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How To Tell Your Boss You're Completely Overwhelmed

Don't try to make a difficult conversation less difficult—but don't avoid having it, either.

How To Tell Your Boss You're Completely Overwhelmed

[Photo: Elizabeth Lies via Unsplash]

One day you’re crushing it. Delivering projects, sharing big ideas in meetings, making things happen.

Next thing you know, you’re crushed. You feel lost, confused, and unable to find your way out. You’ve completely lost your focus, and you’re just so exhausted.

Burnout generally happens after a prolonged spell of working as hard as you possibly can—either without being invested or engaged in the work (i.e., you’re just calling it in) or because you intend to deliver above and beyond expectations. Both of these situations are problematic.

Feeling like you’re personally contributing, connecting with others, leveraging your creativity—or whatever your role means to you—is an anchor for the work you do. It’s why you do what you do. Without personal meaning, you’ll start to wear down from relentlessly throwing yourself into the churn and pulse of things. You can’t sustain this kind of disconnected, meaningless work for very long.

If you’ve made it your mission to work as hard as you can to exceed the expectations of your role and your organization, you’re bound to fall into the habit of doing your work to please everyone around you and tick off all of their boxes. Always focusing on proving yourself and delivering in line with expectations will leave you struggling to keep up. It’s exhausting.

There are different strategies to deal with and move through burnout, but the healing process (because this does require healing) often starts with one thing—telling your boss. Yes, I know that’s a scary prospect, but here are some ways to get yourself ready for the conversation and prepare you to take positive steps forward to get past this tumultuous time.

1. Find A Confidante

Before talking with your boss, a great first step is to confide in a friend or speak with your partner or a family member about where you are and what you’re feeling. The act of verbalizing what’s happening, while difficult, is essential in starting to get the support you need.

Without the care of people close to you, you’ll feel alone or anxious about dealing with it on your own. Just as I’m sure you’d want to help a friend or loved one, know that they want to be there for you, too. Be brave, swallow any pride that’s holding you back, and open up about your breakdown.

2. Expect Discomfort

Going into the meeting with your manager expecting it to be comfortable is unrealistic. You’re in an unfamiliar, unwanted place, but rather than taking your discomfort and using it as a reason not to discuss your struggles, you should look at it as the exact reason why you do have to discuss it.

You can set things up by framing it as a necessary conversation: "I hope you know I wouldn’t be bringing this to your attention unless it was necessary." Moreover, mentioning how hard the conversation is can be a useful way to call out the elephant in the room: "This is really hard for me, but . . ." or "It feels really hard to even bring this up, but . . ."

3. Don’t Problem-Solve

You may be used to going to your boss with updates that prove your problem-solving skills, but this isn’t that kind of issue. You don’t have to have the fix. You don’t have to find a way to cover your workload if you’re going to be out of the office, and you don’t even need to try and explain how you got to this point.

Resist the temptation to offer a solution because you think it’ll make you look good to your manager. The only important thing right now is that you start the healing process. That begins when you allow yourself to be vulnerable when you approach your boss without all the answers.

4. Put Yourself First

If you’re a high achiever with inflexible personal standards, it’ll be hard for you to put your work responsibilities to one side and prioritize your mental health and well-being. But that’s what you need to do to start moving through this.

Go into the conversation knowing that, while your team will want to do what they can to support you, your boss will likely need to prioritize the work to keep everything moving along. That means you can expect some difficult conversations where you’re pulled between doing the right thing for you and the right thing for the work. So let me be clear once again—your primary responsibility is to know what you need to start healing, then make the decision to follow through.

Listening to your body and hearing that voice inside that knows what you need means not sticking to your regular working hours out of a sense of duty if your boss seems reluctant to let you take a break from all work to recover. If time off isn’t offered, be direct and ask for what you need—a regular work-from-home day, two days off, maybe even an entire week out of the office. It may be tempting to offer up compromises until you’re ready to be back in the office full swing, but that’s only putting yourself at risk and delaying the healing. So if you truly need a full two days off with no email—make sure you’re making that clear.

In other words, trust yourself to make decisions that serve you well. And know this: If you’ve been a hard worker and a diligent, productive employee and your company cares about your growth and success, they will find a way to understand—no matter how busy things are.

Burnout can create a bubbling stew of emotion—feelings of not being good enough, like you should have been able to avoid it happening, that you’ll lose all the hard work you’ve put in or that people will judge you—and it’s sometimes hard to know which way is up. Your emotions can become unpredictable or erupt suddenly, especially when you start talking about where you are.

But these emotions are a real part of what you’re going through; They aren’t your enemy. You might find tears welling up or your breath sticking in your chest as you try to find the right words. That’s okay. Emotion might not be a "normal" part of the workplace, but in this case, it’s to be expected. You don’t need to stifle them or push them away in the interests of "being professional."

So take all the time that you need to breathe and steady yourself. If it helps to diffuse the drama, even call it out by saying, "This is an emotional thing for me," or, "The emotion catches up with me sometimes."

It’s not your fault this happened, and it can be a great learning experience (believe me, I know), but you won’t learn any lessons overnight. For now, all you have to do is take the best care of yourself that you can, and trust that this isn’t how it’s going to be forever.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.

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