How to Tell Your Boss You're Overworked

First, telling a boss you’re oversubscribed is very different from snapping at him or her.

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I recently detailed seven things you should never say to your boss, including this little gem: “I can only do one thing at a time.”

This led many intelligent, thoughtful readers to write and ask, “I’m doing the work of five people! Are you saying I have to just put up and shut up?”

Good question.

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First, telling a boss you’re oversubscribed is very different from snapping, “I can only do one thing at a time” when you're assigned a new task. “I can only do one thing at a time” sounds whiny. Ditto for “I only have two hands, you know,” and “Hey, what do I look like? Superman?”

Second, you do have a responsibility to tell your boss you’re overworked. It’s your job to tell the truth, and your boss’s job to listen to you. Trying to accomplish the impossible is a recipe for failure--yours as well as the company’s. It’s even possible your boss isn’t aware of the weight of your workload. The “reward” for a dependable achiever is often to be given more work.

[See 7 things your boss should never say to you.]

That just leaves us with the question of how to tell your boss you’re overwhelmed. It’s not easy, but here is where facts and data are your friends. Before approaching your boss, jot down the following:

  • A summary of the tasks your boss has assigned you
  • An estimate of how many hours it takes to do them
  • A ranking of these assigned tasks in order of importance
  • If this shows that your responsibilities take, say, more hours than there are in a day, you may want to confront your boss immediately. But wait. You need to show how your problem is the company’s problem, too. So think about these two points and be ready to talk about them: (1) how your workload is harming the performance of your core job, and (2) how your workload is having detrimental effects on customers and/or the company’s bottom line.

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    Now you’re ready for a conversation with your boss. Show him or her the results of your thinking and research. If you have alternative ideas as to how the work could be better distributed, now’s the time to talk about them. Where you can, and if you can, strengthen your case by using dollars and cents. Keep in mind that your data and ranking of priorities may not agree with your boss’s data and rankings. That’s OK. This is a conversation being held so you and your boss can try to resolve an important workplace issue.

    It helps to approach your boss at a time when he or she seems energized and positive. Needless to say, avoid getting into a heated discussion, and thank your boss for addressing this problem. Be compassionate—your boss may also be feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Take the attitude that you are in this together.

    The majority of bosses and companies are ethical and truly want to do right by employees, especially when tactfully confronted with the facts and a demonstrated willingness to cooperate. However, every workplace is different. Every boss is different. It may be that your company has determined it’s more profitable to work existing employees to a frazzle than to hire more people, or to distribute the work more fairly.

    If so, you’ll need to decide if this is a company you want to stick with in the long term. Meanwhile, it’s to your advantage to do the best job you can, and to be open, honest, and professional in all your workplace relationships.

    What do you think? Sound doable?

    Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.


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