The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Business

April 24, 2013

Balancing Act: Overwhelmed at work? Tell your boss, but in the right way

Have you ever stormed into your boss’ office and blared out: “I’m overwhelmed?“

It’s a declaration more employees are considering after being stretched to the limits. With business picking up but employers still reluctant to hire, many workers find themselves with too many things that need to be done at once; others are responsible for tasks they’re not skilled to do well.

A Harris Interactive study released this month reports that more than 80 percent of those surveyed are feeling workplace stress. The top cause: an unreasonable workload caused by recession staff cuts.

John Swartz, regional director of career services at Everest College, which commissioned the survey, said although the economy has improved, choices employers made three and four years ago are taking a toll on employees. “If 83 percent of workers are stressed, someone will reach a breaking point,“ he said.

Rather than wait for a disaster, you need to talk to your boss - and take the right approach.

Career experts say whether or not the boss will react favorably depends on how you present your situation, how much effort you’re putting into your job and whether you come in with a solution. “The cause of overwhelm has to be something specific that can be addressed,“ Miami executive coach Margarita Plasencia explained. “Otherwise it comes off as whiney.“

Introspection can help you set the right tone, she says. Before you approach the boss, identify why you’re overwhelmed, what’s going on in your life, the systems you have in place for managing commitments and how you use your energy. Once you’ve taken stock of the situation, you’re ready to address the problem with your boss.

“You want to speak to the boss in a manner that exudes confidence,“ Plasencia said. Most importantly, she advised, let the boss know what you need from him or her. “You want to bring a solution, not a problem. Most often, the boss is overwhelmed, too.“

Still, awkward moments can ensue. “If it’s handled poorly, a boss can look at (the complaints) as someone who is not putting in enough effort, or not being a team player,“ said Scott Moss, president of Moss Construction in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has 240 employees and projects spanning the Southeast. And even the most positive approach won’t be effective if you routinely leave earlier than the boss or spend chunks of time making personal calls at work, say career experts.

But for hardworking employees focused on company goals, keeping your mouth shut and missing deadlines or making mistakes is worse, Moss said.

As a boss, he has had workers, even high-level executives, come to tell him they have too many new jobs starting at the same time. Moss said he listens when the employee shows how the situation could adversely affect the company and suggests a solution. “I’d rather they speak up than the company suffer.“

Conveying the attitude that you are in this together to resolve an important workplace concern is a positive approach.

The majority of bosses are willing to help with setting priorities, managing competing deadlines or reallocating responsibilities.

Case in point: Lawyer Jeff Schneider, managing partner of Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider & Grossman in Miami, was clacking away on the keyboard one day when an associate walked in. “I’m dying,“ the young lawyer declared. “Deadlines are piling up on me.“

“Take a deep breath,“ Schneider replied, “Tell me what the issue is.“

The associate explained that two cases had exploded at the same time and work was piling up. Schneider suggested bringing in another lawyer for support.

It’s a familiar scenario, Schneider said.

Most bosses, he said, prefer that conversation to the alternatives - missed deadlines, mistakes or health issues. In the past, he has worked in environments where people fear speaking up or asking for help. “Usually, they lose it and quit.“

And, as the Pew study showed, many employers aren’t even aware how stressed employees have become.

Miami financial administrator Karen McCarthy was already stewing over an increasing workload that was leading to longer hours. As her boss handed the single mother yet another assignment, her heart began racing and anxiety took over.

When she snapped at her boss, he looked stunned. “That’s when I realized he wasn’t even aware of the weight of the workload he had dumped on me.“

But addressing the situation isn’t only the job of the company. Cali Yost, author of “Tweak It“ and an expert on work-life dialogue, says while a boss can help set assignment priorities, it’s up to each of us to set our life priorities. Once we’re clear on them, we can make small adjustments to get the sense of overwhelm under control rather that reacting drastically, she says.

“The real reason people disengage or quit their jobs is an accumulation of small frustrations,“ she said. She advises people to speak up before the situation becomes a powder keg. Ask for small changes that can lessen the load, like a more efficient computer program, a shift in work hours or a scheduled weekly priority meeting.

“People have to partner with their employers.“ And that, she said, helps everyone prosper.

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegalgmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.

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