Things You Can Say to Your Manager When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed with Workplace Stress

/ Christine Andrukonis

If you’re like most professionals, you’re prone to a lot more workplace stress these days. Whether you had to adjust to a remote office setting seemingly overnight, or you were challenged to balance the demands of your job and your home life 24/7, or you’re just reacting to the impact of the daily news, 2020 has been hard on all of us. It’s okay if you are feeling overwhelmed or overcommitted. However, rather than speeding fast toward employee burnout, it’s essential to communicate with your boss about how you are feeling.

While many professionals want to go above and beyond to impress leadership (and thus, receive a raise and/or promotion), being candid and honest about your limitations is a true sign of maturity and self-awareness. The key, though, is all in your delivery — and timing. When a last-minute deliverable lands on your desk, creating an instant panic-mode, it’s probably not the right moment to express your anxiety. However, it could be an effective, worthwhile conversation during your weekly one-on-one check-in with your manager. And rather than only complaining about everything that’s negative, it’s important to come to the table with solutions.

Here, we spoke with the founder of Notion Consulting, Christine Andrukonis, who gives her advice on how to tell your manager that workplace stress is causing you to bubble over:

Don’t say: “I’ve been doing this, and this (and this and this) for you and the team. I’m so busy and tired. I never sleep. I’m exhausted. I don’t feel well. And ARRRRG! But sure, I guess I can do it if I work all weekend.”

Do say: “I appreciate what we are trying to achieve here, and here’s how I propose we go about doing this…”

Here’s why: When you’re feeling pushed to your limit, it’s difficult to take a moment, gather yourself, and calm down. But that’s exactly what you need to do. “Think about validating what your manager needs and propose what you need to be healthy,” says Andrukonis. Framing the conversation in a more forward-thinking way also has a powerful impact, since it illustrates to your boss that even though you are experiencing employee burnout, you understand and value his or her objectives, as well as those of the company. It shows you do plan on delivering what’s requested of you, but you need to make some adjustments, so it’s a manageable timeline.

Andrukonis says sometimes an employee may approach the situation unprepared if they feel comfortable and safe with their boss. While being able to talk openly with your manager is a sign of a strong relationship, phrasing your workplace stress in this passive-aggressive way isn’t productive. It only affirms that you compromised your boundaries in the past, and now, you also agree to compromise your boundaries again. How does that solve the problem at hand? In short: it doesn’t. “By unloading your woes on your manager and agreeing to continue the same behavior, you are creating additional stress for them and for yourself and committing to continue the same dysfunctional pattern again,” she adds.

Make sure to come prepared with an updated plan that lays out how you intend to fulfill your duties and ensures your manager can do the same. As Andrukonis says, “the goal is to explain, with specific deadlines and concrete examples, how you will meet the new expectations in a more reasonable and manageable way for you.” Should you say that you’re feeling overwhelmed? Definitely — but keep it high level, without going into the nitty-gritty details. You might say something like: “My current workload is not allowing me to perform at my top ability. I would like to do [NEW PLAN], so I have the time to strategize, conceptualize and submit quality work for you and the business.”

Real talk: at some point in their careers, everyone has felt overwhelmed. Workplace stress is no joke — in 2019, the American Institute of Stress noted that 94% of American workers reported experiencing stress at their workplace, and that was before we were in the midst of a pandemic! But even if you are boiling over on the inside and incredibly frustrated with your manager or leader — there’s never an excuse for laying on the guilt.

Instead, stay focused on the end goal: lightening up or changing your schedule to have more flexibility. Give yourself a moment to release the tension, and then come prepared with an action plan that will benefit you, as well as everyone around you.

Don’t say: “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this.”

Do say: “I understand what you are trying to achieve however my commitments are currently exceeding my capacity, so I propose that I deprioritize XYZ for now, so I can focus my near-term energy on this current priority.”

Here’s why: This approach is a smart one since it addresses your workplace stress before you hit total employee burnout. The key phrase here, according to Andrukonis, is ‘my commitments are currently exceeding my capacity’ — which is a very professional, appropriate way to communicate that you have far too much on your plate. This doesn’t come across as whining or as desperate, and instead, is more factual – it acknowledges how you’re feeling honestly and clearly, and recognizes that you do not have endless capacity for work.

The second part of this sentence keeps the conversation moving in a positive direction: “I propose that I deprioritize XYZ for now, so I can focus my near-term energy on this current priority.” This is an exercise in looking at your calendar, your deadlines and your meeting commitments, and determining what is business-critical, and what can wait a few days or a week. You should not expect your manager to make this decision for you since you know your workload better than anyone else. Everyone has their own system for identifying priorities. One useful approach is to make a list of everything on your plate, then assigning a number to each item based on urgency. For example, #1 means this work must be done today or tomorrow, #2 means this work must be done this week, and #3 means this work can be pushed off to next week. “This allows you to confirm your understanding of priorities, gain acknowledgment that you are stretched, and work together to reprioritize your focus areas to address the expectations at hand,” Andrukonis says.

Here’s why: Put yourself in your manager’s shoes. How do you feel when someone tells you ‘no’? It’s never a great feeling, and depending on the circumstance, it can leave you feeling doubtful of a person’s abilities, intentions and character. When you approach a difficult conversation with negativity, you are bound to receive the same energy back. Rather than your manager being inclined to help you, hear you, and change your workload, they will feel dismissive and annoyed, resulting in what Andrukonis calls binary (this-or-that) thinking. This isn’t actual problem solving, and it won’t help to improve your workplace stress. “Saying ‘no’ flat out will likely give your manager the feeling that you cannot handle pressure, solve problems and understand/empathize with the needs of others,” she continues. “It may cause others to feel that you are not a team-player, and are more focused on yourself than the goals/objectives of the team.”

When you are faced with a work request that feels like the final straw, try to exercise control and restraint before responding. Remember, you can always say something like: “that sounds like a great project and I’ll be happy to help. I just need to review my full workload before I commit. Can we set up some time to discuss this in more detail?” Then, give yourself time to step back and reassess your capacity with a less emotional lens. Maybe you can go for a walk or sit quietly for ten minutes to gather your thoughts. Then, you won’t say something you wish you had kept to yourself. Remember: once it’s out there, you can’t take it back.

The bottom line.

Yes, you should express when you are feeling overwhelmed and overcommitted. But words matter, and it’s vital to choose the right ones to solve the issue and move forward. Take the time to breathe, prioritize your workload, then come prepared to your meeting with your manager, so you can calmly discuss not only what you’re feeling and why, but what you’d like to do about it.