Working Out: How to deal with overwhelm

I was sitting in a weekly catch-up with my manager when it happened. One second we were talking about setting up a new project tracking spreadsheet, and the next I was sobbing. Uncontrollably. The kind of wet, sloppy tears you have at the end of Marley and Me.

It wasn’t pretty.

We all have those moments when everything feels too loud, too urgent, too much. It could be the bi-product of a new role, an urgent deadline or even encountering a challenging co-worker. Overwhelm looks and feels different for everyone.

The truth is, work in 2019 can be overwhelming. A recent study by recruitment firm Robert Half named the top three causes of rising workplace stress are our workloads (61%), increased business expectations (52%) and short deadlines (37%).

And this is having a major impact on the health, happiness and productivity of employees, with Safe Work Australia reporting over 7,200 Australians are compensated for work-related mental health conditions annually. Further, Smiling Mind CEO Addie Wootten reveals burnout and work-related mental health issues are costing Australian businesses an estimated $11 billion per year.

If I could have my time over, I would have done things a lot differently in my last job. Despite having an outstanding manager who genuinely gave a crap about my wellbeing, I bottled up my worries, hid my frustrations and rarely spoke out when I felt over capacity. I kept putting my hand up for new tasks and more responsibility, even when I felt on the verge of breaking point.

Looking back, I realise there were clear signs and red flags I missed (or blatantly ignored). So, what did I learn?

Recognise your triggers

Bursting into tears in the bathrooms shouldn’t be a normal part of the working week. If you dread the walk to your office, flinch when you open your emails or struggle to focus, these could all be important signs to watch out for.

For me, missing my lunch breaks because I was ‘too busy’ or spending hours jumping between tasks without achieving anything were clear indicators that I needed to take a step back. Crying during my commute to work was probably a bad sign too.

Assess your behaviour at work and start to recognise any patterns that emerge when things are particularly busy. The first step to making a change is to understand how overwhelm manifests for you.

Speak up

Unfortunately, we aren’t the centre of everyone’s universe. Our managers and colleagues, as much as they may try, are unlikely to be in-tune with the intricacies of our schedules or needs.

If you can’t see a way to meet the deadlines set out for a current project, start a proactive conversation with your direct manager. Flag the tasks already on your plate, offer a suggested plan of priorities and ask for their advice if you’re unsure what should come first. They’ll appreciate your honesty and will be able to delegate and shuffle responsibilities among your team accordingly.

Holding onto your concerns and anxieties only serves to diminish your confidence and productivity. It’s important to recognise when you’ve reached your limit to stop things before they tip over the edge.

Take a step back

Tune into your emotions when things start to feel frantic. If your thoughts are racing and you’re struggling to think clearly, remove yourself from the situation (or focus on your breath if you can’t leave the room). Taking a quick walk to grab a glass of water or stepping outside for 5 minutes can help to give space and clarity in a moment of crisis, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.

I know taking a ‘mental health day’ might sound like a cop out but honestly, it can provide powerful relief when you’ve hit a wall at work. Be honest with yourself and recognise when you need to press pause. I couldn’t be a bigger advocate for a day spent lounging in activewear while screening re-runs of your favourite show (with plenty of hummus and cheese on hand, of course).

Reflect and move forward

Once you feel ready, it’s a good idea to consider what factors pushed you to the point of overwhelm. Are there any signals you should be conscious of? Who can you reach out to now to develop strategies for these situations moving forward?

Don’t rush this step, as this kind of reflection is best done away from the acute emotions and the stresses of the activating incident.

The most productive step you can take is to communicate, early and often. Discuss your current workload, reach out to your team when you’re in need and lean on your friends and family when you need to get something off your chest.

In my experience, those around you will want to help. So, reach out.

If you are struggling with anxiety or stress and this article brought up negative feelings or emotions for you, there’s always someone to talk to. Contact Lifeline’s 24/7 support line on 13 11 14 for immediate support, or visit their website.