5 Ways to Cope When You Feel Overwhelmed at Work

Stress has a way of creeping up on us all. It can be overt and just hit you smack in the face, but more than likely it is covert and creeps up on you over time. Do you find yourself getting easily exasperated at work? Are you quick to say “no” when you can say “yes” just because you don’t want to or can’t deal with another request? Do you always feel like you are digging out but never actually make a dent? Do have a feeling of dread when you wake up on a work day? Do you feel trapped? If you said “yes” to any or all of those questions, you might be overwhelmed and need to make some changes pronto.

My response when I feel this way is to work harder and put my nose to the grindstone, which is probably the worst possible response when in this situation. This is because it doesn’t address the underlying causes of stress and in fact exacerbates the stressful feelings. The better response is to take a break and organize your work into manageable components that you can address in the best way for you.

Therefore, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, here is a five-step roadmap to getting the work done and minimizing stress:

1. Take a break. Literally walk away. Go grab a coffee or a snack. Take a walk around the block. Chat with a work friend for a few minutes. The point is to clear your head and bring your stress level down a couple of notches. Honestly speaking, if your work is that much, 15 minutes in one direction or another won’t make a difference, so be kind to yourself and step away.

2. Change the scene. If you can work remotely or have access to a work laptop, grab it and go to the nearest café, library, art gallery, public park, etc. with Wi-Fi. Sometimes just breaking the routine and changing things up helps productivity and inspires a different response because you are doing something different. It is also healthy to get outside of the work bubble from time-to-time to realize there is a world beyond work, creating space for you to focus on and prioritize the work accordingly.

3. Don’t take work home. Let’s be honest, we all have a point of diminishing returns, so why work beyond it? It is usually more useful to get a good night’s rest of ideally 7-8 hours of sleep and approach the work fresh the next morning, rather than working like a maniac all day, then taking the work home and doing that until you crash super late. This only results in you doing it all over again the next day without really making a significant impact on your workload.

Instead, studies show that taking much needed down time to spend time with family, hit your favorite gym for an exercise class, watch the latest episode of your favorite sitcom or curl up with a good book leads to higher productivity and job satisfaction. At a minimum, when you work beyond the point of diminishing returns, you must consider the quality of your work output – it won’t be your best no matter what you do. So, sleep, exercise, read, spend quality time with family and friends when at home, just don’t do work.

4. Get organized and plan it out. Though it seems time is the most precious resource when you are overwhelmed with work, take a little bit to create a work plan. Start by prioritizing the tasks you need to get done in order of importance and deadline, then create a to-do list in order based upon your prioritization. Then carve out “DO NOT DISTURB” time on your calendar each day that is dedicated only to completing your to-do list.

I have found that as I start crossing things off the to-do list, my stress level and anxiety decrease, and my sense of accomplishment increases, which spurs me on to complete more tasks.

5. Don’t be a martyr – ask for help. For most people, this one might be hard to do, but if you are truly overwhelmed and have exhausted your other options, then you’ve got to ask for help. Analyze where you are on a project, figure out what you can get done right now, and then figure out what you can delegate. Then ask for help and let them do what you’ve asked them to do.

Remember, asking for help doesn’t make you weak or incapable. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite – that you are aware of your limitations and understand what needs to be done to complete the project. Also, remember the help can be reciprocal, as in your colleague(s) help you this time and you help them next time when they need assistance.

The state of today’s workplace requires that employees are resilient – we need to know our limits and respect them. Stress takes a toll on us all at different points and in different ways. Finding mechanisms to turn the stress off or re-directing your efforts can help maintain productivity, job satisfaction and general happiness. The key is to be proactive and to listen to yourself, so you can take care of yourself. You are your own best advocate.


Lia Miller is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Brady Smithsund

Great article Lia! Love the idea of taking a step back and disconnecting from work for a bit or getting a change of scenery. People often forget how important it is to achieve a great work/life balance. Thanks!

Lia Miller

Thank you Brady. Yes sometimes the best to connect is to take a step back, at least that has been the case for me. Work/life balance is key. I appreciate your feedback.

LaMesha Craft

Excellent post! Those pointers are great reminders that we are all human and knowing when we need a break, to change the scenery, or to ask for help will improve our overall health.

Lia Miller

Thank you La Mesha. Yes we are human and that is where this article came from, the need to remember that we are human no matter the demands placed on us in our careers and our lives. Health is the key and what we need to remain focused on as a top priority.

Fredy Diaz

Great article, Lia. We tend to think we’ll beat the law of diminishing returns by drinking more coffee or pushing through it. Lots of great tips. Thanks!

Lia Miller

Thank you Fredy. Yes we all try to push ourselves beyond that point and for what? I hope these tips are useful for folks trying to find a way out. I appreciate your feedback.