Stress is a normal part of life, but when it gets overwhelming it can seriously affect your emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as your performance and productivity.
If we’re really honest with ourselves, many of us probably think it’s our fault we’re stressed because we can’t cope with the high demands of our jobs. But the truth is, many people are suffering from high stress levels because they simply have too much to do, and unless you’re the boss, that may not be something you have much control over.
The good news is there are a few things you can do to manage your workload more effectively and reduce your stress levels at the same time:
Acknowledge your limits
If you have an unrealistically heavy workload, admitting that you can’t do it all is the first step towards getting the situation back under control. Thinking that working a bit longer or a bit harder will help you catch up is a fantasy. If you have more work than you can complete now, chances are your inbox will be even fuller tomorrow.
Instead, try to take control of the situation. And one of the most important ways to do just that is to get used to saying ‘no’ to those who keep piling the work on top of you, or at least to make sure they have more realistic expectations of you. If you don’t, the quality of your work could suffer, you may miss deadlines and you could become so exhausted your health will be affected too.
After all, saying ‘no’ occasionally is much easier than having to deal with what happens when you say ‘yes’ all the time.
Pick and prioritise
If there’s no way you can complete everything on your to-do-list, choose the tasks that need your attention the most and try to accept the fact that the rest will be left undone.
Some business experts call this process workload triage. Just as a triage nurse in a hospital A&E department assesses patients to make sure those who need medical attention most urgently are at the head of the queue for treatment, you have to decide which tasks you need to get done and which you can ignore.
One of the traps you should try to avoid is choosing the easiest or quickest tasks on your to-do list, just so you can cross a few things off. Yet while it may feel satisfying to look as if you’re tackling your unrealistically long list, doing those fast and easy tasks may not represent the best use of your time.
Try using the Franklin-Covey method of prioritising. This involves marking each task as one of the following:
A: Urgent and important
B: Important but not urgent
C: Urgent but not important
D: Neither urgent or important
Then, concentrate on the A tasks before moving on to the Bs and Cs. If you’ve already accepted that you can’t possibly achieve everything on your list, then the D tasks are the ones you should leave undone. In time, you may learn to say ‘no’ to D-type tasks and only ‘yes’ to the As, Bs and Cs.
One thing at a time
Try not to be tempted to dip in and out of tasks. Attempting to multi-task isn’t usually the best way to achieve anything, even if you have several A tasks that all need your focus and attention. Instead, work out the best order to complete tasks in the same priority category; do the most important task first and only move on to the next one when you’ve finished.
Deal with deadlines
Most workers have experienced what it’s like to have an impossible deadline. Deadlines are often the biggest causes of stress in the workplace, partly because they’re seen as written in stone.
If you’re working towards a deadline that you know you can’t possibly achieve, you have nothing to lose by asking your manager or employer to consider extending it. If that’s not feasible, then why not ask for more resources to help you meet the deadline, or find out if the task can be altered to make the deadline more achievable? If nothing else, you will have made your position – that is, that the deadline is unachievable – clear from the start.
Meanwhile, try to think carefully about deadlines before you agree to them. Generally speaking, if you accept a deadline, your employer or manager will expect you to stick to it. So instead of trying to impress them by trying to achieve the impossible, manage their expectations by being more realistic.
Be good to yourself
If you have a heavy workload, taking regular breaks throughout the day may seem like the last thing you should do. But it may well be the best. Working through without breaks is much more likely to affect your performance and productivity in a negative way, whereas taking just 20 minutes off for lunch and regular mini screen breaks can help make you feel refreshed and more focused. Try using the Pomodoro Technique, which schedules regular short breaks throughout your working day.
If you’re still weighed down by an impossible workload and drowning in deadlines, it’s time to ask for help. Your employer or manager may not even realise how much pressure you’re under, so don’t suffer in silence. Talking to them about the difficulties you’re experiencing is by no means admitting defeat – indeed, it’s usually far more useful than pretending everything’s fine when it’s not.
CABA provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, ICAEW staff and their close family members. Learn more about how to strengthen your mental wellbeing and support others on our dedicated hub.