Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Say You're Overworked Without Sounding Like You're Whining

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Remember the 40-hour (ahem, I meant 50) work week? If the concept is a distant memory, you’ve been putting in some major time lately. And I’m willing to bet that no one except your friends or significant other has noticed. Sound familiar?

For those of us who don’t punch in and out from 9 to 5, it’s easy for the hours to stack up without anyone ever noticing. Hopefully, whatever you’ve been laboring over will be all the proof of your hard work you need, but there will come a time (likely when your co-workers are heading to happy hour while you’re planning to spend your evening cozied up with the annual report) that you’ll feel less than appreciated and want to let your team know just how much hard work you’re putting in.

What you don’t want, however, is to be that colleague who’s always whining about how late she worked the night before or giving a dramatic recounting of having to re-format a presentation over the weekend. On that note, here’s what to do when you want to let your colleagues know you’re burning the midnight oil—without sounding like you’re complaining about it.

Option 1: Suffer in Silence

When to Use It: If It’s Not a Chronic Problem, or You’re Not the Only One

OK, so this isn’t exactly a solution, but it’s definitely an option you should consider before attempting anything else. I know it’s probably not what you want to hear, but sometimes, we have to work more than we’d like, and it sucks. If you’re in a busy season or if everyone seems to go through crazy periods from time to time, no amount of positioning, hinting, or straight up pointing it out will earn you much sympathy. We all have to do it, and unless this is a chronic issue, it’s probably best to just suck it up.

On the other hand, if your workload is encroaching on your personal life in a major way, and it seems like you’re the only one affected, then it’s time to do something about it. Like...

Option 2: Leave Some Clues

When to Use It: If You Just Need a Little Appreciation (or Sympathy)

If you’re feeling like you’re the one bearing the brunt of the workload, it’s totally fair to want to let your co-workers or boss know how much time you’re putting in. Best case scenario, they’ll offer to lend a hand; if nothing else, it will get you a “Get Out of Jail Free” card as you’re nodding off during your afternoon meetings.

But—big disclaimer here—how you do it is key.

One option is what I like to call the “Easter Egg Approach.” With this tactic, you won’t say much, you’ll just leave little clues—like Easter eggs—for your colleagues. Just about everything we do these days has a timestamp on it, so when you’re finishing up work (circa 10 PM), send a friendly email out to the team. Make it short and sweet—just the facts. Just sending something to prove you’re in the office after hours will look a little desperate, but if you actually have something useful to contribute, it’ll look just like what it is: Hard work done after hours.

Or, try the FILO (first-in-last-out) approach: Instead of hunkering down at your desk from the moment you get in until the moment you leave, make sure others notice that you’re the first one in the office and the last to leave. No, don’t make a big scene at the coffee machine about how you’ve been in the office—that isn’t going to win you any sympathy points. Instead, simply engage in conversation with as many people as you can, and make sure you’re talking about something work-related. After a few days of seeing you there before everyone else and still there when the office clears, your colleagues will get the hint that you’re a little overworked right now.

Finally, just ask for some help here and there. Ask Bob from accounting for some input or advice on the project you’re working on, and when he comes back to you with feedback, he’ll see you hard at work. Mission accomplished.

Option 3: Have the Talk

When to Use It: When You’re Truly Overworked and Need Something to Change

Of course, if you need more than just a little sympathy—as in, three more people to handle your workload—it’s time to stop with the subtle tactics and sit down with your manager for a chat.

Put some time on your boss’ calendar, giving a hint about what you’d like to discuss (something like, “I’d like to chat with you for a few minutes about the X projects I’m working on and get some insight on how to move forward on them” works perfectly).

In the meantime, make a list of your projects and priorities. Before you can tell your manager how overloaded you are, you’d better be prepared. If you’re working late simply because your cat video watching lasted longer than usual, that’s not a good excuse. But if you’ve taken on five new projects because someone just quit, that’s worth mentioning.

Then, offer some suggestions on how you think the load could be distributed in a more manageable way. For example, if it’s taking you a long time to finish a project because you’re unfamiliar with a new piece of software the company has rolled out, suggest that you take a class to help get you up to speed. If there are truly more tasks on your plate than there are hours in the day, ask your boss for help prioritizing.

When it comes time for the actual talk, remember to stay objective and positive. You want to highlight the fact that you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed—not simply complaining. Frame everything you’re saying in a positive way, and always be ready to offer suggestions and ask for your manager’s advice on how to work more effectively. Make sure you’re clear about what you’d like to achieve after the conversation, and suggest you both check in again in a week or two to see how things are going.

I’m a big fan of work-life balance, but sometimes stuff just needs to get done, and the hours between 9 and 5 aren’t going to cut it. And in those cases, recognize when and how to share that with your co-workers or boss. You’ll earn some sympathy points or some help—without looking like a whiner.

Photo of illustrated finger courtesy of Shutterstock.