Millions of Americans are currently out of work, so those who still have jobs are feeling grateful just to be employed. However, these workers also report feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work they’re doing.

A new study by VitalSmarts reveals:

  • Over half — 51.9% — struggle to say “no” when they’ve hit their project threshold
  • Only 33.6% successfully negotiate their workload as needed
  • Only 29.4% successfully manage urgent requests so their to-do list won’t be wrecked
  • Only 29.3% confidently renegotiate commitments and expectations with their manager
  • Only 27.2% take time out of the week to review work projects and tasks, and make plans

How COVID-19 has impacted employees

The pandemic has caused some companies to reduce the number of workers — which results in more work for the remaining employees. In addition, the remaining workers have to adjust to a new environment and responsibilities while still being productive. “There are more people working remotely, using new tools to collaborate, having more virtual conversations, accepting new projects they’re not familiar with, and blurring the lines between work and home,” says Justin Hale, researcher and co-creator of Getting Things Done Training by VitalSmarts.

Why employees are struggling

Hale believes that workers are struggling to work because they’re so unfamiliar with the new work environment. “Many employees lack the habits to shift between home and work,” he says. “They are constantly switch-tasking and struggle to be present in the context they are in — they’re always thinking about work during home time, and vice versa.”

Another problem is that employees don’t have the experience to manage the potential for a work overload. “They end up letting themselves or other people down or burning themselves out trying to do more than they have time for,” Hale says.

Also, most work environments are designed for work, whereas the average home isn’t. “Because employees don’t work in the same context or have access to the tools and technology they used in the past to do their job, they are less efficient,” Hale explains. “Their fragile productivity systems are crumbling under new circumstances, and they leaned too heavily on their tools to do their jobs.”

The dangers of feeling overwhelmed

The pandemic can create a pace and intensity of work that cannot be maintained. "Being overwhelmed and overworked very often lead to exhaustion and burnout,” warns Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., co-founder and chief knowledge officer at meQuilibrium. “You may start seeing yourself or observe your team members exhibit some of the seven behaviors that are highly associated with the risk of burnout.”

Shatté defines those behaviors as follows:

  • Sleep problems
  • Physical complaints
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Lack of life satisfaction
  • Poor stress management
  • Low work engagement
  • Poor emotion control

The key to avoiding exhaustion and burnout is knowing how the mind works, he explains. “Also, learn to recognize responses to stress, emotional strain, and exhaustion.” This can provide the foundation for resilient self-management.

“Left unchecked, burnout can wreak havoc on your health, happiness, job performance, and relationships,” Shatté says. He recommends protecting your energy and building physical, mental, and emotional resilience.

Keys to doing more with less

But how can employees maintain their sanity and their jobs? Hale suggests creating a system to capture all of your assignments and tasks. You need to be sure that nothing is falling through the cracks. “And if you have everything in front of you, it’s easier to assess and evaluate your workload in its entirety,” he says.

The next step is to work in modes, instead of shifting back and forth. “Not only is it not efficient to switch from task to task, it’s not a good idea to switch from mode to mode,” Hale says. “Avoid doing home stuff, then work stuff — folding laundry one minute, and then writing marketing copy the next.” Instead, he recommends working in blocks of time — for example, doing one type of work for 30 minutes or more to improve your speed and quality of work.

“Finally, learn to say no,” Hale advises. “If you’ve overcommitted, the only way out of it is to either do the task, renegotiate the parameters of the task, or say no.”