Worker Overload

‘On call and accessible 24/7/365.’

A few years ago, this shorthand for working all the time didn’t exist. There was no need. People worked, usually from 9 to 5, and then they stopped. They proceeded to live out other parts of their lives: with family, friends, recreation, hobbies.

But the pace of business today is literally non-stop. Email, cell phones, lap tops, pagers and other gadgets ensure workers have the capacity to work at any time if the demand is there. The downsizing trend exacerbates the feeling of being shackled to your work: fewer people to do the same amount of work.

The irony is, for many workers, the busier they are, the less they are getting done. And in turn they get less satisfaction from jobs done hurriedly or only partially completed. We have noticed in our practice that being unable to be thorough frustrates and stresses workers. Most people want to complete tasks satisfactorily but find themselves thwarted by the volume of work they manage.

For many, the downsizing, along with the promise that technology would free up time for us, has in fact contributed to burnout, irritability, health problems – and not a minute of spare time.

Work overload makes people spend more time at the office and forego breaks or meals. They don’t have time to exercise. They probably drink a lot of bad coffee to stay focused on a project. And when they finally do leave the office (and if the boss or a client hasn’t paged them) they might “wind down” by drinking, sometimes to excess.

In short, work overload can compromise people’s physical, emotional, and, we would argue, spiritual health.

Without a moment to pause, reflect on what’s important, anticipate future needs, relax or organize their time, people are exhausted, less productive, less creative and less able to function as part of a team.

A case in point being the work of sport psychologist, Dr. Rick Aberman author of “Why Good Coaches Quit – And How You Can Stay In the Game.” He worked with a Canadian world-class athlete who trained seven days a week for an upcoming world championship competition. Despite increased training, however, this world record holder’s times were poor. The athlete worked out more and more. Yet, he became slower and slower. After consulting with Aberman, the athlete told the psychologist that all he did was train, eat and sleep.

Dr. Aberman advised him to cut back training, go for leisurely walks, go to the movies and rekindle friendships.

Despite thinking, “Cut back training? Is the psychologist nuts?” – he took Aberman’s advice.

And then won the world championship.

Workers can win too by cutting back. A certain amount of stress is necessary for optimal performance. However, when stress becomes distress, performance suffers, as the athlete discovered.

If you feel like you’re on a treadmill with little joy in your life, or if you feel life’s become one endless to do list, it’s time for change.

But what can you do? Taking a break, varying routines, going on holiday or focussing on interests outside of work combats that distress. So does deliberately setting boundaries between the job and the hours outside the job. This may necessitate a talk with your boss but it could ultimately save your health and well being.

Finding ways to infuse work or life with enjoyable moments is key. A PURE work break – a nature hike, a visit to the spa or a talk with a friend – a talk – NOT about work – helps. Doing nothing – OK, you workaholics, very little – on a weekend or a day off can also offer a new perspective about why and how your life got so busy and what you can do about it.

Unfortunately, for many, especially overachievers, it is difficult to do nothing when the “busy” reflex is so automatic. One way is to say “next time” or plain NO to the urge to fill a schedule. It takes discipline and the willingness to say no just for a day, but it’s worth it, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Overloaded workers can also discuss work requirements with colleagues, teammates or supervisors.

A difficulty encountered with this approach is an “I have to do it alone” attitude usually related to concerns about competency or work ethic. Discussing overload at work can be delicate. There is the risk of being perceived as not pulling one’s weight or being ill-equipped. So, rather than say “I can’t do this”, approach others with an honest appraisal of your situation. Saying something like, “I wonder if you have a minute to be a sounding board for me. How can I put these tasks in some kind of priority?”

In some cases, decreasing workloads can increase stress.

Although so many people complain of overwork, in fact, overwork may be subconsciously desired. We try to explore with our clients the beliefs about themselves that often lie behind their extreme busyness. Possible personal reasons for overloading oneself are fears of letting others down, fear of not being needed, fear of criticism, concerns about missing opportunities, fear of failure, or avoidance of personal problems such as trouble at home. Addressing these fears when cutting back is the main challenge many “over- busy” people face.

However, the fear of being fired experienced in the case of a downsized workforce may fuel taking on too much as well.

Perfectionism may also motivate people to work excessively.

But in today’s 24/7 world, you, a human being after all, will never get everything done. Face it. Find out, then, what gives you a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. And when you leave the office, or whatever your workplace is, really LEAVE it. Workers can make a conscious effort to get in a family/home mindset before entering the house, whether it’s meditating for a few minutes in the car before going inside, or going for a walk around the block. If you get home and still haven’t switched gears try a shower or turning on some music.

We’ve all heard about the line you’ll never likely see on an epitaph: “I should have spent more time at the office.”

But if today’s wired, wireless, overworked employees don’t start consciously injecting balance into their lives and turning off their cell phones, beepers and work mindsets at some points during their day, that line of regret won’t be necessary. They will have spent too much time at the office.

And that will be regrettable.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership.
They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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