How Can I Tell My Boss I Have Too Much Work To Do?

A question to the Workplace Doctors about feeling overworked but not knowing how to tell the boss. 

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Question: I want to speak to my boss about him giving me too much work. I have been pushy about proving myself by initiating a lot of projects (inside and outside the bounds of my job responsibilities) and sprouting ideas–all of which have been very successful in a very short amount of time. However I feel that as a result, now my boss entrusts me with a little too many responsibilities (it’s too early to ask for a promotion, by the way).

There is another account executive, but he’s not as experienced as I am so the work falls on my shoulders. Our company is expanding and instead of hiring a new person, they’re just pushing more work on me. I want to have a conversation with my boss about this and express that it’s just not doable for me to take on so much work. However, I do not want to appear as though I cannot perform under pressure or with more responsibilities because ultimately I want a promotion.

I think the company knows and sees that I’d be good at supervising people to take on these tasks (but the obvious issue is money to hire people for me to supervise–that’s still in the works). It’s too early at this point to have the promotion talk, but certainly my relationship with my boss will be further defined and this conversation about too much work may or may not lay the pathway for that promotion talk down the road.

How should I lead this conversation about too many responsibilities, knowing that my ultimate goal is a promotion down the road?

Answer: There is no easy answer to your question, but I can give you some things to think about that might help you know how best to approach your boss about the fact that you have too much work to do.

1.) If it is not possible for you to do all that you have been given to do, in the work time you have available to do it, what negative results have there been so far or will there be in the future? Maybe your boss sees the work getting done, one way or another, and figures you are capable of doing it, even if it isn’t your preference.

I’m not suggesting that you let things go to pieces, but you certainly should ensure that you are not arriving early, staying late or skipping breaks, in order to do it all. You will benefit by being able to show that you’re not exaggerating when you say you can’t do all the work you are assigned.

2.) If the work needs to be done in order to achieve the tasks of the business, who can do it if you don’t ? Your boss, when confronted with the idea that you can’t do several vital tasks, will naturally be thinking, “Who is going to do it, instead?” As much as your boss may empathize with you being overworked, his primary concern is to get the work done. Perhaps it’s time for the less experienced executive to be trained to do other work, especially if he has less to do than you. It’s not very reasonable for you to be hustling around, doing something every spare minute, while he has some time to spare.

Or, perhaps there is something you could suggest that would reduce the work by eliminating some tasks altogether–or finding some way to do them differently or on a different time schedule.  Or, as much as this would not be welcomed, if some work has been delegated to you, perhaps it will need to be taken back by the person delegating it. (Your boss or someone higher than him.)

3.) You say you are viewed as being a potentially good supervisor and that you have made many well-accepted suggestions. That indicates that you are viewed positively or at least that you are viewed as being credible and valuable. Consider that if you don’t talk to your boss but keep accepting tasks you can’t do, your credibility will eventually suffer. When you say, after there have been failures, that you have too much to do, they’ll ask why you didn’t say something sooner.

Given that you do have a bit of status, based on your high performance so far, why not talk to your boss and be honest? That is usually the easiest and best way to communicate, either direction, in a company. Say that  you haven’t known how to talk to him about it, but feel that you must, because you’re afraid work will suffer and you never want that to happen. Let him know how important the success of the company is to you. Then, give him some of your suggestions, even if you don’t think they will be accepted.

“Greg, I think you know that I want to do a great job.  Everything I’ve done since I came here has been based on wanting to contribute and wanting to have a future with Acme . So, I’ve thought about every possible solution to this problem. I’ve thought maybe I could work more hours or John could learn to do some of the work or we could find a way to eliminate a few of the tasks or streamline them some way, or maybe we could do something else–I don’t know what right now, but I’m ready to try anything to keep me from letting you down on this work. I just know for sure that right now I have too much work to do and I can’t get it done, certainly not the way it needs to be done.”

By going through that list of options, even if some of them are not likely to work, you have not only let your boss know you’re thinking of solutions, you have also let him know that you are adamant that you can’t keep up the pace. Further, he may latch onto one of the suggestions you make and use it or adapt it.

The bottom line is to think about this from the perspective of your boss, as well as thinking about it from the perspective of current health, stress levels and work enjoyment, and the perspective of your future. What new tasks are making it where you have too much work to do? What does your boss need and if you don’t do the work, who could do it? What can’t you do and what can you reasonably do? What will happen if the current level of your work continues?

That kind of honesty and a sincere attempt to find a solution will do more toward presenting you as promotional material, than taking on too much work, not saying anything about it, and ultimately not doing it or not doing it as well as needed.

Best wishes to you with this challenging situation!

Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors