overwhelmed at work? Six expert strategies to help

Feeling overwhelmed at work can take a toll on your mental health and well-being. If mounting responsibilities and stress are weighing you down, you're not alone. Here's what you can do...

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Whether you’re a seasoned employee or at a new job where you are still learning the ropes, feeling overwhelmed at work is not fun. Irrespective of the type of job you do, it is common to find yourself stressed and anxious about the tasks at hand.   

This sense of worry could stem from a plethora of factors including difficulty in doing the job, taking on a high workload or even feeling underutilised.   

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone - research shows that 76% of employees report moderate-to-high or high levels of stress. In fact, 60% of 18-24-year-olds and 41% of 25-34-year-olds feel pressured to succeed at work.   

What happens when that stress starts to feel overwhelming? Before we delve into ways to cope, it’s important to recognise what it means to be overwhelmed at work and how it can impact your wellbeing.

what does it mean to be overwhelmed at work? 

Feeling overwhelmed at work is a common experience that more and more individuals are encountering in today's fast-paced and challenging work environments. It’s more than a feeling of normal stress; it encompasses a feeling of being stretched thin, and struggling to manage the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that pile up. In short, you feel so overwhelmed that you may want to quit.    

There are several reasons for feeling this way. High workloads, tight deadlines, important projects, and a constant influx of information can contribute to a sense of chaos. The pressure to meet expectations, both from oneself and from superiors, can further intensify the feeling of being underwater. 

what are the physical symptoms of being overwhelmed? 

Sometimes, this can be so stressful that it starts to manifest in physical ways. It is not always easy to understand if your ailments are related to your feelings about work, but here are some signs that you should look out for:  

  • Having an upset stomach  
  • Frequent headaches  
  • Fatigue   
  • Muscle tension   
  • Disrupted sleep patterns  
  • Increased blood pressure  

Being overwhelmed and stressed at work is hard and can have effects on other areas of your life as well. It can not only impact your mental health and fuel negative thoughts, but it can also lead you to feel incompetent at work. 

how to stop feeling overwhelmed at work

Once you identify the causes of this stress and understand its impact, you can take some steps to help yourself. Having a tough time at work is not a permanent thing and there are a few ways to alleviate those anxious feelings.   

Here are some tips to cope with work-related anxiety and stress: 

1. set appropriate boundaries

Contrary to usual belief, setting boundaries does not imply that you are not dedicated to working hard or contributing to the company. It may seem daunting to initiate a conversation with your manager or senior team member about the amount of work that you take on, but these conversations will help you in the long run.   

The boundaries that you set can help you maintain a reasonable workload and reduce the chances of you getting overwhelmed at work. They are also key to ensuring a healthy work-life balance. 

Try to make some small changes to your existing work routine:  

  • Allow yourself to say no to a task if your workload is already heavy  
  • Communicate with your supervisor if you need help  
  • Try to log off from work on time   
  • Do not carry your work home or to weekends   

2. ask for help

It is perfectly acceptable to ask your colleagues or your boss for advice and guidance on your assignment or task. If you have a supportive manager, request a personal meeting where you can discuss your concerns and come up with solutions. They can help you understand ways to prioritise work and even delegate to others if needed. This can aid in relieving some stress.   

Knowing that you have support can help you gain more confidence in your work and increase productivity levels.

3. take mental health breaks

Breaks are helpful in more ways than one. They help distract you, giving your brain a chance to rest and restimulate itself - meaning you'll be more productive when you return. Sitting behind the desk for long, uninterrupted hours can cause you to feel overwhelmed as you lose track.   

Step out for fresh air- take a walk during your lunch break or ask a co-worker to get a coffee with you.   

It is a misconception that breaks can be taken only after work hours. Sometimes, when you have a gruelling task in front of you, short intervals are a chance to reset, get a fresh perspective and renewed focus on the task.

4. manage your time

Task management can become a lot easier when you set reasonable deadlines. Timing yourself is a great way to motivate yourself and be self-aware of your capabilities.  

There are some familiar methods out there that you can try. For instance, the Pomodoro technique says that you should work for 25 minutes and then make a five-minute break. You can do this four times and at the end, reward yourself with a 15-minute break.   

It’s imperative to recognise that there is no sure-shot way of managing time. Do what works best for your productivity and mental health.  

5. practice self-compassion

A time-tested way to help yourself during a stressful time at work is by focusing on things that make you happy. There is more to life than work. Maintaining a work-life balance is essential for combating those late nights and additional responsibilities.   

It can be as simple as setting a bedtime for yourself or scheduling time to indulge in a favourite hobby.  Plan a short vacation with your friends and family or watch your favourite television show.   

Be mindful of your limits and reward yourself with ample breaks and interesting activities.   

Read more: Why self-compassion boosts our mental wellbeing 

how do you know when it's time to take a break from work?

Work is an important part of our lives and achieving goals and getting promoted can help us feel fulfilled. However, on the path to this, it is important to understand that there may be times when we find ourselves struggling.  

Look out for these tell-tale signs that you may be dealing with too much: 

  • Feeling lonely and lost at work   
  • Constant anxiety over important tasks, projects and responsibilities  
  • Mental and physical exhaustion  
  • Difficulty in sleeping at night  
  • Having negative thoughts about working or coming to work  
  • Procrastinating and having difficulty meeting deadlines 

These feelings do not occur in a vacuum. Strict deadlines for tasks, endless to-do lists, working on projects that need more resources, or even agreeing to help a co-worker can lead you to feel burnt out.  

