can,” respectfully hold your ground, says XCEO’s Crawford. He advises employees to say to their bosses, “If you want me to be the best I can be and do a great job, then you have to help me. If I didn’t believe the workload was having a negative impact on my performance, which isn’t good for you or for me, I would not bring it to your attention.”

“Typically,” says Crawford, “the boss will swallow hard and say, ’You’re right. Let’s see what we can do.’ “