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In your eyes, your team is a group of productivity superstars. They get top-notch projects across the finish line. They tackle their to-do lists with strategy and confidence. They put out fires without breaking a sweat.
At least, that’s what you like to think. But, if you take off your rose-colored glasses and get a closer look, you might actually see a slew of chewed nails, irritable attitudes, and employees who are spread ridiculously thin.
Unfortunately, overwhelm on teams has become frighteningly common. In one survey, 52% of workers admit that they’re stressed out at work on a daily basis. And, research from Deloitte found that 64% of executives say overwhelmed employees are an urgent or important issue.
It’s tempting to think that a maxed-out team is a problem that will resolve itself. You just need to get through this week...or this quarter...or this project and everything will be better.
But, that’s hardly ever the case. Overwhelm just keeps snowballing, and it’s the responsibility of the leader to recognize and fix it. This isn’t the time to bury your head in the sand and pretend everything is fine.
“Throwing work at them with no regard for their workload, their lives, or their mental health would be a pretty awful thing to do,” says Michael Janiak, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Pattern.
Monitoring your team’s emotional state this closely isn’t an easy gig, but it’s doable. Let’s dig into how you can spot the signs of overwhelm on your team, as well as how you can lighten the load and set your team up for more success (and less stress) moving forward.
Is Your Team Overwhelmed? Here’s How To Tell
Wouldn’t it be helpful if a deafening alarm went off every time your team started to feel swamped?
Well, we can’t promise that the signs of overwhelm are quite as obvious as blaring sirens and flashing lights. But, if you make an effort to keep a close eye on how your team is feeling and performing, you’re far more likely to notice a few of these red flags.
1. Energy Levels Are Dipping
When your typically boisterous and enthusiastic team starts seeming disengaged, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s happening.
“It's a sign when someone who is usually invested and proactive turns to solely reactive and feeling ‘checked out,’” says Amanda Goetz, VP of Marketing at The Knot Worldwide.
That’s because studies prove that work-related stress is directly correlated to fatigue.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself. Think of the last time you had a lengthy to-do list, but opted to take a nap instead. Guilty? Yeah, we thought so. That wasn’t you being lazy, but instead a physiological response to the amount of mental pressure you were dealing with.
2. Work Quality Is Decreasing
You can usually trust your team to deliver near flawless work with hardly any supervision but, lately it seems like their quality is slipping.
“Some telltale signs I always advise people to be on the lookout for are incomplete work, decreased productivity, lower quality of work, and uncharacteristic mistakes,” says Dora Onyschak, Regional Vice President for Robert Half based in New Jersey.
Lack of engagement is definitely a big part of this dip in quality, but too much stress can also hinder focus, delay work, and increase mistakes. One study of nurses found that errors increased three-fold when nurses worked 12-hour shifts instead of eight and a half-hour shifts.
It makes sense. When your team is overworked, they don’t have the time or mental energy to pay as much attention to quality.
3. Emotions Are Frayed
Have you noticed that when you’re exceptionally stressed you tend to be a lot more terse with the people around you? The same is true with your team.
Look around to see if “people are shorter and more curt with emails, answers, and responses,” says Bari A. Williams, Esq. Head of Legal, Human Interest, Inc. “You can tell they are being worn thin.”
One More Thing...
The above three signs can clue you into how your team is feeling. But, it’s important to remember that people handle stress in different ways.
“It may not look how you ‘expect,’” says Williams. “One person may be sullen and quiet. Another may be completely extroverted and interactive because that's the only interaction they currently get. Some just do the bare minimum. Some do extra because they are bored. So, don't be afraid to ask people how they are doing and what they need.”
“Some telltale signs [of overwhelm] I always advise people to be on the lookout for are incomplete work, decreased productivity, lower quality of work, and uncharacteristic mistakes”
-Dora Onyschak, Regional Vice President for Robert Half based in New Jersey
How To Fix That Overwhelming Feeling On Your Team
Uh oh. As you read through the above three indicators you thought, “Oh shoot...this is exactly what’s happening with my team lately.”
Don’t panic. Overwhelm is something you can take steps in order to address and overcome. However, be aware that it won’t be repaired with a pizza party or a single afternoon off. It’s going to require a larger cultural shift and bigger changes to the way your team operates.
Your best bet when you realize that a feeling of overwhelm has overcome your team is to focus on immediately rebalancing. What does this mean? Janiak says that he and his team quickly work through some different scenarios, including:
- Does someone else on the team have capacity to share the workload?
