Disrupting Cultures of Overwhelm

Written by Jennifer Griggs

The extent of overwhelm in our workplaces is, well, overwhelming. The proportion of people reporting feeling overwhelmed is rising–we are living in what has been referred to as the “age of overwhelm.” 

I’ve written recently about strategies we can use to decrease our personal sense of overwhelm. What about those of us in leadership positions?

If you’re in a leadership position and find yourself feeling overwhelmed, I can almost guarantee you that the people you’re leading are also feeling overwhelmed. (If not, they certainly sense yours, and is that the kind of leader you want to be?) 

A few weeks ago, my team’s Culture Committee asked our team of energetic, committed, and brilliant colleagues to rate their level of overwhelm on a scale from 1 – 4. Most of us selected 2 to 3. (A few resist the term “overwhelmed” because we fear it reflects on our ability to keep up. Maybe you feel the same.)

How do we disrupt this pervasive feeling and its consequences? Here are some things I’ve thought about…

I have to ask, and I have to listen. While short periods of feeling overwhelmed are tolerable for most, sustained and universal overwhelm is not tolerable. Overwhelm can creep up on us and become the normal state, the daily water in which we swim. But we will fatigue and eventually drown, give up, leave, or burn out. Checking in regularly (more often when we do identity overwhelm), and creating safety so that people can honestly report how they’re doing are essential.

I have to take a step back, question my purpose, our purpose, and live that out in my life and our work. What exactly are we chasing? Who decides that something must happen now? If you’re a leader, take a step back and identify your personal purpose and the purpose of the work. What is essential (the essence of what you’re hoping to do)?

We have to identify the source of overwhelm. Do we have enough people? Is the workload reasonable? If every person has too much to do, can we rightsize the scope of our work? Can we make a case to bring on more people?

Are we bowing to the golden calf of productivity? Is there a false sense of urgency?

While we want to move fast and fix things, how can we do so in a way that sustains and energizes us? 

I have to invite feedback. The people whom you serve as a leader have ideas on how to disrupt cultures of overwhelm. I recently heard that my enthusiastic tendency to offer initiatives to our stakeholders puts undue pressure on the team to deliver before we have the necessary time to create. If people don’t give you this type of generous feedback, try asking, “What would you do if you had my job?” The genius of your team will not let you down.

We have to make time for re-creating. Recreation, literally re-creation, cannot be an afterthought. Setting limits on work hours, avoiding sending emails after hours or on the weekend, creating shared time for connection, humor, and play, will refuel us for the long term. There are no shortcuts here.

I also report to someone else. I do not have the final say. Few of us do. (I’m not sure I’d want that anyway?) You, like me, likely have people to whom you report on your deliverables.

How much authority do you have over the scope of your work, over the timeline? Probably more than you’re eager to claim.

You, like me, probably have ideas to move your organization forward. Confession–I am responsible for the effect my ideas have had on the team. (And I am certainly not the only one on the team with ideas.) What stories am I telling myself about the scope of our work? What is true? What is the cost? It goes back to the question about what is essential. Our team has made a commitment to address overwhelm. We’re checking in again at our next meeting. We have committed to working on our current project without adding anything new until we’re all ready. We are offering help to one another and practicing saying, “No” or “Not right now.”

What about you? You do your work exactly because you care. You want to sustain yourself and your team for the long haul. What might you be able to do to interrupt, disrupt, overturn a culture of overwhelm?