How Managers Can Help a Team Struggling with Work Overload

It’s no secret that organizations everywhere have been facing staffing challenges. Research by WorkJam revealed that almost 50% of American business leaders surveyed had been understaffed for at least 5-6 months, and 48% had lost customers due to staff shortages. Likewise, the OECD, which includes 38 member countries, found that 20 million fewer people are working now than before the COVID pandemic. With disruptions in supply chains, challenges with COVID outbreaks and The Great Resignation, many managers are concerned their teams are struggling with work overload.

What is Work Overload?

Work overload happens when employees at an organization have more work assigned to them than can be accomplished within normal work hours. This can happen to an individual or a team, resulting from a temporary challenge, or if not addressed, can become endemic throughout an organization. If employees are consistently overloaded with work, it can lead to stress, exhaustion and overwhelm, eventually leading to employee turnover.

So, when there is more work to be done and fewer resources, how can managers navigate work overload and keep their team sane in the process?

Be Realistic

The first thing a manager can do to address work overload is to face reality. If a department is truly overloaded, some things will not get done. Even the best time management skills can’t create more hours in the day. Managers should be honest with themselves and their team about what can be accomplished in the given amount of time. If managers are honest about that, they can make proactive decisions about adjusting timelines and prioritizing tasks instead of simply reacting when things start to get off track.

Managers must also acknowledge when employees feel stressed or work long hours to meet job demands. Keeping a realistic perspective of how employees handle work overload is important. Check in with employees to gauge their stress levels and assess capacity as much as possible.

Prioritize Tasks Daily

When a team is overloaded, managers should ask them to set up prioritized to-do lists that are reviewed each day quickly. Leaders should help their team rank their to-do list by importance and review those priorities frequently to make adjustments. It can also be helpful to have employees track how much time each task takes and how much time any unfinished projects will take to complete going forward.

Through this quick daily review, a team can stay informed about changing priorities, shifting deadlines, or items that need urgent attention. Managers should be careful not to micromanage their team when setting these daily priorities. These should be short discussions, meant to provide guidance and advice where needed. Be sure not to become overly involved in small details which can waste time.

Communicate Priorities Upward

Once your team is aligned on their priorities, managers must communicate these decisions to their bosses and fellow managers. It is vital to keep higher-ups apprised of the challenges and delays a team faces. If delays affect the priorities of other departments or cause issues with customer satisfaction, it is always best to inform them as soon as possible. Communicating with colleagues about work overload can also invite ideas or help from others to complete projects on time. It will also serve as an opportunity to re-set expectations about deliverables and timelines.

Protect The Team’s Time

When a team is overloaded, it is the manager’s job to protect what precious time they have to get work done. Remove unnecessary meetings, phone calls, or events from their calendars. Minimize distractions and interruptions as much as possible so they can focus on their most urgent tasks.

Managers can declare at least two meeting-free days a week or encourage using “Do Not Disturb” settings on phone, email and chat at certain times each day to allow for deep work. It also means saying no to additional projects or tasks until the team’s capacity has increased.

Look for Long-Term Solutions

Employees can only be pushed to endure work overload for so long before they start showing symptoms of overwhelm and burnout. It is important to look a the root causes of the work overload and seek real solutions. For example, can more staff be hired, or can some tasks be handled by external contractors? Or are there other underlying causes, like broken or outdated equipment, that management could address?

While an occasional disruption, such as an employee taking family leave or calling out with an illness, can usually be managed temporarily by existing staff, it is important to be realistic about everyone’s workload. Prioritizing mental, emotional, and physical well-being is key to employee retention and achieving quality work.

Do Your Managers Have the Skills They Need to Help Their Teams?

Sometimes work overload is caused by a lack of management skills. Crestcom’s leadership development programs turn managers into leaders by building skills like time management, emotional intelligence, and delivering results the first time. Find a trainer near you to learn how Crestcom can help your team today!