While it may seem wise to take on responsibilities to show your boss that you are skilled and competent, it can impact your mental health and career goals in the long run.   

If you find yourself at a juncture like this, it is best to take a step back and re-evaluate the best way to approach work. While it seems tempting to carry on with that to-do list, you may risk suffering burnout. After all, last year saw burnout was on the rise with 43% of desk workers reporting that they felt burned out. It also became more common among young employees, with 49% of 18 to 29-year-olds feeling the brunt of being overwhelmed at work.   

Burnout takes time to recover from – for severe cases, it may take over a year. Don’t let yourself get to this stage: employ the tips we recommend, and you’ll save yourself from severe work strain. 

you don't have to tackle it alone

If you need help because you’re feeling burnt out or overwhelmed, we provide confidential counselling online or over the phone from registered counsellors, who can work with you to find the answers to your situation.

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on the career path to becoming an accountant? 

The last two years have seen workers deal with unprecedented amounts of stress due to the pandemic. Further, recent issues like the cost-of-living crisis and inflation have also left people feeling increasingly anxious. More than half (53%) of workers in the UK have reported feeling overwhelmed due to being stretched too thin and overloaded with work.   

In an already grim situation, young accountants who are balancing both studies and forty-hour work weeks are facing the brunt of a demanding workload. Our research shows that four in five (79%) accountants believe that stress and poor mental health are a problem within the industry.    

It is no secret that accountants find themselves more stressed than other employees.  55% of accountants were suffering from stress and burnout compared with 41% of employees in other industries. Two in five accountants have such low energy levels that they can’t carry out tasks effectively.   

If you are an ACA student who is struggling with balancing a gruelling workload and your studies, please remember that you are not alone. Here are a few tips to help you balance both:  

Create a study schedule 

Develop a detailed schedule that includes dedicated time for work, study, and personal activities. This will help you focus and stay on top of different priorities - plus getting through them will allow you to feel like you have achieved something.

Employ effective study techniques

Identify times when you are the most productive and develop some methods to help with maximum retention. It can be summarising core points, using flashcards or asking your co-workers to be your study buddy. You'll find these memory techniques will help you at work in the future, too - you'll have more confidence when you speak in presentations or important meetings.

Communicate

Explain to your employer about your academic commitments so that they are aware of your schedule. This can help in making sure that you don’t get too overwhelmed with work. They may be able to allocate work that doesn’t interfere with your study hours and exams. 

Seek Support

Don’t shy away from seeking help from the people you trust. It could be your colleagues, friends, family or workplace superiors. Lean on them for encouragement and emotional support.

how we can help you

We understand that it is exciting to be starting your career, but it can get tough to balance exams with a demanding job. It is okay to seek help if you feel like you are unable to manage them along with your personal life. Our ACA student support offers services to help you with issues related to your financial, mental and physical health.   

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further reading 

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burnout at work: advice from a mental health expert

Read more from our mental health expert, Kirsty Lilley, as she shares her thoughts and advice on how chartered accountants and ICAEW members can prevent and address burnout at work.

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Sleep struggles can cause lasting effects on your mental health. Our expert guidance can help you improve your understanding.

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why self-compassion boosts our mental wellbeing

Self-compassion is key to developing good mental health. It's not about being over-indulgent or too easy on ourselves; there are key steps we can take to look after ourselves more.

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your questions answered 

Who is eligible for support?

We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

  1. No matter where your career takes you, past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England Wales (ICAEW) are eligible for caba’s services for life, even if you change your career and leave accountancy 
  2. ACA students (ICAEW Provisional Members) who are either an active student or have been an active student within the last three years are eligible for caba's services 
  3. Past and present staff members of the ICAEW or caba are eligible for caba's services for life, even if you leave either organisation. Please note, for former employees, our financial support is only available to those who have had five years continuous employment with either organisation 
  4. Family members and carers of either an eligible past or present ICAEW member, ACA student or past or present employee of the ICAEW or caba are eligible for caba's support. We define a family member as a: 
    1. spouse, civil partner or cohabiting partner 
    2. widow, widower or surviving civil partner who has not remarried or cohabiting with a partner 
    3. divorced spouse or civil partner who has not remarried or cohabiting with a partner 
    4. child aged up to 25. Please note, children aged between 16 and 25 are not eligible for individual financial support 
    5. any other person who is dependent on the eligible individual supporting them financially or are reliant on the eligible individual’s care 
    6. any other person on whom the eligible individual is reliant, either financially or for care 

You can find out more about our available support both in the UK and around the world on our support we offer  page. 

Are your services means-tested?

If you need financial support, we carry out a means test where we consider income, expenditure, capital and assets.  

*Please note none of our other services are means-tested. 

I’m an accountant, but not a member of ICAEW, can you still help?

Unfortunately not. We only support past and present ICAEW members, their carers and their families. If we are unable to support you, where possible we will point you to help elsewhere.

caba has supported me in the past; can I receive support from caba again?

We understand that circumstances change. If we’ve helped you in the past there’s no reason why we can’t help you again. You can contact us at any time. Please call us if you need our help.

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