How to Negotiate Overwork Without Getting Fired

In an economic downturn, people with jobs naturally feel cautious about complaining that they have too much work. If financial difficulties have led to layoffs at your job, you may find yourself picking up additional duties. With this in mind, what should you do when you find yourself overworked but nervous about negotiating a more reasonable and realistic work load with your boss? Is it safer to grin and bear it than complain?

Don’t be a martyr. You can negotiate a realistic work load without getting fired.

With jobs changing so quickly, renegotiating your position or responsibilities is becoming more common. Overwork situations are not all created equal. Are you overworked consistently? Week after week, are there not enough hours to accomplish your routine responsibilities? Is your overwork occasional, coinciding with special projects? It may be more comfortable to negotiate about a specific project or a looming deadline than it is to discuss your entire job and its overall responsibilities. However, if you are fully prepared, able to document your situation (usually in writing), and offer solutions, change is possible. The better you understand your boss, the easier this will be.

Unaware boss

With jobs changing so quickly, renegotiating your position or responsibilities is becoming more common. Your boss may be unaware of your situation and may need to be fully apprised. For example, the special six-month assignment to the task force is now moving into its second year. If that project takes 40 percent of your time, there is no way to complete your other responsibilities, even if you work 10 hours a day. Suggestion: Do your homework prior to scheduling a meeting. Think about what the job entailed originally and contrast that to what the job circumstances are now. Your boss may not be taking the initiative to renegotiate with you because he or she may not recognize the importance of those changes.

Swamped boss

Your boss may know exactly what is going on because he or she is equally overworked. At the risk of sounding like a time-management specialist, negotiation always starts with reviewing priorities. Suggestion: In a situation where all the work cannot possibly be accomplished, work out an agreement about the order in which tasks are done. This can go a long way toward reducing those explosions caused by not doing a task that ended up being important.

This-is-for-your-own-good boss

If you have a supervisor who intentionally assigns more work than can be done, that may reflect a belief that having too much to do keeps people on their toes. Suggestion: You need to be more assertive in your communication and set boundaries at the time you receive the assignment. Accept it, but be sure to outline the conditions of your performance. “I am willing to try, but given the time frame and the trip to headquarters coming up, it’s quite possible that I will not be able to finish.” If you are working on a long project that will take many months, be sure to give your boss progress reports on a regular basis. This is particularly important if you have some question about whether you can complete it in time. This avoids the last-minute recriminations or hysteria as it becomes clear to everyone that the deadline will be missed.

Additional strategies

Ask for very short conversations every morning in which you talk with your boss about what you plan to do and your priorities. If your boss does not institute these conversations, you should. That way you have daily agreements on work needs and can also identify upcoming problems.

Being up front about your situation is always important. Whenever the work load is heavy, you need to let people know where you stand. If you are falling behind, be up-front about it so that your colleagues have some warning if you’re going to call upon them for help; this often means they must delay their own projects. This sort of juggling is not unusual, and often it is the supervisors who rearrange the work schedule. It is too late to learn Thursday morning that a document due to a client on Friday will not be finished in time. Your boss and colleagues need to know this earlier in the week, giving them enough time to find an alternative and avoid a crisis.

If the overwork situation is affecting your entire department, you might approach your boss as part of a team. Present the situation and a plan to reorganize responsibilities, increase the head count, streamline procedures, or other solutions from which he or she can choose. A well thought-out strategy can often get your boss’ support and in turn allow you that extra position.

Solving overwork problems is tied to your ability to be self-confident, to come to consensus in setting important goals, and to clarify your relationship to your boss.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment Situation Summary. March 4, 2011.

How to hold on to the job you have, U.S. News and World Report, March 18, 2009.

© HealthDay

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