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How to Tell Your Boss You Have Too Much Work

It's a delicate conversation for a number of reasons. But it's often necessary. Here's how to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

So, you’re overwhelmed at work. The meetings are constant, your to-do list is never quite done. You’ve tried to white-knuckle it — working late and some on the weekends — until the busy period subsides but, unfortunately, it seems like that’s never going to happen. Between work and parenting, you’re spent. Something’s going to give, so before it does you need to talk to your boss about your workload. But how do you tell your boss you have too much work?

Bringing up the fact that you’re overwhelmed at work is a delicate conversation, and one that many employees are reticent to engage in for fear that it may make them seem like they can’t hack it as a working parent. What if it puts a target on their back? What if it costs them a promotion? And so the thinking goes. But it’s an essential discussion to have, and right now is actually a good time to have it.

“Organizations are having such a hard time retaining talent right now that if you’re a high-performing employee, you have some leverage,” says career coach and millennial career expert Jill Jacinto.

But whether had now or later, the conversation requires tact.  Here are eight pointers to help it go as smoothly as possible.

1. Find Allies

Chances are, there are others in your workplace with the same concerns and constraints as you. Consider building a network even before you need it. “Ask a simple question of a colleague: ‘Did I overhear that you’re also juggling both work and caring for a family member? I’d love to hear how you’re making it work,’” says Gorick Ng, author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. You’ll either hear a few tips, tricks, and valuable work management shortcuts specific to your company, or this co-worker could mention similar problems to yours — which could help to bring a case to leadership down the road.

2. Collect the Data

You need to get your manager to understand the constraints you’re under. A great way to do so: visualize them in a slide presentation. “You want to show your overlapping projects along with their timelines,” says Jacinto. “It has to be a full list that accounts for everything you’ve got going on. This includes work you’ve been assigned from other parties at your company that your boss might not even know about.”

3. Set up a Time to Talk 

Email your boss or mention that you’d like to grab some time on their calendar to discuss your workload. It’s as simple as that. Resist the urge to write a long and rambling email accounting for all your time constraints and workflow concerns. By meeting face to face (in person or over Zoom) you have a better chance of your concerns being fairly heard and considered.

4. Come into the Meeting Armed with Solutions

Do not, under any circumstances, use your meeting as a vent session where you’re just bitching about being overloaded. Most managers are overworked and overwhelmed, too. “Any time you bring up potential conflict with your manager, I always recommend coming in with some type of solution,” says Jacinto. “Essentially, you want to be seen not as giving them more work, but helping fix the problem.”

5. Focus on Quality. Then Shift to Prioritizing

So, what are your solutions, then? In advance, have a brainstorming session where you consider all your tasks, the special skills you have, and the skills you’d like to develop. Then, draw up a road map. “You want to come in and be able to say, ‘I want to do great work, and this is how I can do it,’ says Jacinto.

During the meeting with your manager, identify tasks that might not be the best use of your time. Maybe they’re too time-intensive for what the company is getting out of them. Maybe there’s room in the budget for some of those duties to be moved to another worker, a freelancer, or another department.

“You want to eventually move the discussion onto how your projects should be prioritized,” says Jacinto. This conversation may reveal that your work on Project X isn’t as high-priority as you thought — meaning you might not need to spend as many hours pursuing perfection on it.

6. Keep it Positive

Sometimes the “I’m feeling overwhelmed” conversation is as much about style as it is substance. “You want to show appreciation rather than criticize,” says Ng. “When in doubt, consider overusing phrases like ‘Thanks, I appreciate’ or ‘I’m grateful for.’ It sets a cooperative atmosphere and the right tone. Gratitude is free, so you might as well give it away.”

7. Keep the Discussion About Work 

Yes, you’ve arrived at this moment because you are trying to have more time to do the thing that really matters: care for your family, whether that means being there at pickup or no longer skipping bedtime to do the deep work you missed during a day of not-exactly-essential Zoom meetings. But your boss really doesn’t need to hear the ins and outs of your family schedule.

“It’s not about saying ‘I need to take my kid to piano lessons from four to six.’ It’s more like, ‘How can I deliver this exceptional thing, with my timeframe, and with these constraints?” says Ng. Even though your family matters are of primary importance, it doesn’t necessarily help to bring them all that out in this conversation.

And when you “land the plane” and close out your case, it may help to include your company’s own public-facing language. If you encountered your company ethos of “living our values” or “empathy first,” during onboarding, let’s say, this is the time to deploy those same terms to bolster your case.

8. Don’t expect to fix the problem with one talk.  

You might be surprised by your manager. They may hear your concerns and provide thoughtful responses or even lay out a plan. But as mentioned above, managers are often overburdened with work, too. So, it will likely be on you to leave the meeting with concrete “next steps” for fixing your workload dilemma. It will also be likely on you to make sure those plans are followed.

And even beyond this conversation, it may be helpful to reframe how you consider your schedule moving forward. You may need to be vigilant about blocking out your calendar with time for “deep work” — programming or writing or whatever it is that you need to do that is critical to your job: the stuff that’s hard to squeeze in 25-minute blocks between meetings. And about those meetings: it might behoove you to start asking if many of them are necessary. Can it be handled in an email? Can the issue be dealt with in a portion of another already-scheduled meeting? If you want to do great work efficiently in the hours you have, defend your time: it’s the most critical resource working parents have.