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Workplace problems: What to do when your boss expects too much

The first article in a new series where we take an in-depth look at common workplace problems.

 Dealing with this particular dilemma requires a delicate balance between two things:

  1. Wanting to impress your boss and not let them down.
  2. Agreeing to do too much and setting yourself up for high stress and/or failure.

It’s important to address this early, as soon as you suspect you’re being asked to take on too much – the longer you leave it, the more difficult the conversation will be.

What should you do?

Make sure your boss really is asking you to do too much.

We don’t want you to doubt your feelings here, but sometimes it’s good to step back and assess the situation from a practical, unemotional point of view, just to make sure. You may find that you’re more capable of dealing with the situation than you first thought.

Are you feeling overwhelmed because you’re being asked to do something new that you’re not comfortable with yet?

“While you may feel a deadline is too tight or a task is beyond your capabilities, your boss might know better. Managers—good ones, anyway—will often push you to stretch beyond your comfort zone to help you develop new skills,” suggests career site, themuse.com.

Are you feeling stressed because of another area of your life?

Stress is the feeling of being under so much pressure from the demands of life, such as work, money or relationships, that you feel unable to cope. This feeling is actually hormones like cortisol flooding our systems, causing our heart rate to increase, our breath to quicken and our blood vessels to increase the oxygen to our heart and muscles. Think of it as a ‘fight or flight’ response. We still have this instinct from our ancestors that once helped us escape predators in the wild. However, now this physical response is triggered by the stresses that come from modern life.

Short term symptoms of stress in themselves can be hard to deal with, particularly on top of the pressure you may already be feeling. These can include, but are not limited to, sleeping problems, decreased cognitive ability, loss or increase of appetite, low self-esteem, headaches, muscle tension or digestion problems. These can all affect your ability to deal with a mounting workload.

Ask your colleagues

Another effective way of assessing the situation is to ask your colleagues. Try outlining your projects to a trusted colleague and ask them to give them an honest opinion about your workload and whether it is too much for one person to reasonably achieve.

Some of your colleagues may also be having a similar experience to you, in which case you can tackle the issue together. Other colleagues who have been at the company longer than you may have some tips on dealing with your boss or handling the workload.

Assess your own productivity

Before you approach your boss, you need to determine where you’re spending your time.

Make a list of everything you’re being asked to do and put it into a timeline. Include your regular daily tasks, larger on-going projects, deadlines and any other adhoc or last minute tasks that may be eating into the time you need to perform your usual duties.

Highlight anything you think is unreasonable. This way you can be prepared with the knowledge that what you’re being asked to do is not possible whilst maintaining an appropriate work life balance.

How to talk to your boss

  • Firstly, schedule a meeting so you can discuss your concerns – don’t just grab them in the kitchen or on the corridor.
  • Remember that this is not an admission of failure, so be confident in what you are saying.
  • Express your concerns in a way that shows you want to work with your boss to fulfil the company’s goals – then tell them that how your time is being spent is getting in the way. For instance, you spend too much time doing repetitive, administrative tasks when you need more time to spend managing your team. Or maybe you spend too much time researching or dealing with customers when you need to be focusing on creative tasks.
  • Have a solution ready. Remember that the work still needs to get done, but how it is done needs to be rethought. If possible, offer three ideas for addressing the issue, such as doing certain tasks quarterly instead of monthly, hiring a part-time temp or identifying tasks that can be delegated to other team members.

Set priorities

 If you find yourself faced with an overwhelming to-do list and too little time to do everything on it, prioritisation is a key way to manage your time.

Prioritise the most important tasks first, not the most urgent.  This is a principle credited to U.S. President Eisenhower, who used it to organise his workload. He believed that important activities are those which help us achieve our goals, and urgent activities are usually tasks that are associated with someone else’s goals, but they demand attention because not doing them has immediate consequences. Try organising your to-do list into the following categories:

  1. Urgent AND important – do these first.
  2. Important but NOT urgent – set aside time to do these, and stick to it.
  3. Urgent but NOT important – delegate these tasks as much as possible.
  4. NOT urgent OR important – don’t do them.

Don’t agree to do anything adhoc if you’re unsure you can deliver it on time. It’s okay to say “can I get back to you tomorrow?” so you can assess whether it fits into your schedule. It’s also important to say no to things that just aren’t achievable.