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Overwhelmed at work: How to get help without appearing helpless

Beth Braccio Hering, Special to CareerBuilder

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Every worker wants to appear competent and in control. Truth is, however, that situations sometimes arise in which an employee feels overwhelmed. Should you admit the problem or suffer in silence? Here, experts offer suggestions on how to get relief without putting your professional reputation on the line.

Evaluate the cause

"The best way to build your reputation at work is by meeting commitments. When you're feeling overwhelmed, the first thing to do is ask yourself whether your output and commitments are at risk," states Ed Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of "Make Work Great" and "Four Secrets to Liking Your Work." "If they're not -- if you're feeling stressed by a change in the business process, a new set of responsibilities or maybe a situation at home -- then you don't need to ask for help."

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What you do need, though, is to find a way to deal with the pressure. This might mean letting off steam at the gym, taking a walk at lunch to clear your head or using some vacation days to reboot. If insecurity over unclear expectations or nervousness about performance are issues, it might be time to sit down with your manager to go over objectives or take a class to master that spreadsheet program once and for all.

Act sooner rather than later

If it appears that you will not be able to fulfill a promise, give involved parties a heads-up as soon as possible. It will make you appear more responsible, and others may offer a solution that hadn't crossed your mind.

"If you wait until the last minute to ask for help on a project, you will look desperate," says Kerry Patterson, co-author of "Crucial Conversations." Adds Muzio, "Remember, 'Why I won't be able to do that for you' is the second hardest conversation you can have at work. The hardest is 'Why I didn't do that for you after all.'"

Likewise, whether you are asking a colleague to lend a hand or going directly to the boss, Patterson suggests getting emotions in check. "Be sure to regain your composure before asking for help. If you ask for help in a state of panic, you will appear helpless."

And be as up front as possible with the nature of the help you need and the time commitment involved. Co-workers who end up feeling misled will question your honesty and be less willing to help in the future.


Instead of directly asking for someone's help in dealing with an overwhelming situation, another possibility is renegotiating the terms, such as moving a deadline or decreasing the workload. Muzio has these suggestions for workers deciding to go this route:

  • Approach the people to whom you owe the output with honesty about the problem.

  • Detail the commitment you made in order to let them know you are aware of their current expectations.

  • If you wish, offer a reason why you're having difficulty, but don't get bogged down in excuses.

  • Put your focus on how adjustments can be made with minimal impact to them.

An ounce of prevention

While everybody likes to please the boss or help out a co-worker, taking on too much can lead to burnout, resentment and decreased performance in the long run. Sometimes the best way to deal with becoming overwhelmed is to avoid getting to that point in the first place.

"The key to saying 'no' in the toughest situations is the ability to negotiate an agenda where the other party agrees to allow you to give your thoughts openly and freely without jeopardy," says Jim Camp, president and CEO of Camp Negotiation Systems and author of "NO: The Only Negotiating Strategy You Need for Work and Home." "For example, you might say, 'You know, Bob, there is a tough issue I would like to discuss with you. May I speak freely? I want to be sure it is okay to speak freely. May I?' If you can get permission to speak freely, you have crossed the first hurdle. Now you can get to the heart of the problem (i.e., too much work, too difficult a task to do singlehandedly) without fear of retribution."

Finally, prevent problems by making sure that you and those you work with are all on the same page. "Spot the disparity between what you know and what your boss thinks you should know so you can create a plan to close the gap instead of using workarounds," Patterson says.

After all, the best conversation about how to fix a problem is the one that never has to happen.

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Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for Follow @CareerBuilder on Twitter.

Last Updated: 15/02/2011 - 5:54 PM

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