How to Cope When Work Feels Overwhelming (infographic)

No matter how experienced you are at what you do for a career, there will always be times when your job feels overwhelming. It might be because modern technology has given us that ‘always on’ attitude where we can be expected to respond to emails and calls at all hours on our work phones and laptops, or it could just be that your business is facing a stressful time. Whatever it is, feeling overwhelmed can take a huge toll on your wellbeing, causing damage to the neural connections in your brain which can potentially contribute to depression.

Unfortunately, there often isn’t a great deal that can be done about the causes of this stress and anxiety. After all, giving up work is easier said than done. Instead of that, you need to find ways to ease those feelings of being overwhelmed when they strike and to have plans in place for how to try and prevent them from even happening again in the future. Luckily, there are tips and advice you can follow to do just that.

How to cope when you’re overwhelmed

Getting overwhelmed happens when you have negative thoughts that start to spiral and take over your thought processes. It isn’t always easy to break free of this vicious circle, but sometimes simply thinking positive thoughts can help. For example, if you are thinking thoughts like ‘I’ll never get this done’, try changing your thinking with a phrase like ‘It’s normal to feel overwhelmed sometimes’ and this can sometimes be enough to break you out of that downward cycle.

Another way to do this is to practice thought-control techniques, which might sound like something a sinister supervillain might do in a comic book but is actually a powerful tool for managing your own thought processes. They can help you to quieten your anxious thoughts, and an easy one to try is the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which involves finding:
  • 5 things you can see around you
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste
Once you’ve found them or thought of them, you will have brought yourself back to the present and calmed yourself down enough to get back to work.

A problem many people have when they get overwhelmed by work is that this takes physical form in the chaos that their workspace becomes. After all, when you’re stressed, the last thing you might care about is whether your desk is a mess, but actually this is very important because a cluttered workspace actually increases your stress, anxiety and emotional exhaustion, so make that time to tidy up.

It’s not just the physical clutter that can affect you; the mental clutter can be a big problem too, and modern technology only makes this worse with the number of unnecessary notifications it subjects us to. From work emails piling up to inane chatter in that WhatsApp group you should have left months ago, it all distracts you from what you’re trying to get done, so why not set time aside to ignore them and increase your focus?

Not all distractions are a bad thing though. You might feel like you’re too stressed for a lunch break, but studies actually show that small talk with colleagues can reduce your stress and improve your efficiency, planning, prioritization and organization. Equally, listening to music has been proven to help your focus, especially if it is from the Baroque era, apparently, though you’re welcome to experiment with slightly more modern music if that’s more your jam.


Taking a break to get some exercise is another way to ease the feeling of being overwhelmed, as well as releasing endorphins to help you focus. If you can’t go for a run or brisk walk during your working day, even something as simple as doing some low-intensity stretching exercises at your desk can help you battle the fatigue and exhaustion that come with feeling under pressure at work.

If none of that has helped and you’re still feeling overwhelmed, the first thing is not to worry. You’re not alone, because a Gallup survey found that 44% of full-time employees reported feeling burned out by their jobs at times. This means that there will be lots of sympathy and support available if you ask for help, so don’t feel afraid or ashamed to request assistance with your workload if you need it.

How to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the future

Once you’ve managed to get past that feeling of being overwhelmed, it’s important to look at what got you into that situation in the first place. Changing jobs is easier said than done and no job can ever promise not to put you under pressure from time to time, so you need to find other ways to help you cope better with the stress and anxiety and prevent it from building up to overwhelming levels.

One way to help with this is to try cycling or walking to work, because eliminating public transport or car use and exposing yourself to more fresh air, exercise and nature means exposing yourself to less stress and can have a positive effect on your mental health. Even if this isn’t possible, try getting off the bus, train or tram a stop earlier to still give yourself a bit more exercise.

When it comes to your actual workload, could you plan it more effectively to make sure you don’t end up burned out. So why not make a list of everything you need to get done and put them into four quadrants, categorized by how much you like that task and how good you are at it. Those tasks that fall into the Don’t Like It/Not Good At It quadrants may well be the ones that it would benefit you to try and delegate to others.

Planning effectively also means focusing on the amount of time you allocate to each task. According to Parkinson’s Law, a task expands to fill the time you’ve set aside to do it, so shortening the deadlines you give yourself can actually help you to get them done more quickly, though it’s important to make sure you’re doing this in a way that doesn’t add to the pressure you’re putting yourself under.


What you do around your working day can also play a role in how you cope with work. Research has shown that people who disconnect from their jobs outside of their working hours experience lower levels of fatigue and job burnout, so it may be helpful to consider taking up a new hobby to allow you to reduce that focus on your work. You also need to be able to get a good night’s sleep, and writing a to-do list before bedtime can ensure these worries aren’t playing on your mind as much.

Work will always come with its own stresses and pressures, and not all of them can be managed, but with these tips and suggestions, you should be in a better place to cope when you feel overwhelmed as well as preventing your anxiety from building up to that stage as often. Which of them will you try first the next time you start to feel burned out by your job?

16 science-backed ways to stop feeling overwhelmed at work (infographic)

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