What to do when your workload is unsustainable - Ask Liz

Wednesday 19 October 2022

 Unsustainable Work

Author: Liz Codd


Dear Liz,

One of our junior team members left five months ago, and there was meant to be a new hire to replace them. In the interim, I’ve been left to pick up the slack. My workload has increased dramatically. I am a hard worker, and a team player, and so I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me, seeing it as an opportunity to showcase my skills and my resilience, on the understanding that it would be temporary. Instead, as time goes on, I feel like I am being taken advantage of and being asked to take on two roles and be paid for one. I’ve tried to bring up the issue many times with my boss but been fobbed off. What’s the best way of demonstrating my value, while also ensuring that my workload is more manageable? Should I simply refuse to do anything that is not in my job description?

Dear Reader,

The situation you have described is fairly common these days, certainly from the interactions I have had over the last few months - many people are finding they are asked to do more with less!

You have demonstrated commitment to your team and flexibility to pick up a colleague's work and whilst you were happy to do that for a temporary period, it's looking like it might be a permanent state of affairs and now, understandably, you feel you are being taken for granted with no appreciation and certainly no reward or compensation.

My first thought on how to manage this situation is to establish clear boundaries for yourself.  In my experience, organisations are happy to accept people working as hard and as long hours as they are willing to put in, so it becomes necessary for the individual to take responsibility for putting in place boundaries that are sustainable and appropriate for them.  You don't want to reach burn-out for sure and if you wait until your boss sets reasonable boundaries for you it could be a long wait.

My second thought is to give consideration to the aspects of your situation that you can control (and the aspects that you can't control).  This is in combination with setting boundaries - it is an aspect of your situation that you can control.  For example, decide how many hours you will work per day on average and prioritise your work to get done what is most important within those hours.  Another example, discuss and agree the top three priorities with your boss and agree the work that you will do if you have time after completing the top priorities.

Taking the steps to tackle your situation may also require you to be more assertive in your conversations with your boss in order that you don't feel taken for granted.  Putting your foot down and saying that you will only do the tasks that are on your job description will probably not go down well with your boss.  Instead, for example, you could show that you are happy to continue to work hard and be a team player and also that you are actively managing your workload to focus on what is important - you could do this by writing a list of everything that you currently have on your plate and when you next speak to your boss, explain what is achievable and realistic to complete from the important tasks or top priorities, and what is not.

It is certainly of great value in a team to have people who are helpful and supportive and ideally this would be recognised.  

To speak up in a more forthright manner may well be uncomfortable, but necessary, to change your circumstances.  To be ready for any challenging conversations with your boss it can be a good idea to practice and role-play with a trusted colleague, so you are well prepared with how you want to put your point across and are ready to handle objections or other reactions.

There are no guarantees of course, however, the combination of building your skills to speak up and also having the courage to address the issue assertively with your boss could lead to a greater level of respect towards you and put you in a better position to influence your situation in future.  These are great skills and capabilities to build as you progress your career and I'm sure you will be able to use them on many occasions, to your benefit.


Got a question? Write to me, and I’ll give you some advice, on an entirely anonymous basis.  

Queries may be posted in anonymous, general terms, with Liz’s response, on our website. Liz may not be able to reply to all queries but will do her best to get back to you. 

Liz Codd, Director, Leadenhall Consulting and Chief Coaching Officer, Coaching on Demand.

Liz Codd - PI

Related Articles

Sep 2023 » People

“The harder I work, the luckier I get”

Aug 2023 » People

Ask Liz - How do I negotiate a pay rise?

Jul 2023 » People

“Don’t be afraid to involve yourself in as much as you can”

Jun 2023 » People

How do I deal with culture clash? - Ask Liz