How To Tell the Boss You Are Overwhelmed

Our HR Director was a really sharp lady. People would say of her, “She’ll lead you kicking and screaming to a new level of excellence!” Yep, she was a driver, that’s for sure. And I never wanted to let her down.

Laura Benjamin on Productivity

For a short time she was my direct manager after my boss left his job “abruptly”. We had 2500 employees and now there were only two Benefits people: me and my co-worker Paula.

Between projects, employee phone calls, new hire orientations, investment seminars, counseling sessions and reports, my head was swimming! Then one day our Director caught me by the filing cabinet.

She handed me a folder and said, “Laura, would you take on this project for me? I need it by Friday. I know you’ll do a great job on it.”

I was up to my eyeballs and didn’t know how I could finish what was already on my plate. Normally I’d do my best to help, but this time I had reached my limit.

I turned to her and said, “Jean, I really can’t take on one more thing! I’d really appreciate it if you could find another option.” I’m sure I said it nicely, but I recall the churning in my stomach and the stress I felt.

It was the first time I’d ever told my boss “no”. I was very thankful she saw my distress and knew I was doing the best I could do under challenging circumstances.

Have you reached that point?

Are all the to-do lists, color-coding, prioritizing “big rocks” and scheduling a calendar failing you? Do you walk into work and get hit with four “fires” to put out before the day even starts? Is it noon before you know it and nothing you wanted to finish is done?


At least one reader knows what this feels like. She wrote in to ask, “How do I find my voice to inform my boss of the volume of work I am facing?”

So I sent her a private email with a few ideas:

1. Have the conversation. And come prepared. Document the increase in workload and give her plenty of “proof”. Don’t let your emotions carry you away, even though you may be very frustrated right now. Before you meet, decide exactly what changes you’d like to see happen. Present option A, B, and C as possible solutions.

Rather than “tell” consider “show”. Create visuals. For example:

2. Put wire file holders on your desk or an office table and label each project clearly in a folder, visible to anyone who enters your office.

3. Put up a whiteboard and list every project you’re working on with a “status” column. You’ll have to keep it updated, but it’s a powerful visual. You can also use a spreadsheet which you print and post publicly. Use large font.

4. Create a weekly status report listing the projects you’re working on, number and length of calls you’ve taken, meetings attended, etc. My former manager asked me to do this when I was a Call Center Team Manager. It helped my boss understand my workload, gave her specifics she could forward to her boss and provide substance for my performance review. I disliked taking the time to do it each Friday, but grew to appreciate the value of this tool.

5. Ask if she would let you attend a class on time management. This is NOT because you are a failure at managing time. But when you make the request, you can say, “I’m working my little heart out but struggling with the volume. A class might help me learn some tricks so I don’t feel so overwhelmed.”

6. See if she would sit with you, learn more about your process and offer tips to help you manage. You may have to do this by phone or Skype if you work remotely. Sometimes this helps to clarify what she sees as a priority. You may be doing things that can be put on the back burner for a while.


Give yourself credit for all the juggling you do. Most people have just a few really productive hours a day, so don’t feel like you are abnormal. Even if you don’t do the weekly report mentioned above, definitely keep a list for yourself of everything you’ve accomplished. It’ll make you feel like you are making headway and do a lot to lift your spirits. Then, if your manager won’t, find a friend to give you a weekly pat on the back. Recognition and positive reinforcement can make any burden feel lighter.

“Progress” may be the better goal to keep in mind. Another great boss once told me, “You’ll never catch up in this job. But as long as you’re making progress, I’m happy.”

Life is hard by the yard, but a cinch by the inch. ~Anonymous

And finally, safeguard your health. No job is worth you getting sick, burned out or depressed. Take it one day at a time, resolve to do the best you can do and move forward. If your boss won’t support you and the situation doesn’t improve, consider setting a deadline, then head in a new direction where the workload is reasonable and the job is rewarding. 

Recommended Reading:

Slow Down for Maximum Improvement

“Creep” is the word now used to describe an addictive tendency to add just one more thing to our annual list of goals and objectives. While it’s important to strive for aggressive improvements, serious fallout occurs when we plan with little regard to systems capacity, training capabilities and human capital. The results:

  • Our plan looks good on paper but drives people to the brink of desperation and exhaustion in an effort to get it all done. Some will choose to “bug out” and you end up with a team of walking dead.
  • Errors! Just as research shows diminished mental capacity occurs when trying to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, the brain can only handle so many things  at once.
  • Cumulative stress that results in higher absentee rates, accidents, and employee turnover. The economy may be keeping your people in place right now, but that could end. We’re already seeing a labor shortage in some skill sets due to baby boomer retirements and shrinking numbers of qualified job candidates.
  • Organizational reputation will suffer if the word gets out that you “chew ’em up and spit ’em out.” Surveys show that workers would rather stay with a company with an excellent reputation than receive a higher salary from a company with a poor reputation.


  • Take a look at what you have accomplished this year with an eye toward what you should have NEVER attempted in the first place and why.
  • Draft up your “wish list”, then analyze the resources you have in place to achieve each objective. What “soft” and “hard” costs will you incur to get it all done?
  • Avoid the mistake of thinking a quick hit motivational cure will erase the long-term damage done to exhausted employees and supervisors. It won’t work to throw a book at them and say, “Your cheese has moved.”
  • If supervisors, managers and teams have been reorganized more than once a year, something is going to give. When people don’t know who they are reporting to or what functions they’re responsible for, they stop working toward competency, investing in relationships or organizational vision.

Not surprisingly, an search turned up more than 20 titles on how to do business at “the speed of light”. We may have this all backwards. Slow down for maximum productivity and process improvement!