Feeling stressed at work is the worst, but it happens to the best of us. Though you may worry about looking incompetent in front of your boss or disappointing your colleagues, it’s better for your sanity — and your career — to fess up in order to get some help. Here are eight ways to actually let someone know you’re overwhelmed at work, instead of pretending to be “fine,” so you can bounce back like the productive, confident person you already are.
1. Don’t play the “I’m so busy!” game.
Admit it: there’s a weird sense of satisfaction in claiming to be “sooooo busy.” It makes you feel important and needed; however, it’s completely unsustainable. Falling into the busy trap will not only make you sick, tired, irritable, and less productive, but also doesn’t allow you to figure out a solution to feeling overwhelmed at work.
Instead, think through your daily to-dos and fess up some honest answers to important questions: are your priorities straight? What never seems to get checked off your list (and do you even need to accomplish it)? What should be delegated to a team member? Taking an assessment of how you’re truly spending your time is a helpful first step is deciphering what actions will affect change.
2. Admit what you don’t know.
In my first job out of college, I remember spending hours on a project, filled with dread. Why? I had said yes to the assignment, but wasn’t entirely sure how to do the work itself. I wanted to be the type of employee who could breezily problem-solve on my own, and I also hoped to appear more than proficient (aka, impress my team).
Don’t do this. It’s okay to admit what you don’t know! I mean, there’s a huge difference between shrugging at your manager in a “not my problem, man” kind of way and saying, “I’ve never done this before, but I’m excited to try! Can you help me get started?” Asking for more knowledge is a good thing, and owning up to where you could benefit from reinforcements saves you time and energy in the long run.
3. Vent to a trusted colleague.
When you’re freaking out at work, sometimes it helps to just get it out of your system with someone you trust, and then move on. In fact, almost every time I pause from a panic session to grab a coworker and say, “I need five minutes to vent!” I end up feeling better, and more clear-minded afterwards.
It’s also nice to ground yourself in reality. Talking through a problem, even if you’re not looking for a solution, can allow you to stop jumping from task to task. If anything, literally show your schedule to someone and say, “I’m stressed and need to spend less time in meetings to meet that deadline. Is there anything I could pass on this week?”
4. Get feedback from someone you don’t normally work with.
Whenever I get stuck on a project, I ask somebody outside of my team (or industry, or even company, if possible) for input. It is easy to spend SO much time on a creative endeavor, and then realize you can’t even see where you’re trying to go anymore.
Besides, there’s no reason to try to be an isolated genius. All the best work usually involves multiple rounds of edits and full team insights before going to print or production. So cut yourself some slack, and stop assuming you have to be the hero at work and solve every single dilemma or master every single assignment.
5. Stop saying yes to more.
Once, a boss of mine told me, “It’s great that you can turnaround work so quickly when people ask. But make sure you’re doing the right work first.” Yikes. He wasn’t wrong, though. I used to think it was optimal to be the go-to person, always willing to help or step in. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but can easily set you up for failure, because if you’re the person who can be relied on “to help” all the time… you’ll be the person relied on to help all the time.
More isn’t better — it’s just more, and that can easily be the source of your stress at work. If you’re overwhelmed, you need to refine, not add on. So for every well-meaning coworker who is like, “Hey, do you have 5 minutes to…” give yourself permission to politely decline. Say, “I’d love to help, but I need to focus on XYZ. Did you ask so-and-so?” Ask yourself if somebody else can do that same work, or if you’re the right person to help at that given moment. Or just flat-out learn how to say no: “That’s not going to line up with my priorities this month, but let’s talk about how we can get the work done.”
6. Figure out what’s temporary and what’s not.
A friend of mine is a news anchor, and a few times a year, she knows her schedule will be absolutely bananas due to ratings months. Because she can anticipate the overload, she can mentally prep, and since it’s that way for her entire team, it feels much more doable to survive. She also knows it’s just the industry, and not her fault, which helps her keep a cool head.
If you’re in that boat, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone; in fact, you may be relieved to know you’re not the only person feeling overwhelmed. But if you ask around, and that’s not the case, it might be time to have a conversation with your supervisor.
7. Take real breaks — and explain why.
I know you want to look cool as a cucumber no matter what, but this attitude can be to your detriment. For example, if your coworkers know you as someone who responds to email in 0.1 seconds flat, tell them you’re now batch-checking email at set times. If you can’t seem to make progress on a singular project, devote a day to it and go one hundred percent (okay, 95%) off the grid: shut off your phone, put on a cheery out of office response, and get in the zone. If you’re always waking up early, or staying late, or working weekends, see if you can cut back just a little bit.
When people see you practicing self-care, they’ll (hopefully!) recognize what a good work-life balance looks like. When you’re intentional and outspoken about your own boundaries and need for breaks, you will be less likely to burn out, and you’ll manage your own energy much better.
8. Propose a solution to your boss.
If you can’t find a way to ease up on your own, you’ll eventually need to talk to your boss — which can be terrifying, because you want him or her to see you as a valuable asset who can consistently deliver and add value. The good news is that you can be all of those things and still need clarity or guidance.
Instead of showing up unannounced and saying, “Hi, I’m drowning in work, help,” take a moment to think through some potential solutions with an attitude of fixing the problem. Look at your job description and consider where you’re outperforming versus falling behind. Ask yourself what seems daunting, where you struggle, what feels completely unmanageable — and the type of help that would make a difference, like more education, less responsibility, or better support. If it is clear you’ve thought through what needs to happen, with tangible examples, it’s likely the conversation will go more smoothly.
Finally, keep a calm, positive, professional tone. You’re not weak to ask for help, and your boss may not have even realized you needed it. Focus on the fact that you care about your career growth, and remain committed to finding a solution that works for both of you.