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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Ask a Career Coach: How Do I Tell My Boss I'm Overworked Without Complaining?

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Dear Kyle,

Can you explain how to tell your boss that you have an excessive workload (way more than your colleagues at the same level) without sounding like you’re just complaining or don’t want to work hard?

Overworked and Over It

Hi Overworked and Over It,

Talking to your manager about an excessive workload without sounding lazy or like a complainer is possible if you know how and when to issue your concern.

Let’s go over the basics first: You want to be deliberate in your approach, not impulsive. For example, rather than stopping your boss as he’s heading out the door to lament the number of hours you’ll be stuck at your desk finishing reports, you’ll want to schedule a meeting.

Really, no matter how stressed you’re feeling, it’s important to take a step back from your emotional state and properly plan for a conversation about having too much work.

It’s also important to keep the following in mind:

Don’t Complain, Problem-Solve

Expressing dissatisfaction with your situation without offering a way to fix the problem is complaining. But when you view the problem as a real and solvable issue, suddenly you’re not just griping; you’re problem solving. You’re having a conversation with your boss wherein you identify a solution that’ll ultimately improve the product of your work.

Prepare to work with your boss by coming to the meeting with a few proposals. Consider these questions (and their answers) as you work to come up with those suggestions:

  • Is the work simply too great for one person to accomplish in a reasonable numbers of hours each week? Some additional support may save more time than it costs.

  • Do you lack the appropriate resources to do the job? Consider researching and requesting a better system or additional support.

  • Do you lack the training required to do the work efficiently? Think about requesting additional training, so that the work becomes less time-consuming.

Be Specific, Not General

Charles Kettering, former CEO of General Motors, once said “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” When you don’t provide specific examples of the problem you’re experiencing, you put the burden on your boss to be the problem-solver.

Not all managers are skilled at navigating individual problems and identifying root causes, so avoid assuming yours will magically have all the answers. Speaking in general terms probably won’t do you any favors.

Instead of saying:

“I feel like I’m being asked to do more than my co-workers and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Try this:

“I’ve been having some trouble keeping up with the amount of things on my plate right now, and was hoping we could talk about my role in [item you’d like to delegate] and [other item], since these things are taking up a significant amount of time.”

In the first example, you’re basically asking your boss to process how you feel about your situation. It’s borderline whiny. Don’t depend on him to dig into the reason for your struggle; instead, offer specifics that’ll help lead him to an easy understanding of what’s really going on.

Illustrating exactly what’s keeping you busy encourages collaboration. Comparing yourself to co-workers when, chances are, you don’t know the full story, is murky territory, and I don’t recommend it. This is about what’s going on with you and how you envision things improving.

Focus on the Future, Not the Past

Having a reduced workload doesn’t mean coasting. It means spending an appropriate amount of time on a reasonable amount of work. It’s about working diligently, managing expectations, and not burning out. When you speak to your boss, explain your goals. Presumably you want to continue delivering quality work, and the way to do that is to literally have less work.

Try this: “If we could take [name of project or task] off of my plate, I’m confident that I could place more attention on [name of top priority], ultimately exceeding my goals and working to advance the company in [description of how you see your reduced workload aiding the organization or your team].”

Focusing on the outcome of your request indicates that you see the big picture, and there are few managers who wouldn’t appreciate that.

Hard-to-initiate conversations like this aren’t easy, but they do get easier. Learning to effectively communicate at work is an important part of your career. If you approach your manager with a well-articulated problem, a few potential resolutions, and a genuine desire to improve the final product, you won’t sound like you’re complaining or incompetent.

You’ll sound like you care about the work you’re producing, and as an added bonus, you’ll hopefully set yourself on a path to a better work-life balance.

This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask a Credible Career Coach in the subject line.

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