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Diagnosing Why You Feel Overwhelmed At Work

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Author's note: I am neither a medical doctor nor a psychologist, so take this diagnostic tool for what it's worth. I first developed it twenty years ago when a client was expressing dissatisfaction with her job but couldn't articulate what the problem was. Through discussion and some doodles on a piece of scrap paper, I helped her identify the causes and she was able to remediate her situation.

Since then I have used this simple tool with dozens of friends, co-workers, clients and even myself to help answer the question "why do I feel so overwhelmed at work?" Hopefully you will find it useful too.

Do you ever have times at work where you suddenly feel overwhelmed? Things are going along OK and then your boss asks you to take on a few new tasks and suddenly you feel unsettled. Maybe you even feel your self-confidence erode a bit. The tasks themselves are not that difficult, so why do they bother you so much? You can't articulate it. All you know is that in your gut things feel out of whack.

Or perhaps you have had employees or co-workers come to you because they feel they can't do their jobs properly anymore. They say they are at their breaking point but they don't know why. They want your advice on what to do, or your reassurance that they can do their jobs. Sometimes these are employees with years of experience. You talk with them but neither of you can put your finger on what's causing them to feel so unnerved. What do you do?

Well here's a simple diagnostic tool that may help you identify what's going on. I have used it myself and shared it with many others. It works (most of the time).

First, every job comes with responsibilities, and if you are like me, you take these responsibilities very seriously. You do your best every day to carry out your responsibilities because you want to do a good quality job, and know other people depend on you to do so. You don't want to let your colleagues or customers down. So you buckle down and pour lots of physical, emotional and intellectual energy into your work.

Let's picture this on a graph. Don't worry about the units; we will just call them 'units' for now. So lets say your job has 10 units of responsibility as shown in Figure 1 and every day you try to deliver on those 10 units.


But in order to meet your responsibilities, you need more than just endless physical and intellectual energy. Specifically, you need:

Authority: you need a level of authority to make decisions that is commensurate with your level of responsibility. The more responsibilities you carry, the more authority you require. This seems obvious, but it is amazing how many organizations have 'empowered' their employees (i.e., asked them to take on more responsibilities) but have not given them a commensurate increase in authority.

Resources: to get things done, you need resources. Resources can include personnel, information, budget, and technology, all of which have to be relevant and commensurate with your responsibilities. Sometimes your boss will offer you what at first appears to be sufficient resources, but the one resource that got overlooked is time. You not only need physical and financial resources to do your job, you also need sufficient time.

Skills and knowledge: it may sound obvious, but you need to know what you are doing. You need to know how to do your job. In organizations that undergo frequent change, this can be a challenge. You used to know how the processes worked, but now you aren't so sure. So many things, from software to policies, have changed. This also extends to the people that report to you. They may have more specialized skills than you in a certain area, but you still need to understand generally what it is they do for you. As you get older and your employees get younger, it is easy to feel outdated.

OK. So, in an ideal world your Responsibilities would be matched with the commensurate amount of Authority, Resources, and Skills and Knowledge (RARSK). This ideal situation is illustrated is the Figure 2, where each factor has the necessary 10 units and everything is in alignment and harmony. If this is your current work situation, lucky you.


But very frequently, the other three factors are not aligned with your responsibilities:

Your level of authority is too low: maybe you find that you have to go up several levels in the organization to get things decided and/or approved, even though you are supposedly responsible for them. If the approver is busy and hard to reach, or is difficult to work with, you may find yourself stymied or worse: fearful.

Your resources are insufficient: maybe you don't have enough people to help you, too little budget to get the right people, old slow technology. Or maybe, given these constraints, you simply don't have enough time to do your job properly. You have to take short cuts or do poor quality work. Arrrggh.

Your don't have the necessary skills and knowledge: perhaps you have been asked to take on a new role or use new software but you haven't been provided with the right training. Or maybe you've been asked to take responsibility for an area - for example, sales and marketing - that you just don't feel comfortable doing, no matter how much training you get. Or you have a team of employees who are much younger than you and they would prefer to do things their way instead of yours. Whatever the reason, you feel in over your head.

This misalignment of factors is illustrated in Figure 3.


So, whereas you have 10 units of responsibility, you have fewer units of authority, resources, and skills and knowledge. The factors are not aligned. There are gaps.

What does this cause? STRESS. Personal and professional stress. Pure and simple. And the bigger the gaps, the greater the stress.

So that unsettled feeling you or your co-workers have? That feeling of being overwhelmed? It's stress. Stress because you don't have the authority, resources and/or skills and knowledge necessary to meet your responsibilities. Stress that you won't be able to do the things expected of you, that you will have to settle for poor quality work, or that you will let someone down. Of course there maybe lots of other factors contributing to your stress (e.g., personal issues, health issues) but the ones described here are remarkably common in the workplace.

So what do you do? The short answer is you try to bring the factors into alignment as illustrated in Figure 2. You can do this two ways: you and your boss can agree to increase the your authority, resources, and skills and knowledge until they are commensurate with your responsibilities; or you can reduce your responsibilities to align with the other factors. Once you make the adjustments, your stress will dissipate.


I hope you found this article and the RARSK tool helpful. You may never get the alignment between the factors perfect, but at least now you can identify and adjust the factors contributing to your stress.

© 2016 Mel Wilson all rights reserved

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