The role of a leader is an inherently demanding one, responsible for guiding strategic direction, problem-solving, decision-making, and more—all while balancing multiple moving parts and stakeholders. It is no wonder that feelings of being overwhelmed are common among leaders at all levels of an organization. A constant state of overwhelm can undermine performance, health, relationships, and overall well-being if left unchecked.
Today we will explore research-backed causes of leadership overwhelm and provides practical, evidence-based strategies any organizational leader can implement to better manage feelings of being overwhelmed and continually improve work-life integration.
Identifying the Sources of Overwhelm
Before proposing solutions, it is important to understand the root causes that contribute to a leader feeling constantly overwhelmed. Research points to several recurring underlying sources:
Information Overload: With the constant stream of emails, notifications, reports and more, today's leaders are bombarded with an unsustainable quantity of information throughout each day. This ongoing deluge taxes mental resources and makes it difficult to focus on prioritized tasks (Miller, 1956).
Lack of Boundaries: Many leaders struggle to disengage from work, checking emails late at night or on weekends. Without proper boundaries, work seeps into all domains of life and personal time suffers as a result (Wright et al., 2014).
Unclear Priorities: When there is no clear sense of what really matters versus what can wait, the overwhelming nature of large todo lists only intensifies. Lack of focus leads to more reactive, less strategic work approaches (Locke & Latham, 2002).
People Management: The needs and demands of direct reports, peers, and senior leadership all require constant attention and problem-solving. Managing upward and providing support to teams below can pile on stresses (Bennis, 1989).
Perceived Lack of Control: A leader's role entails coping with unplanned issues, shifting timelines, ambiguity and more - all of which challenge feelings of being in control. Lack of control tends to correlate strongly with feelings of being overwhelmed (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
By understanding common antecedents, leaders can better identify which specific sources of overwhelm to target first through informed improvements.
Strategies for Battling Overwhelm
With a research-rooted understanding of potential overwhelm triggers, here are evidence-backed strategies any organizational leader can leverage to better manage the stresses of their role:
Set Clear Priorities: Take time each week to distinguish between the vital few versus the nice-to-haves based on organizational objectives. Guard priority tasks from distractions and say no to low-value requests (Covey, 1989).
Establish Clear Boundaries: Build boundaries around work hours, avoiding emails during evenings/weekends when possible. Batch emails into deliberate windows to feel in control. Protect personal time for recharging (Unsworth et al., 2013).
Limit Distractions: Disable notifications on devices when focusing deeply. Close applications like email/chat while working persistently. Minimize multitasking to stay present to key tasks (Pashler et al., 2001).
Delegate Strategically: Assess what responsibilities can reasonably shift to direct reports or peers based on their skills/bandwidth. Look for ways to spread work and share burdens where appropriate (Kaiser et al., 2008).
Say No Respectfully: Do not hesitate to decline additional work that does not align with priorities in order to preserve capacity and focus. Communicating limits assertively yet politely can build respect (Bruch & Ghoshal, 2002).
Optimize Technology Use: Leverage tools to streamline workflows and automate mundane tasks. Use calendar blocking judiciously for focus time without disruptions. unsubscribe from unnecessary listservs (Thomas, 2011).
Practice Self-Care Rituals: Exercise, connect socially with family/friends, engage in fulfilling hobbies to recharge periodically. Make restorative activities non-negotiable for long-term health and resilience (Sonnentag, 2001).
Application within Different Industries
All organizations benefit from leaders taking steps to manage overwhelm, though the specific manifestation of causes and effective solutions may differ across industries. Some applied examples:
Healthcare Administration: Overwhelm stems from staffing issues, legislatives changes, budget constraints. Clear priorities become critical to navigate stakeholders while strategic delegation of tactical duties to direct reports provides capacity.
Higher Education Leadership: Juggling faculty and student needs alongside initiatives and fiscal responsibilities leads to constant pulls. Boundary-setting protects focus time for strategic vision-casting versus reactionary problem-solving.
Technology Industry Management: Fast-paced environment strains from unplanned product issues and shifting roadmaps requiring quick pivots. Self-care becomes especially vital to maintain resilience amid ambiguity and crises.
Non-Profit Executive Direction: Limited resources demand maximum productivity yet community involvement also feels crucial. Saying no respectfully to additional requests and optimizing workflows through technology maintain capacity for mission-driving work.
By tailoring overwhelm countermeasures to their specific organization and role demands, leaders across industries can regain control and focus on areas providing highest strategic impact.
The role of a leader intrinsically involves coping with heavy responsibilities and frequent feelings of being pulled in many directions. While a certain level of stress comes with any senior role, constantly overwhelmed states undermine performance, relationships and well-being if unaddressed. Through understanding root causes, setting clear priorities, establishing boundaries, optimizing workflows, and practicing regular self-care, leaders have evidence-backed means to better manage ever-present stresses. By addressing individual overwhelm triggers methodically, any organizational leader can help feel back in control and focused on work providing the highest value—personally and for the business. Maintaining this research-informed, wholistic approach cultivates both professional excellence and sustainable leadership over the long-term.
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Kaiser, R. B., McGinnis, J., & Overfield, D. V. (2008). The how and the what of leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(2), 119–135.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. Springer publishing company.
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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.