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Work overload: What it is and how to avoid it on your team

Work overload: What it is and how to avoid it on your team

We all have the same 24 hours in the day, so why not spend them working ourselves into the ground? Wrong! Hustle culture glorifies overworking by using a “rise and grind” mentality to encourage workers to stretch themselves and hit dangerously high levels of productivity.

But this type of work overload has consequences for employees’ physical and mental health. And it’s just plain bad for business. Employees aren’t a bottomless resource to keep tapping into, or sooner or later there won’t be any fuel left in the tank.

This guide explores what work overload looks like, how to spot if your team is snowed under – and how to restore balance in an overloaded workforce.

What is work overload?

Work overload happens when we don’t have enough time to perform our tasks during regular business hours. Too much on our plate leads to exhaustion, with the Encyclopedia of Public Health adding there’s a “sense of frustration with the inability to complete tasks in the time given.”

Work overload can happen in any industry or role. In self-employment, it’s prevalent when people take on too many projects, while employee overload can result from a boss or colleagues assigning too many tasks. Sometimes, this overload is short-lived, for example, if you have a huge project deadline coming up and overwork temporarily to stay on track. But sadly, work overload tends to recur as part of a bad work culture – it’s endemic.

There are two main types of work overload: qualitative and quantitative.

  • Qualitative overload happens when a person lacks the necessary skills to perform their work tasks, so they stretch themselves beyond their capabilities.
  • Quantitative overload is closely aligned to time – a person might have the desired skills but not the hours to fulfill the work.

Examples of work overload

If you can remember falling asleep with your head buried in a mountain of school textbooks, you’ve probably experienced work overload in childhood. But what about in the workplace? Check if these overloaded worker examples strike a chord.

Example 1: John is the first person to arrive at work, and always the last to leave. He knows the office cleaners and night security staff as well as any of his other co-workers because he spends so much time there outside regular business hours.

Example 2: Lucia is a remote worker with a dedicated home office. But she spends more time locked away in there than any other room in her house. Her professional life regularly cuts into her personal life and she has little time to relax.

Example 3: Leslie has slipped into a habit of logging into work every weekend to check emails. She frequently ends up drafting presentations and prepping for the week ahead to get a head start. Soon, Leslie doesn’t have a day off at all.  

The impact of work overload on the employee

Working occasional overtime is unlikely to do much harm. But when the pattern of overworking accelerates and becomes part of your day-to-day, the negative consequences mount up, such as:

  • Insomnia: Increased stress levels cause a heightened cortisol response in the body, disrupting sleep cycles and creating problems with concentration the following day.
  • Exhaustion and sense of stress: Too much work can lead to burnout, now formally categorized by the World Health Organization as an "occupational phenomenon."
  • Anxiety: Work-related stress can also cause feelings of guilt, shame and self-doubt leading to higher levels of anxiety.
  • Heart disease: This frightening study highlights that working just 3 to 4 extra hours per day increases the risk of heart disease by 60%.
  • Diabetes: Research highlights a link between working 55+ hours per week and type 2 diabetes.

The impact of work overload on the team

It’s not just the individual employee who suffers from chronic work overload – the whole team can feel the negative effects, including:

1. Poor quality work

Overloaded employees have to make up the time somewhere, and this can mean cutting corners, which lowers overall team productivity.

2. Team conflicts

When fatigue and exhaustion set in, expect tempers to rise and communication to suffer. Agitated colleagues may develop negative relationships and start snapping at each in team meetings or across work emails.

3. Increased turnover

42% of women and 35% of men are consistently burned out at work, leading employees to resign and seek roles elsewhere. This causes a vicious cycle of understaffing with the remaining team members becoming overworked as they pick up the slack.

4. Damaged reputation

Work overload is a symptom of poor work culture, damaging your employer brand, and creating slipped standards for customers.

How to tell if your team is overloaded

Employee overload sounds like something you should be able to spot. The problem? Workers want to impress and don’t always feel capable of showing their vulnerability in case it leads to a missed promotion or poor performance review. Many put on a brave face and mask their excessive workloads.

So, how can you accurately measure if your employees are overworked? Try the following:

Collect feedback

Encourage an open dialogue with your employees to learn more about their day-to-day role. Book regular check-ins to ask questions like:

  • Is your workload manageable this week?
  • Do you need any extra time on the project?
  • What can I take off your task list to help?

Another option is to send out anonymous pulse surveys to better understand current employee satisfaction and engagement levels. The most important part of gathering feedback is to act on it! If your employees are overwhelmed and haven’t booked their PTO, take this as a clear signal you need to step in.

