Healthier Alternatives to Overworking Yourself in an Understaffed Workplace

Hiring freezes, attrition, budget cuts, labor shortages, reorganizations, and other workforce reductions have made understaffing the new normal at many agencies and organizations. If you’re part of an inadequately staffed team, you’re taking on more and more responsibility, as well as all the stress that accompanies the extra work.

It’s time to give yourself permission to stop the downward spiral of being overworked, whether it’s a condition imposed on you by your boss or a bad habit you can’t shake. It’s harmful to your emotional, physical, and mental health, and can be detrimental to your career.

What strategies can you use to remain an effective professional without burning out from the burden of overwork?

Let go of your need to be the savior

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It’s not unusual for people to become too attached to their jobs. You get wrapped up in your work or in the drama of the workplace. You tie your personal identity and sense of self-worth to your career. You drive yourself to constant exhaustion thinking being busy will impress people or bring you glory. You’re a committed professional who’d rather take on responsibilities that aren’t yours instead of letting a task go undone because your team is understaffed.

Whatever the reason, when you’re always the willing savior, you can damage your health, yourself, your job, your team, and your organization. By overperforming, you can mislead leaders and human resources into thinking that your workplace can get by with fewer staff than it really needs. Step up as the savior too often, and your colleagues might get used to you working excessively hard for unreasonably long hours to meet impossible standards.

Instead of being the savior, set boundaries and stick to them. That means taking control of your work priorities and schedule, saying “no” when you’re tempted to overwork yourself, and saving your time and energy for what’s truly important.

Find out how your your job performance will be judged

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If the amount of work expected of you seems impossible, don’t whine or make excuses about why you can’t do it all. Instead, focus on advocating for what you need so you can get the job done. Ask your manager to sit down with you to discuss your individual priorities and goals for the next month, for each quarter, and through the end of the year.

Have a calm conversation about the barriers and issues you’ve noticed that could impede your progress or keep you from being successful. When pointing out that there’s too much to do and too little time to do it, offer specific suggestions for tasks that can be reassigned, postponed, or stopped altogether. Then, ask your manager to help you identify the resources and support that can be brought on to achieve the priorities that are left on your list.

To help you and your manager keep an eye on the progress you’re making, schedule regular check-in meetings together. Even a 15 minute meeting once a week can keep things from getting out of control, and will give your manager the insight they need to be an advocate for you and for a healthier workplace.

Or, if you’re left adrift, set your own goals

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Ultimately, your career is your responsibility. If your manager won’t or can’t tell you your priorities and performance goals, you’ll have to set them yourself. Have some sympathy for your manager. In an understaffed workplace, they’re just as likely to be struggling with their own burdens and overloaded responsibilities.

To start a process of self-management, think through the ways you can bring value to your organization in both the short- and long-term. Make a list of all these possible goals and start making tough choices. Focus on goals that are mission critical—that is, ones that best support your organization’s strategies. Pick goals you can realistically accomplish, especially those you are excited about taking on that can also build your professional skills or boost your career.

Once you’ve come up with your best take on your priorities and performance goals, it’s time to manage up. Ask your boss for their feedback on the priorities you came up with. Explain that you’d like their help identifying which opportunities are the most important ones to get done, and which ones will have to wait until your organization hires more staff.

If your manager is unwilling to have this important conversation, let them know you’ll be using the list of priorities and performance goals you set for yourself. Keep track of your successes so later on you can demonstrate how well you performed your job in your understaffed workplace.

How do you do to stop yourself from overworking in an understaffed workplace? Share your suggestion in a comment.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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Brady Smithsund

Great post, Lauren! I really like the idea of letting go and not feeling the need to be a savior. People often overlook their own mental health in order to work as hard as possible, which isn’t always the best strategy. Thanks for the post!

Lauren Girardin

I’m glad to hear my ideas resonated with you, Brady. I wish you success in letting go and avoiding overworking yourself unnecessarily.