Work Relationships

Here’s How to Tell Your Boss You Have Too Much Work

Written by Peter Jones

You’re totally swamped, but you feel like you can’t tell your boss or she’ll think you’re a wimp—or you’ll be written off for promotion because you just can’t cut the mustard. But if you’re not just being lazy (you’re actually overwhelmed because there’s genuinely too much on your plate), then you might just need to find the right way to broach the subject.

Continuing to thrash around with your head just below the surface of the water is not going to win you any medals. You might actually do damage to your career. Remember that being overcommitted and dealing with exhaustion can lead to sloppy mistakes or cut corners—or even failing to get something done on time. Far better to give your boss a heads up so you can continue turning in the top notch work you’d rather put your name to.

Here are some guidelines to follow.

1. Make it about quality.

The way to frame this is that you don’t want to sacrifice quality in order to keep up a ridiculous level of output. Don’t make any accusations, just present the situation frankly. Say that you’re concerned the high standards you hold yourself to might suffer given your responsibilities overload. Emphasize that you’re totally up for turning out four high-quality projects at a time, but that six is a bit too much.

2. Be concrete.

Don’t just say you have too much work. Give concrete examples. Explain how you’ve been assigned several projects on top of your regular workload. And how any one of them would be fine, but cumulatively, you’re having trouble keeping balls in the air. Give an estimate of how much time it would take for you to complete each and then the aggregate time. Then explain how it would be impossible to meet all of the deadlines. Tell your boss all the times you’ve stayed late or worked extra hours to finish, without complaint.

3. Discuss deadlines and delegation.

It might be an easy fix, like staggering deadlines, or outsourcing some projects or tasks to other team members to get the thing done (and well) in a timely fashion—especially if there are any general administrative aspects that don’t require your skillset that could be passed along to support staff to free you up to concentrate on the meat of the project. Set clear priorities showing you value the most important projects and understand the importance of getting them done to standard.

4. Stay positive.

Soften the blow by focusing on the positive. Frame the conversation by saying “yes” to what you can do, and do well, and not “no” to all you can’t, i.e., you can do project X, but extra added-on projects and tasks might require you to sacrifice that very important project, which you are not prepared to sacrifice. Keep it positive and use an upbeat, devoted-to-the-company tone, rather than one of despondence or frustration. And show, above all, your willingness to pitch in.

5. Ask for help.

Never underestimate the power of a third party to help ground you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Get an outsider’s perspective on your workload. They’ll either tell you to suck it up and get it done, or they’ll validate your feeling that you’re really being asked to juggle far too much.

About the author

Peter Jones