Excessive workload

A common cause of workplace stress/depression is excessive workload. Many people enjoy their job, but find that it becomes impossible to continue working at the same level if their workload is increased. This can happen due to employee sickness; there is a shortage of staff so the work is shared out between present staff for a period of time. This can be manageable at first, but over time doing more work in the same working hours and working longer hours can take its toll. I know of people who have had to do the work of three people due to staffing issues, which is unfair and dangerous. In this situation, employers should aim to put cover in place to ensure the outstanding work is done, however some employers choose to try and save money and not take on temporary staff. In the long run there isn’t a real financial benefit if a permanent staff member has to go off sick as a result of covering for sick staff members.

Sometimes giving a member of staff an excessive workload is a form of bullying. By giving someone more work than they can feasibly handle, eventually it will have a negative effect on their health and wellbeing. Not only can a heavy workload be tiring, it often drives you to work for longer hours than you would really like. This means that you spend the time that you would prefer to use for the things that you enjoy doing or gives life value working to you. It also means that you are working when you should really be resting. Worse than this, a very heavy workload over a long period leaves you little time to deal with emergencies that come up unexpectedly. This adds to the feeling of being out of control which could be stressful.

Potential effects of excessive workload:

*High blood pressure/heart problems – studies have found that employees that feel overworked have higher blood pressure than those who did not. High blood pressure is correlated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease, chronically heavy workloads are associated with higher risks for heart attacks and other heart health problems.

*Family/relationship conflict – The Journal of Applied Psychology found that an increase in the employee’s workload was predictive of an increase in hostile and argumentative behaviors in the employee’s home environment, resulting in family conflict and decreased family stability. These negative effects were found to be especially severe when expectations at work interfered with the employee’s ability to fulfill expectations at home.

*Stress – Employees who reported feeling overworked also reported feelings of psychological and emotional distress and a reduction in their overall levels of well-being (Personnel Psychology). These effects were found to be less severe when employees felt the organization placed a high level of value on their work and gave them a sense of control over their circumstances. Negative effects were more severe when employees felt not only overworked but also powerless and not valued by the organisation.

How to cope with a heavy workload…

  1. Say No – Saying “no” is sometimes the only way to manage a heavy workload. However, be careful not to say no to important tasks/say no all the time, but saying no when you genuinely feel you cannot do something is better than saying yes and not getting the job done well.
  2. Communicate – share your concerns with your manager or supervisor. Politely ask for a meeting to communicate your workload and assure them that you are capable of handling the work but some of the deadlines need to be changed. Also clarify what is absolutely important to focus on first. Avoid using the word, ‘can’t’ during the meeting, but you can say, ‘I can get the work done but I need to be given more time on few of the projects as I have documented,’ or ask them, ‘Would you mind if I do these projects in this order and to these timelines? This way, I can do a very good job and exceed your expectations’.
  3. Get support – do you have the support, resources, and the training that you need? If you do not, ask questions, speak to relevant people and make it known that you’re being asked to act beyond your capabilities.
  4. Plan and prioritise – Make a list of your tasks with allocated deadlines. Which ones you can complete independently and which are the ones you need help with? Separate the tasks based on timelines, stakeholders needs, ease of completion and estimated time to complete.
  5. Use relaxation techniques and EXERCISE – if you’re under a lot of pressure, you need to remember to look after your mental and physical health. Use deep breathing techniques and make time for the gym or fun fitness classes. If you think you’re too busy to exercise, you’ll quickly feel less energetic than you did when you were exercising. Make a real effort to keep your fitness routine in place.

Hopefully your excessive workload will only be temporary. If not, remember you are not a robot. You cannot continue being a superhuman forever. If there’s no sign of things changing and you feel like you’re becoming ill because of too much work, then see your GP. Get signed off work if necessary so you can recover. Don’t continue to do the work of two or three people for too long. Nobody wins in this situation – you are likely to become ill and your employer will potentially lose another member of staff. Make sure you are aware of what is going on from the beginning. Tell people around you what is happening so you don’t feel like you’re suffering in silence. Keeping quiet and ‘being strong’ will only result in the pressure getting too much.

If you suffer a psychiatric injury due to excessive workload, you might be able to make a legal claim. Obviously try and resolve the situation before it reaches this point (speak to the Citizens Advice Bureau or ACAS). If you make a legal claim you need to prove that:

*Your Employer has breached their duty of care. This means that you can prove that the Employer have acted negligently or in breach of a statutory duty.
*The sole or material cause of your psychiatric injury is due to stress at work. (Damages would not be recoverable for injuries caused by other stressors such as financial or marital pressures).
*It was reasonably foreseeable to the Employer that you would suffer psychiatric illness as a result of your employment.

If you are successful you may be able to recover damages for a variety of losses (past and future loss of earnings/personal injury/loss of opportunity for future employment). Claims are pursued in the County Court or High Court (a civil claim) or in an Employment Tribunal. In many cases you may be able to instruct a solicitor in a No Win No Fee arrangement.


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