- Can you push a deadline out a bit to create some breathing room on the project?
- Can you focus on fewer things in the short term and replan your other upcoming projects to be less intense?
- Does a team member just need a day off to regroup and recharge?
Basically, your goal is to have an open conversation with your team to evaluate the current situation and discuss how you can at least temporarily address the issue. This can immediately take some of the burden off your team’s shoulders, while you work on putting larger strategies in place.
4 Ways To Prevent Overwhelm Altogether
Let’s talk about those “larger strategies.” That old cliché about how the best offense is a good defense applies here.
Fixing team overwhelm can be tough, and—as the solutions outlined above illustrate—it’s likely going to throw a wrench into the projects and timelines that are currently on your team’s plate.
Of course, you need to do what you can in the heat of the moment. But, once you’ve taken those initial steps, it’s important that you implement some measures to prevent overwhelm from happening in the first place.
1. Organize The Mess And Reduce Stress
Overwhelm isn’t always related to having too much to do—sometimes it’s about not knowing where to start because all of your projects, tasks, and objectives are a tangled mess.
You and your entire team can benefit from bringing some much-needed structure and organization to your workload. Not only will you have a clear understanding of what needs to be done next, but you also won’t waste time searching for what you need (according to McKinsey, the average interaction worker spends 20% of their workweek searching for information or tracking down colleagues).
This is where a solution like Trello can come in super handy. You can create a board for your team that gives everybody visibility into what’s being worked on (and when it’s due) and also prevents those dreaded crammed inboxes and endless email threads.
Additionally, Trello’s checklists make it easy to break down large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. It’s a surefire way to make those big, hairy projects seem a lot less daunting—and, as a result, less stressful.
2. Walk The Walk When It Comes To Self Care
According to Glassdoor, only 23% of employees take all of their eligible time off.
Why? There are a lot of reasons at play (from fear of falling behind to guilt over needing their coworkers to cover), but a big one comes back to a culture that doesn’t encourage or prioritize vacation. Two-thirds of American employees say they hear very little about vacation from their companies.
This turns into a big (and not-so-fun) game of “follow the leader.” When employees see their managers working long hours and spreading themselves thin, they’ll feel increased pressure to live up to that example.
“I believe the number one key as a leader is demonstrating self care,” shares Goetz. “I block off time for working out, take walking meetings, and am vocal about taking my PTO. This allows for a culture of self-care.”
3. Host Regular “Vibe Checks”
Candid conversations are a must when you realize your team is overwhelmed. But, they can also be a proactive measure. The more in tune you are with how everybody is feeling, the less likely you are to allow major stress to creep up and sabotage your team.
“Each Thursday we have what we call a ‘vibe check’ where we get the whole team together to just take the pulse of how people are feeling,” explains Janiak. “We don't talk much about projects or deadlines in this meeting, we talk about how the week was, how we're feeling individually about our output as a team, our mental health, our workload, our clients, and what we see coming next.”
This step is as simple as putting your own weekly “vibe check” on your team’s calendar—you should only need a half hour or so to stay connected about how everybody is feeling.
4. Live Up To Your “Open Door Policy”
Here’s an alarming statistic: 75% of employees think approachability is the most important quality in an effective manager, yet only half of employees think they actually have an approachable manager.
So, how do you ensure that your employees feel comfortable coming to you with their questions, challenges, and feedback?
“Make yourself available for one-on-one conversations,” advises Onyschak of Robert Half. “The more approachable you are, the more likely it will be that workers feel comfortable sharing their concerns.”
This is especially important for any of your team members who might not want to voice their stress in a group setting. Whether you want to make your calendar accessible so employees can freely book time or you decide to host regular “office hours,” find a way to be readily available to your team.
"Each Thursday we have what we call a ‘vibe check’ where we get the whole team together to just take the pulse of how people are feeling.
- Michael Janiak, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Pattern.
Is Your Team Really Doing As Well As You Think They Are?
It’s great that you think your team is a group of infallible productivity whizzes. But, you can’t let your optimistic view make you blind to the realities of what they’re actually experiencing.
Managing overwhelm on your team is a two-way street. Yes, the onus is on your employees to let you know when they’re stretched to their limits. However, it’s also your job as the leader to keep a watchful eye on performance and emotions, and handle issues before they snowball and skyrocket.
Sound tough? Well, nobody said that leadership is an easy gig. The good news is that this guide can help you identify and fix overwhelm, so that your team can perform at their best (without tearing their hair out).