People Feature: How to tell your boss you are overworked

 People Feature: How to tell your boss you are overworked

Article published on October 18, 2018
By Selena Li

Fund professionals in Asia are no strangers to working overtime, but when long hours are taking a toll on one’s health and life, whether and how to tell your superiors can be challenging.

The “upward” communication with a manager demands a thorough evaluation beforehand followed by careful preparation, as well as execution finesse, experts say.

To tell or not to tell

“You walk out of the office once in a month early enough to join a happy hour. Seven minutes after the drinks start to flow, people surrounding the table cannot wait to vent about work – long hours, impossible sales targets – but they never seem to take the issue to their bosses,” says a Hong Kong-based institutional sales executive at a mutual fund house.

She feels that only those who have “bargaining power” – tangible contributions to a business – are allowed to “consider the option”.

The ability to talk about being overworked requires a workplace culture that allows and encourages open, constructive feedback to management, says Phill Stella, founder and president of Effective Training & Communication, a Cleveland-based communication and business training consultancy.

“If not, make sure your resume is current and start looking for a less toxic culture.”

But the cultural differences in Asia may prevent such conversations from happening.

In Asia, where workplace culture is still very much fixated on giving face time and clocking in long hours, employees may tend to be more reserved and not seek feedback on potentially sticky issues like workload, says Angela Lee, Hong Kong-based founder of A.L Consulting, an executive coaching and human resources consultancy.

Lee has worked with some Hong Kong-listed traditional family businesses where the owners tend to expect managers to work late in the office, which they believe shows commitment and dedication.

Individuals have to decide what works best for them and that will depend on a person’s personality, upbringing and education, Lee says.

But avoiding the tough conversations will lead to burn-out, the sales executive says, adding that as a straight shooter herself, she always chooses to talk rather than stay silent and suffer from an unbearable workload.

Another Hong Kong-based senior sales executive at an Asia-based fund house says that after reaching out to her boss only once in the past two years to discuss her workload, the manager listened.

“If you set aside the complaints and the whining, you will find a solution to your problem together with your boss, whether it’s more resources or greater support.”


Presenting a convincing argument requires employing data-gathering and analytical skills, as well as logic and accuracy to formulate a solid message, Stella says.

If a person works for an organisation where being overworked is the norm, then they have to come to terms with that reality and realise they have no grounds to complain.

But a different conversation ensues if long work hours are the result of recent changes, such as a seriously understaffed department, new hires not being up to speed, unexpected customer challenges or system problems.

“It would make sense then to compare current activity with previous and identify the changes that contributed to the overload,” Stella adds.

Employees can take a number of steps to gauge their workload, he says.

First, accurately log your time in 15-minute increments. Then, account for every task you perform and keep logs for several days over different weeks. If your organisation’s workflow is unusually inconsistent, log every day over several weeks. Also include meaningful work done at home.

Employees should analyse the data thoroughly. For each task, indicate relative priority or importance. Consider the urgent/important matrix to determine the relative urgency combined with the relative importance of each task. Then compare the data to expectations laid out in your annual performance objectives.

“Prepare to be concise, specific and without emotion,” Stella says.

A.L. Consulting’s Lee says employees may consider the human resources department as their “go-between” before having a face-to-face chat with their direct supervisors.

Professionals can seek HR’s help with time management and organisational tips.

“An HR [manager] can share an employee’s feedback as the general feedback to management, instead of from one particular person in a department,” Lee says, adding that it is a good buffer when the employee does not know how their boss is going to take the message.

Not about getting your life back

Having collected the data, fund professionals can proceed to create a concise proposal highlighting the problem, causes and solutions.

However, it is important for the employee to show their concern for the manager and company, and not just make it all about them being burned out, Lee says.

“You need to put yourself in the company and manager’s shoe,” Lee says. “Frame it as, ‘If I don’t have enough rest, my creativity and productivity tend to go down’.”

The senior sales executive says she never asks for a compensation day or extended holiday, as the focus should be on work, not how she rests.

“Your agenda must be to find ways to add more value to your team or department and contribute more to the overall strategic plan,” Stella says.

“It’s not [about lightening] your load and [getting your] life back.”

Danger of being the squeaky wheel

When the proposal is finalised, send it to your boss and request a short meeting to review it.

But take care in how you make your point, Stella notes.

“It’s a weak argument for Paul to say that he works consistently more hours than Alicia, Shawna or Lamont. A savvy manager would probably ask him how he knew that and what data he used to make those comparisons,” he says.

“You can’t realistically compare your output with that of colleagues doing similar work.”

Even an enlightened manager in a forward-thinking culture could lose respect for Paul based on how he chose to complain, what arguments he raised and how he presented himself, Stella says. The result could be counter-productive for Paul.

“The squeaky wheel often gets replaced with a wheel that doesn’t squeak,” Stella says.

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