How to Spot if You’re Overworking

How to Spot if You’re Overworking

I was recently asked by a client, “How can I tell when working hard turns into overworking? What are the signs?”. I’ve seen countless leaders struggle with this challenge – myself included – attempting to balance the fine line between healthy ambition and overwork. And time and again I’ve seen the scales tip into the latter without realising it.

Here’s how you can spot if you’re overworking and what you can do to course correct.

Recognising Overwork: The Signs

  1. Constantly Extended Hours: If you find yourself regularly working late into the night or through weekends, this is a red flag. Occasional long hours are part of leadership, but when they become the norm, it’s a sign you’re overextending yourself.
  2. Inability to Disconnect: Struggling to switch off from work, whether it’s incessantly checking emails, thinking about work problems during personal time, or having trouble sleeping because your mind is racing, indicates you’re carrying too much.
  3. Neglected Personal Life: Are your relationships strained? Have you given up hobbies or stopped spending time with friends and family? A deteriorating personal life is a clear sign of overworking.
  4. Physical and Mental Fatigue: Chronic stress, fatigue, and signs of burnout, such as feeling perpetually exhausted or experiencing frequent anxiety, are serious indicators. Your body and mind are sending you distress signals. As author Bessel van der Kolk says, ‘the body keeps the score’.
  5. Guilt Over Taking Breaks: If you feel guilty or anxious when taking a break or a holiday, it’s a sign you’re not allowing yourself the necessary downtime to recharge.

Understanding the Emotional Overdraft

I describe the concept of an “emotional overdraft” for leaders – it describes the toll on leaders who subsidise their business success at the expense of their own wellbeing. When you consistently work late, pick up tasks that aren’t yours to save time or money, or deprioritise your health and social life, you’re dipping into this overdraft.

Overdrawing on your emotional reserves reduces your resilience and leads to burnout. Awareness is the first step towards managing this.

Strategies to Address Overwork

  1. Build Awareness of Triggers: Understanding what drives your overwork is crucial. Take stock of the situations or people that trigger your emotional overdraft. Is it a particular time of year, or do certain tasks always lead to extended hours? Awareness allows you to plan and mitigate these triggers. You can take my free emotional overdraft self assessment to figure out your drivers.
  2. Delegate and Trust: A significant cause of overworking is the belief that only you can do the job right. Empower your team by delegating tasks. Trust them to handle responsibilities – it will help them grow and take a load off your shoulders.
  3. Reject Harmful Leadership Myths: One prevalent myth is that running a business must be stressful. This is not true. Successful leaders manage to balance high achievement with personal wellbeing. Embrace productivity strategies like delegating, improving processes, and asking for help.
  4. The ‘20% of Your Time’ Exercise: Allocate your time based on tasks only you can do and delegate the rest. For example, spend 20% of your time on core leadership activities, 20% on skilled tasks others could do, and so on. Eliminate tasks that anyone can do, thus freeing up your time for high-impact activities.
  5. Be Vulnerable and Authentic: Leaders often feel they must show no weakness. However, vulnerability builds trust and a psychologically safe work environment. Don’t be afraid to show your human side; it encourages others to do the same and fosters a supportive culture.
  6. Prioritise Health and Wellbeing: Value your health as a key enabler of your productivity. Regular sleep, rest, and play are not luxuries; they are necessities. Without resilience, your effectiveness at work and home diminishes.
  7. Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to protect your personal time. This includes saying no to unnecessary commitments and ensuring you have time to recharge. Setting boundaries also means respecting them and encouraging your team to do the same.

Practical Steps to Implement Change

  • Create a Support Network: Surround yourself with mentors, coaches, and peers who can offer guidance and hold you accountable – build what I call a personal board. 
  • Track Your Emotional Overdraft: Regularly measure your emotional overdraft to identify patterns and make necessary adjustments.
  • Listen to Feedback: Seek honest feedback from those close to you about how your work habits affect them. This can provide valuable insights and motivate you to make positive changes.

By becoming aware of your emotional overdraft and taking proactive steps to manage it, you can lead successfully without sacrificing your health or happiness. Leadership doesn’t have to come at the cost of your wellbeing.

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