Chief Executive Insights

What great leaders do when a team member is overwhelmed

Lynne Cazaly

It’s happening in this world of working from home, living with lockdowns and isolations – overwhelm. That feeling when everything is too much. Too much work, too much emotion, too much information. Argh!

As a leader, you’ve got to take care of your own wellbeing, workload and overwhelm, but there’s also a responsibility to support your team too.

Some people are overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done or the pressure of a looming deadline. Others are overwhelmed at pushing the ‘send’ or ‘go live’ button on their work. Still others can be overwhelmed by the actions or decisions of others in the wider team or organisation.

There’s nothing wrong with overwhelm; it’s our body’s warning system that something is out of balance. So, when a team member is overwhelmed, here are some good practices leaders can adopt. Try them out:

  1. Be informed about workload. Don’t let your team’s overwhelming workload be a surprise to you. Good leaders should have a feel for what work is on their team’s to-do list and when things might be heading towards being too much. Each team member will have a different style of managing their workload and how they respond to the increase in pressure of overwhelming situations.
  2. Don’t take it personally. A team member’s overwhelm response doesn’t mean your leadership is bad. Any number of things can overwhelm us: a new baby, a new job role, a demanding client, an approaching deadline, a difficult conversation. But equally, don’t dismiss it as if you have nothing to do with it. If they’re a member of your team, there’s some action you can and should take.
  3. Acknowledge it’s real. Careful not to dismiss a team member’s overwhelm with flippant, ‘I’m sure it will be fine’ or ‘you’ve got this’ comments. You may not need any cheer-squad straplines at all! Instead pause, ask, engage, listen. Let them talk and share their experience. This builds a better, longer term connection with you as their leader.
  4. Validate their experience. It might be quick to brush off another human’s experience, but right here is where a big dose of empathy is missing in many teams. ‘Oh wow, that must be awful,’ ‘Gee… it’s been tough for you hasn’t it,’ and ‘Oh no, that’s not the best’, are the kinds of validating responses people need to hear. They’re not empty, nor are they clichéd. They’re validating statements that work at the deeper parts of our brain where we need to be seen and heard by others.
  5. Unpack the overwhelm. We can tend to group several experiences under the ‘I’m so overwhelmed’ exclamation so there are greater insights available if you go deeper. Identify with your team member what things are overwhelming them in terms of: 1. Emotions, 2. Workload, and 3. Information. These three types of overwhelm can then be resolved by different kinds of solutions.
  6. Involve them in the solution. We are more capable and happy humans when we are able to ‘self-soothe’ or resolve issues and tricky situations using our own resources, so, help draw out your team member’s greater resources. While they might be feeling overwhelmed and less resourceful than usual, play the role of facilitator, eliciting their thoughts, ideas and potential solutions. This will create a better outcome than if you ‘bandaid-style’ declare what the answer is.

Overwhelm isn’t resolved by simply suggesting people ‘prioritise self-care’ or ‘take some time out’. There could be some overwhelming situations in the way people are working and the kind of work they’re doing. There could also be too much information for them to take in given the time available or the situation they’re in.

Even if you’re doing ok, don’t assume the team must be ok too. Leaders who are more open to having the issue of overwhelmed raised – and resolved – are leaders who are acknowledging the reality of work today. They are more trusted by their team, more effective in their performance and lead more cohesive teams.

Unresolved overwhelm can lead to bigger problems like burnout and that’s a workplace problem that’s worth preventing in the early stages, rather than being counted via unfortunate or tragic statistics.


Written by Lynne Cazaly.

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Lynne Cazaly
Lynne Cazaly, author of Argh! Too much information, not enough brain: A Practical Guide to Outsmarting Overwhelm’ ($29.95), is a speaker and award-winning author on new ways of working. She helps individuals and organisations think and work in ways that are more productive, collaborative, creative and effective.


Lynne Cazaly is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.