Track employee KPIs

Monitoring employee KPIs will tell you whether workloads are out of whack. There are several metrics you can use, including:

  • Average task completion – this data allows you to accurately assign work with realistic deadlines.
  • Overtime per employee – if someone is consistently working late, this is a clear sign they’re struggling.
  • Employee capacity – use this metric to keep a close eye on whether a team member has too many assignments that could be offloaded to someone with a quieter workload.  

None of these metrics should be used in isolation, but they’re helpful to give you a broad understanding of when and where you might need to offer more support.

Notice mood or energy changes

Vibes speak volumes. If you’ve noticed a shift in attitude or work ethic, it could be that your team is exhausted. When team members go from upbeat and enthusiastic to yawning and distracted, it’s time for a check-in.

Spot absenteeism or tardiness

When work overload situations disrupt work/life balance, this could manifest in missed days or late arrivals. If your team members have been up all night stressing about work, they’ll be too tired to clock in on time the following day.

Expect them to pick up more illnesses too. The American Psychological Association explains that stress lowers the number of natural killer cells or lymphocytes in the body, making workers more vulnerable to catching viruses like the common cold.

How to avoid work overload on your team

Managers can sometimes feel powerless to improve the situation for their overworked employees, especially if there’s pressure coming from above to increase output with fewer staff members. But there are several strategies you can implement:

1. Set communication boundaries

Draft a communications policy, and set expectations about when and how to contact a colleague. For example, state when you should send an email vs. jumping on a real-time call. To reduce overwork, outline that no one should send or respond to emails or phone calls from coworkers outside of business hours.

Put yourself in the position of a junior member of staff – if they receive an email from their boss on a Sunday morning, they may feel obliged to respond immediately, on their own time, even though the message could have waited until Monday. Set firm boundaries to ensure all employees receive the rest they deserve.

2. Cut back on meetings

There’s a temptation in distributed teams to stay connected to coworkers through constant attachment to your desktop camera. 80% of workers now experience Zoom fatigue – caused by endless real-time video conferencing meetings that eat into time for deep work. And with limited time in the day, the busy work keeps piling up while you attend yet another meeting you don’t even speak in.

The solution here is to switch to asynchronous communication tools like Loom or Slack, where you can exchange messages on your own time.

3. Trial single-tasking

Multi-tasking is the equivalent of spinning plates – sooner or later, one or all of them will come crashing down. A National Library of Medicine study shows that switching between activities causes a drop in efficiency and we’re more likely to make a mistake. The solution is to create a to-do list of priority tasks and then encourage employees to tackle them one at a time. This approach reduces overwhelm and leads to higher-quality output.

4. Improve collaboration and transparency

Sometimes, co-workers can overload each other without realizing it. If you have a dependable team member who is highly skilled and a great sounding board for others, their plate can quickly fill up with tasks their colleagues need support with.

Get around this by using a project and team planning software with built-in collaboration features. Each team member should be able to see what their coworkers are doing, and what they have coming up. With this transparency, they’ll be less inclined to keep offloading projects onto the busiest pairs of hands, and must think creatively to find other resources.

5. Promote mental health awareness

Employers who are advocates of mental health conditions create work environments that support those who feel stressed or overwhelmed. Lead by example, and don't forget to look after yourself – if you’re feeling work overload, chances are your team is too.

By taking these measures, you can ensure that work overload doesn’t take a toll on the work environment and the health of your employees.

6. Rechannel strength

If you have employees who are perfectionists, they could demand impossibly high standards for themselves, creating extra work that isn’t required. This Harvard Business Review article explains the solution in this situation is to rechannel strength into the tasks that demand 100% of a person’s energy. Create a priority list for employees and outline exactly which tasks they should dedicate themselves to, and those that are less important.

7. Teach time management techniques

Any company should be tracking employee utilization rates, namely the percentage of client billable hours compared to overall working hours. So, how do you spend time wisely to maximize value for money without contributing to employee overload and business burnout? It comes down to time management education.

Teach your employees to develop a daily time budget and strive toward building a more harmonious work/life balance. As part of their time audit, educate them on the importance of taking regular, short breaks throughout the day and scheduling in time to think and work on creative tasks.

They can estimate how long it will take to complete a task, work with realistic deadlines and ask for help when needed. This should be a work in progress, with constant course-correcting as you analyze actual versus expected times for task or project completion.

How to manage employee overload with Timely

Employee overload is a common problem for leaders, and it won’t be solved by taking a head-in-the-sand approach to time management. The solution is to use an app like Timely to better understand employee capacity and create balanced workloads that don’t overwhelm your talented workforce. It’s easy to support your employees' performance and wellbeing when you can track teams, projects, times, and plans and provision resources as needed.

Your employees will love receiving automatic time tracking insights, to provide hard numbers on where they’re spending their time and how they could gain back valuable hours for themselves. Best yet? There’s no manual time tracking required, freeing them up to produce higher-value work for themselves and your business. It’s a win-win!

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