How To Deal With Feeling Overwhelmed At Work
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed. I’ve felt like I’ve been failing. I have been failing to plan, I’ve been failing to communicate, I have been failing to remain calm.
When I stopped to examine why, I noticed something interesting. The last time I felt this way was almost exactly a year ago. In fact, I wrote about leadership burnout last summer after my top leader almost quit because of stress.
And I realized something important: it’s not my fault. It’s just my company’s stress cycle. Now that Peak Support is going into its fifth year of business, I’ve started to see a pattern:
Like most companies, we have a cyclical year. We start the new year strong. In December, we profit share, celebrate goals achieved and start dreaming up new goals for the new year. It’s rewarding and exciting.
Then we kick off the year with the most special moment of all: the Summit, our annual meeting. Nothing compares to the wonderful emotion of everyone getting together.
But then that wears off, and the time we thought we had to get so much done starts to chip away.
This is the trough, which starts in May and ends at the start of Q4. This is where we are now. It’s a moment of a lot of work and not much excitement. And it’s also a time when I’m getting pulled in other directions. I live in New England, and I want to take advantage of the nice weather we have for approximately 10 weeks a year. When I’m overwhelmed by work, it can feel like the summer is passing me by.
So what should you do when the trough gets you down?
1. Recognize it and see it for what it is
Just outlining the cycle above made me feel better. I could see it for what it was – and, most importantly, I could see that it was temporary.
The trough always gives way to a rise again. In October, the goals we set out to achieve start to get met, and if they don’t get met we understand why and what to do instead. We start to eye the holiday season and the end of year bonus. Summit date is set. There is a thrill in the air.
I can manage the trough much more easily when I know there is a rise on the horizon.
If you feel overwhelmed, chances are that other people on your leadership team do as well. I shared a version of this article with my leadership team, and many of them jumped in and shared their own similar feelings. Bianca, the executive who almost quit a year ago, shared her story:
“I was literally giving up and could no longer think straight, I just wanted to quit. I was burned out. The overwhelming feeling of failure and disappointment got me. I thought I was letting the entire company down!”
There is no shame in sharing your emotions. But it’s not just about venting emotions, it’s about airing them out to others so they can help.
3. Remind yourself that this is a marathon not a sprint
There is a tendency to think working more can get you out of the trough. This is when working smarter matters most. Stop. Identify the top priorities and the key next steps. Before doing any work, plan your work.
When I’m in the weeds, I have a tendency to just do whatever task is in front of me. But I get out of the abyss by gathering all the tasks (and this can take hours of writing and organizing) and systematically tackling them based on impact.
By and large, I try to work 40 hours each week. If I’m not accomplishing everything in that time, I need to ask the important questions: Do I have the right resources? Am I doing things that aren’t necessary? Am I doing things based on smart system of prioritization?
4. Take a break
This is something I often need to remind myself. Even if I’m facing an overwhelming to-do list, I can take five minutes and breathe. But taking longer breaks is critical as well. I need to do better at planning vacations and just at putting my phone down on weekends.
There is no perfect solution to stress, especially when you’re an entrepreneur — or if you work in a challenging role at a growing company. The minute you solve one problem, another will pop up. But if you feel like you’re struggling, understand that you are not alone — and that this feeling, like all others, will pass. We will get out of the trough — and we’ll do it together.
Psst! If you’re looking for more advice on leadership, you can now download our Emerging Leaders Program curriculum & training program for free. 👇
Illustration by Rhea Avanceña