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4 Tips for Leading Overworked Employees

Under Pressure: Leading Employees with Heavy Workloads

On-going global trend: small staffs, same (or bigger) workload.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November. Not only does this leave positions open (and work to be done), it doesn't account for additional labor shortages resulting from COVID surges.

One of the root causes of employee burnout is unmanageable workload. Yet, with pandemic- and Great Resignation-induced staff shortages, many leaders have found periods of heavy workloads inevitable for their teams.

What is a leader to do?

The good news: there are root causes of burnout still within your control. Also on the list of burnout inducers is lack of support. When you can't clear away the heavy workload, double down on excellent connection and care. Employees that feel supported by their boss are 70% less likely to experience burnout regularly.

When the pressure is on, employees need space to be seen and heard.

Support is a feeling that can buffer against stress, increase positive emotions and promote resilience. Four tangible, actionable strategies to achieve this level of connection, care and support:

1: Establish and maintain consistent 1:1 meetings and check-ins.

Depending on team size, meet or check-in 1:1 at least once per week, bi-weekly or 2x/month--you know your landscape best. The key is consistency. Even “stand up” meetings as short as 15-20 minutes make a large impact when performed habitually. Consistency in creating space to connect builds trust and safety. This first step is where you use the communication tools provided next.

2: Learn specific employee needs and where you can help.

Listen and connect with what's happening on the ground for the worker. What you perceive your employee needing to do their best work may be different than what they actually need--being in the game is different than being a spectator.

Use “what…?” phrasing to clarify needs:

  • What does support look like from me?

  • What do you need…? (…today? …this week? …from this meeting?)

  • What do you need from me to succeed?

  • What would be helpful to you this week?

  • What would feel like a luxury this week?

3: Learn employee challenges and clear the obstacles you can.

Listen to challenges with an open mind. I love what Susan David says on this: "A focus on resilience should not perpetuate impossible expectations. Yes, emotional skills are key to well-being. But so are systems and policies that work."

Make sure your expectations and policies make sense. No need for your employee to experience burnout because a system is not enabling success.

Use contrasting to clarify challenges:

  • What’s working? What’s not working?

  • What have been some wins this week? What have been some challenges?

  • What has been easy to do? What has been hard to do?

4: Validate, validate, validate.

After using “What…?” questions and contrasting: believe and validate the information shared. Listen with acceptance and non-judgment. According to Gallup, employees whose manager listens to work-related issues are 62% less likely to experience burnout. Human moments that evolve from high stakes and high emotions do not always need to be fixed, just acknowledged and felt. Every employee will experience pressure differently, and every employee will perceive their ability to cope with pressure differently.

Validate needs, feelings and information shared:

  • “Thank you for sharing your experience with me."

  • "It’s normal to feel under pressure in times like this."

  • “Your feelings and needs are valid.”

  • "It's okay to feel ______ about that."

Key reflections for YOU for these strategies to work:

Trust is built in small moments, with small actions, over long periods of time. These are not behaviors to be performed once, but rather behaviors to make a habit. To be a connected leader, you must earn the trust of your team that you care about them not just as employees, but as people. .


  • What are you doing to demonstrate that when you offer help, you will deliver? Does your team perceive you as someone that will follow through?

  • What have you done to demonstrate you will listen and receive support requests with non-judgment? What is your track record for genuine care and connection?

What I know for sure:

When you add phrases and questions like the above to your leadership vocabulary, you will boost your team's brainpower, belonging and bottom line. They will feel seen, heard, and psychologically safe to do their best work.

Remember: leadership is about people skills, not technical skills. Work relationships are human relationships. Lead with connection and care.

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