How to Handle Work Overload Gracefully

The situation:  You’re new at your job, and you are liking it. But your plate at work is very full and your boss wants you to take on an additional assignment. Eilene Zimmerman, writing the Career Couch column for The New York Times, answers questions about work overload.

Q. What can you do instead of saying yes to a work request?

A. “First, express gratitude that you’ve been asked to take on something new, because it means your boss believes in you.”

Tres Roeder, president of Roeder Consulting, notes that “if you think you may already have more work than you can handle, tell your boss that because you’re juggling other time-sensitive projects, you need to examine the details of this new task to determine if there’s some way you can fit it in.” You may find you won’t be able to, but automatically responding “no” without any consideration gives the impression you just don’t want to deal with it.  “And you don’t want to be known as the person who always says no unless they get the perfect assignment.”

If the work needs to be done immediately, tell your boss what you’re already working on and then let him or her do the prioritizing, suggests Evelyn Williams, a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., who teaches organizational behavior. “Ask what you should do first. Should you stop working on X and Y and finish this new project first?

Q. Is it ever a good idea to try to squeeze in the extra work, even if you’re already feeling stretched?

A. If the project could improve your skills or get you noticed by those who can promote your career, it may be worth losing sleep over, Professor Williams says. “Think about it strategically,” she says. “Will the task or project be a good thing for your career? Will it build your network?”

Q. What can you do in the future to help manage your work commitments?

A. Give your manager short, weekly status updates about your workload, suggests Professor Williams. “Managers can’t see into every employee’s world,” she says. “You have to tell them what’s happening in the trenches so they can make better allocation decisions.”

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