Planning for Times of High Workload

When your workload increases and the pressure is on, such as during report time or parent-teacher interviews, what do you do? And how do you respond when someone asks you to join another committee that entails additional out-of-hours work?

Just the thought of it all can throw you into anxiety, resentment or reaching for another chocolate bar.

Research into the health behaviours of people experiencing stressful life events such as job insecurity or divorce, shows that we tend to adopt ‘maladaptive’ coping strategies to get us through. Rather than make healthy choices, on the whole people eat more, drink more, smoke more and exercise less.

Why would we do something so counterproductive?

Stress can accentuate a couple of default settings that make us prone to unhealthy choices and attitudes.

Instant gratification is one. When tired and stressed we look for quick relief rather than something that will take effort up front, such as exercise, even though it offers enduring benefits.

A negativity bias is another default setting. This survival instinct, to fear the worst just in case, is great for our physical survival, but lousy for daily quality of life. It creates movies in our minds that exaggerate the horror of what’s to come, leaving us feeling anxious, fearful or aggressive, before anything has even happened!

However, with a little forethought and a willingness to make some conscious choices, we can navigate times of high demand in a more constructive way.

Sometimes workload peaks due to predictable events, such as assessments or report writing. At other times extra work, or the request for it, can come out of the blue.

In either situation if we let our health slip, we can make things much worse for ourselves. Here’s one example how.

As stress and tiredness increase, the prefrontal cortex of the brain becomes less able to discern which task or information is a priority. Unable to prioritise, we get more distracted by less important matters and so we feel even more overwhelmed by ‘everything’ that needs to be done.

Below are some practices that can help you get into a positive cycle instead, of better health, increased effectiveness and therefore less stress.

Predictable periods of peak workload

  • Don’t leave self-care to chance – plan how you can maintain your wellbeing practices during periods of high workload, even strengthen them. At a minimum, structure in regular short breaks – these will help preserve the quality of your work as well as your health.
  • Get to know your body rhythms and where possible, allocate some of your most important or demanding work, to your peak attention times. Could doing some of your preparation in the early morning when you are fresh, work better than doing it late at night? (Read More: Body Rhythms & Productivity)
  • Carve out some distraction-free time for certain chunks of work. Research into the effects of partial attention and juggling multiple tasks at once shows that with singular focus, you’ll get the work done more quickly and with less mistakes. Who do you need to tell, what apps or phones or notifications do you need to switch off, to achieve this? (Read more: 5 ways to minimise distraction)
  • When you recognise you are very tired, but have no option to keep working, use some simple fatigue management strategies: work in 20 minute bouts, change the type of work you are doing often to sustain attention, and if it’s critical work, get someone to cross check it.
  • Plan for added support or delegation of certain tasks during this time, at work or at home. Could you pay a cleaner? Do you need an extra free period? 

Unscheduled requests for extra work

When someone asks you to join another committee, program or meeting, do you have a process in place that allows you to make a wise response?

This is where Personal Sustainability Principle number 3 comes in – knowing your limits.

It helps to remember that the person asking you will be focused entirely on their needs, not on yours. It’s your job to look after you. Here are some ways you can discern whether to get involved.

  • Firstly, learn the value of the ‘pause button.’ You don’t have to reply immediately – say I’ll get back to you.
  • Consult your body. What is your internal response to this request? If you feel rising stress, resentment, even panic in your body, these are all signs that you are already working at your limits.
  • Ask yourself whether this activity aligns with your priorities. If you don’t know what your priorities are, spend some time reflecting on them, possibly in conjunction with your supervisor or principle.
  • Consult your calendar and do a reality check – do you have the time for this?
  • If you say yes to this, who else, or what else will be affected, and are you OK with that?
  • Are there any conditions that would enable your involvement, such as sharing the role? This could lead to a response that sounds like ‘I think I can do it but I’d like to negotiate…’
  • If you decide ‘no’ find a way of saying so that you feel comfortable with and reflects the valid reasons for your choice. Remember that saying ‘no’ means you are saying ‘yes’ to something else – usually ensuring the quality of work you are already doing.

Honing your ability to respect your limits (Personal Sustainability Principle No. 3), align your efforts with your priorities, and communicate that in a professional manner, is a skill worth developing.

You’ve heard the saying ‘you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.’

Well you can’t stop periods of peak demand in your life, but you can develop some approaches and habits that will allow you to ride out these times without being plunged into overwhelm.

Thea O’Connor is a health and productivity writer, presenter and coach. She specialises in personal sustainability, helping individual and groups adopt healthy, sustainable and effective work habits