Which are unproductive reactions to work overload?

Nowadays, work overload is a common problem for many workers. In this article we will take a look at the meaning of the concept, its symptoms and what are the unproductive reactions that one may have when facing work overload. In fact, knowing what not to do in these situations is as important as knowing what to do. 

What is work overload?

Work overload occurs when a person’s job demands exceed his ability to accomplish them. Work overload represents long working hours, time sacrifice, and the frustration that a person feels when he’s unable to complete the given tasks in time. Long working hours, particularly if they affect other parts of the individual’s life, can help to create work overload. 

Work overload can be of two types: qualitative or quantitative. When a person has too much work in the time available that is called quantitative work overload, it is directly connected to the amount of time available. Whereas qualitative work overload is connected to the individual’s skills (resources). 

What causes work overload?

Scientists have proposed a number of elements that can be the cause of work overload. These factors can be divided into five groups: organizational, cultural, technology, information abundance, and non-work related activities.

  • Organizational

According to a study, setting high performance goals, difficult goals and high performance ratings could help work overload take place among the individuals. These findings indicate that some of the characteristics found in a good appraisal system can be detrimental to the employees and subsequently to the organization. Also, we cannot underestimate the effect a competitive work environment can have on the appearance of the phenomenon. It is not uncommon that in the workplace we find ourselves working with competitive people and demanding employers. Organizations that create an overly-competitive climate can often trigger a fear of job loss in their employees thus killing the workers motivation and commitment.

  • Cultural

Nowadays and in many societies, cultural norms emphasize the significance of work and being busy at the expense of other activities. These norms can get individuals to work long hours and undertake additional responsibilities that they do not have the resources to take on as it is well-seen to be busy at all times. 

  • Technology

Technology can be cited as another factor to the rise of the work overload and frequent burnouts. With the obvious dominance of the use of technology nowadays, including tablets, laptops, phones workers are always in contact with their and specially for the tasks that can be done remotely. With these conditions, some workers may find it tough to get away from their jobs. 

  • Information abundance

Work overload can arise from having too much information to effectively comprehend, organize and use. Information abundance causes individuals to have a difficult time to use the information and make decisions. This situation may seem paradoxical; it is difficult to sort out the useful information and to use it properly when we have too much information available. This situation causes a lot of stress and can lead the individual to experience overload.

  • Non-work related activities 

Many individuals become overloaded when they have two roles that are incompatible. These roles can clash and put the individual in a time based strain which causes a lot of stress. Nowadays, the number of dual-career families, working mothers and workers with responsibilities have drastically increased. Working parents with responsibilities at home and in the workplace tend to be more affected by pressure. All workers feel pressure. But working parents seem to be more affected.

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What are the effects of work overload?

Work overload can affect both the individual and the organization. In this section we will talk about its effects on the individual then on the organization. 

  • On the individual. The symptoms of work overload on the individual may be physical, psychological and behavioral. The major physical symptoms that can appear are: headaches, stomach pains, difficulty sleeping and fatigue. The psychological symptoms may include irritability, depression, discouragement and may even affect cognitive performance as the individual can have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. The most common behavioral symptoms are an increase in sick days or absenteeism, a drop in work performance and problems with interpersonal relationships. These symptoms can help you determine if you, one of your coworkers or one of your employees are overloaded.
  • On the organization. The personal health consequences resulting from work overload also damage the organization which is why this article can be of use not only to the overloaded worker, but also the employer. Work overload has negative effects on motivation, performance, work quality, commitment, job satisfaction and managers’ ratings . In turn, this dissatisfaction resulting from work can be directly linked to absenteeism, complaints and turnover. 

What are the unproductive reactions to work overload?

  • Avoidance coping: It is also known as escape coping, avoidant coping or avoidance behavior. Avoiding a stressor to become more affected by it is a common response when facing a problem in our lives. However, confronting the problem is a way more effective to reduce the stress it causes. So when you have doubts that you are overloaded with work, don’t try to avoid the problem, the best solution is to face it. Avoidance behavior is considered to be unhealthy because it often makes the situation worse without helping a person face the problem that is causing the stress. 
  • Excessive self-criticism: the term ‘self-critical’ refers to the process of analyzing one’s behavior and can be either positive or negative. However, it is well known that excessive self-criticism is negative. Work overload can cause us to overthink and over analyze situations without real productive output. We are more likely to be harsh with ourselves when we are stressed and experience a work overload. We can think that we are not good enough, that we lack the skills, and these patterns of thought can lead to more stress and unhappiness in the workplace. A good behavior would be to try to take a step back and analyze the situation, look at things the way they really are and not how we are experiencing them 
  • Alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances: When dealing with stress, many individuals resort to unhealthy substances that help them deal with it for that moment. However, it is not uncommon that they become addicted to these substances and cannot deal with problems without them. Also, these substances are harmful, using them on a regular basis can not only affect your physical health, but also your mental health. One of these substances is alcohol which is well-known to be a stress inhibitor. If you experience work overload, try to avoid these substances to deal with your problems.
  • Avoiding friends and family: When under a lot of stress, some people try to avoid their friends and family due to their irritability and how they’re feeling unwell. However, this is the exact opposite of what you should do. In fact, many studies have reported that emphasizing social ties can have definite health benefits. 


When facing work overload, the most important thing is not to isolate yourself. Talk about the problem to your friends and family, but also to your employer and coworkers. We hope that this article would be of help to anyone feeling like they are overloaded by work. 

Frequently asked questions

How can I cope with work overload? 

  • When your workload increases, it is crucial that you learn how to effectively manage your time. Identifying your priorities and main tasks and focusing on them is an important part of effective time management. That means you’ll have to put tasks that are of lower priority on the side, or even drop them at once. 
  • Make a list of what you have to do. Time management is important but so is organization. You’ll have a clearer idea on the tasks you have to prioritize. Once the list is done, accomplish the tasks one by one while focusing on the higher priority tasks and leaving the other tasks for later.
  • Don’t try to do everything on your own if it is too much for one person. Learn to delegate or to ask for help from your coworkers. 
  • Learn to say ‘no’. If you are already overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do in so little time. It might be of use to learn to say no that you don’t take on any more tasks. If you decline politely, your manager and coworkers will be understanding.
  • Try to stay calm and not panic. It is impossible to be objective in this kind of situation by being overwhelmed with negative emotion. The ideal would be to stay calm and analyze the situation properly to have an appropriate response. 

How can I get my employer to recognize that I am really overloaded with work?

You can set a meeting with your employer. Prepare what you have to say in advance so you can be articulate and clear when speaking with them. Another helpful tip would be to prepare a list of viable solutions to the problem. This indicates that you have thought the issue through and that it is not just a matter of one person complaining about the workload. Try to focus on your own work experience as well as provide concrete examples or instances when you have felt overloaded by work, this can lead to your employer acknowledging that there is a problem. 

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