Managing Your Workload—The Bargain and the Conversation

Living with Overload

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your workload?  Are working too many hours, not eating well, not sleeping well, and worst of all, not having enough time with your family?

When I ask my coaching clients how their work overload happened and what keeps them stuck, I hear things like: 

  • There’s too much to do and everything is a priority.
  • I can’t delegate anything because other people are working just as hard as I am. 
  • It’s part of the culture here. I’m afraid if I ask for help, it will make me look bad.
  • If I keep doing more and more, maybe eventually someone will say “good job.”  

No matter what you might be telling yourself, the reality of working too much is this:  

  1. It is not sustainable.
  2. If you’re worried about letting people down, remember you can’t do your best work when you’re stressed out and overtired.  
  3. It won’t necessarily lead to positive recognition, especially if higher quantity means lower quality.  
  4. It can lead to unproductive self-talk—like questioning your own competence, feeling victimized, or being angry.

The Bargain

But what if you could think about your workload in a different way?  What if you reframed it as a bargain with your supervisor that goes something like this:

The Employee:

“I, the employee, will do my best to accomplish the greatest possible amount of  high quality work.  And by trying to do whatever I’m asked to do, I will learn what works and what is too much.”

The Supervisor:

“I, the supervisor, will ask you to do more and more work, because I want you to give as much as you can, and I won’t know how much that is unless I ask.”


The Conversation

The bargain says it’s okay for the supervisor to load on the work, and it’s okay for the employee to define some boundaries.  In that case, the workload conversation could be a collaborative, problem-solving negotiation. And to be successful, both parties pledge to accept certain responsibilities for their role and conduct.   

The employee’s pledge:

“I am responsible for explaining what I can do and what it takes to get it done—without complaining, making excuses, or apologizing. If there are organizational barriers I will describe them openly and honestly. If I have personal constraints (like family responsibilities), I will tell you. I will also seek your guidance and support in providing whatever it will take to get the work done.

To be sure we are on the same page, I will seek clarity on priorities, telling you what I understand them to be, and describing the tradeoffs (as I see them) of changing those priorities.  If necessary, I will politely remind you that adding something more to the plate, means something has to come off, and that you are the one with the broader perspective for making those decisions.

While I understand that there may be relevant considerations I’m unaware of, I will always come prepared to suggest possible solutions and remedies, keeping in mind the implications for my fellow colleagues and the organization as a whole.”

Coming with a point of view about possible solutions is important.  As Julie Morgenstern says in her book, Never Check e-Mail in the Morning and Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work, “the worker’s job is to identify projects that can be delayed, delegated, deleted or diminished.” 

The supervisor’s pledge:

“I will meet regularly with you to discuss workload status, and I will also make myself available for urgent meeting you request.

My job is to listen openly with the goal of fully understanding the situation. I want to know about the challenges and constraints you (and others) face. I want to hear your perspectives and your needs for support.  

It is my responsibility to elicit your suggestions, consider all possible solutions, and to be the one who makes the tradeoffs.  The buck stops with me to set priorities. 

Sometimes, I’ll have information unknown to you that influences my own perspective.  I believe it is important for you to understand how and why I’m deciding on a particular course of action, and I will take the time to share as much as I am at liberty to do, even when it means revealing some of the uncertainties and pressures I’m experiencing.”

The Real vs. the Ideal

Of course It’s not quite so simple.  Not everyone has the character, commitment and skills to make this work.  In addition, unrealistic workload expectations often extend beyond any single group and have, in fact, become ingrained in organizational culture.  

Would it be possible to have a bargain like this with your supervisor?  Maybe and maybe not. But even if it doesn’t seem possible now, framing it this way in your mind will help get some distance from the personal and move more toward the practical.  It might even be a strategic guide for approaching these workload conversations in the future.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by your workload, remember:

  • The situation is not sustainable.  
  • The only way to get unstuck is to take action, like talking about it with your supervisor.
  • Try framing the situation as a bargain with your supervisor that sets the stage for a calm, collaborative negotiation.
  • When work overload is ingrained in the culture, the courage to have these conversations can be a good start at moving toward a healthier, more sustainable worklife for all.