Feeling overwhelmed? Seven tactics to try

The stresses and workload of Covid-19 have hit school business management staff hard. Nickii Messer shares approaches to try when things seem unmanageable

Author details

Nickii Messer was a school business leader for 16 years across three school phases, including senior leadership roles. Nickii is passionate about training and professional development for school business professionals, and since 2008 has been...

I was already worried about school business professionals (SBPs) creaking under the strain of ever more onerous and unmanageable workloads. Then wham, Covid-19 hit and those creaks have got a whole lot louder.

I have put together these tactics in the hope that if you, or your colleagues, are feeling overwhelmed, or at risk of becoming overwhelmed, there is something here for you. It is not intended as a route map; it's more of a pick and mix of tactics for you to try.

I’m really not feeling ok

Do you feel overwhelmed, are you struggling to think clearly, unable to switch off from work, waking up in a panic at night? Do you regularly find yourself in tears or feeling sick and fearful? Is your work suffering as a result?

Try this

Whatever you have heard, it’s really NOT ok to be really this much NOT ok. Value yourself enough (personally and professionally) to recognise when you need help, then do something about it.

Talk to someone you trust. Maybe your line manager, mentor, partner, friend, your GP. The likelihood is those closest to you at home and work are already very aware, so let them help you.

It’s not weakness to take action

There is no shame in any of this. These are unprecedented times, and school business management and leadership has been hit hard. Don’t compare yourself with other colleagues, whatever your or their role. They don’t have your particular job, your colleagues, your workload, your homelife, your challenges. (And who knows, they might seem to have it all together, but be utterly overwhelmed too.)

Please, step back from the edge, take a deep, slow breath, and talk to someone, now. It’s not weakness to take action. Far from it.

I’m multi-tasked out!

Is your day one interminable pile of work, deadlines, problems and needy people, all of which need fixing right now? Is your workload out of control?

Try this

Resist the urgency of others and focus on yourself. Take a deep breath and tell yourself ONE. 

ONE is all about replacing multi-tasking with more efficient single tasking. Look only at One Day, One Task, One Person, One Deadline, One Problem at a time. We are so programmed to multi-task, but it’s inefficient and often less effective than giving your focus to one thing at a time. It’s definitely too much to ask of ourselves when overwhelmed.

These are different times, which need different tactics. If you become overwhelmed, your effectiveness will be reduced, increasing the importance of sorting this now. Don’t worry about what might be ahead of you. Focus only on now.

You will need to be disciplined in planning your workload, so ask for help with this. Use the usual principles of prioritising, resisting checking emails (certainly don’t let emails become your to-do list), and make use of models like the 4 D’s: Do, Delay, Delegate, Dump

Strategic delay can be an essential tactic. Some tasks need you to be on top of your game, so put them off until you are in control. Where this means deadlines might not be met, let the appropriate people/authorities know your revised timescale. Put yourself first.

I’m an exhausted superhero

Do you struggle to see where work begins and ends? Are you terrified to take even a short coffee break? Do you find yourself thinking, talking about, and doing work most evenings and weekends?

Try this

Even superheroes have to put their costumes aside from time to time, step down from superhero duties and take a break. You should too. Taking power breaks throughout the day can make a significant difference to your energy levels and capacity to cope. Like a power nap, power breaks involve stopping, putting work aside, having a coffee, taking a short walk – round the school, into the playground, round the block…

Do something symbolic to shut down each working day and week

When your work pile becomes overwhelming, half an hour away from your desk won’t really lose you time but take my word for it – it will recharge your batteries and give you a fighting chance at returning to your desk refreshed with renewed perspective and energy to crack on and show that work pile who’s boss! 

Be ready to take off the superhero pants after work and at weekends too. Do something symbolic to shut down each working day and week. Be aware of shutting the office door or your laptop and say goodbye to work. Find time for YOU. Read a book (not about work!), take up a hobby, watch a movie, go for a run, phone a friend.

Imposters have invaded my head space

Have you a rabble of imposters rattling the inside of your head, making you feel you are not up to the job, incapable, weak, feeble, a failure?

Try this

Recognise these imposters for what they are. VeryWellMind.com defines imposter syndrome as an ‘internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be… feeling like a phony… as though you are going to be found out as a fraud’.

Put that definition up on your wall to remind yourself: imposters are not real. This is simply a state of mind that you, and just about everyone else you know, suffers from time to time.

Keep a list of all the amazing things that add up to you and your achievements – SBPs call this the ‘ta da!’ list. Use this to remind those pesky imposters who they are dealing with. No imposter has any right to your headspace, so kick them right out of your life.

Covid-19 is stopping me from doing my job

Have you lost valuable time due to testing, ensuring compliance and a plethora of Covid-19 tasks and distractions? Are you struggling with the frustration of not getting ‘my own job’ done?

Try this

It might seem like semantics, but don’t think of losing time, but gaining workload. The result might be the same, but the solution entirely different.

Time lost is from not doing or achieving anything. But that’s not what is happening here, is it? Remind yourself that Covid-19 tasks are still work, even if you don’t feel it should be your work. It might not be our normal, accepted workload, but if it supports the life chances and wellbeing of the children in our schools this is very definitely not time lost. 

Think about the exceptional contribution you have made to the school at an unprecedentedly challenging time

However hard it might seem, seeing these tasks as part of your overall workload allows you to more carefully plan, prioritise, delegate, dump (where other outdated tasks are no longer relevant or necessary) – and delay tasks that can afford to wait. 

This is all about perspective, and perspective is something that quickly gets out of hand when we feel overwhelmed. It can take concerted effort to keep feelings and priorities in perspective, especially when we feel tired and overwhelmed. 

Applying a different perspective won’t help you get time back but will hopefully allow you to think more positively about the exceptional contribution you have made to the school at an unprecedentedly challenging time.

I’m tired of uncertainty

The last couple of years have brought endless, unwelcome, unpredictable change. Has this constant change led to fear and uncertainty for you? Has it felt as if the proverbial rug has been pulled from under your feet?

Coping with such an onslaught of change can feel overwhelming in its own right, so here are a few thoughts and ideas to try.

Even the smallest of certainty and agreement gains can nudge us away from chaos

Managing change through control and ownership

In writing about the process of change, psychologist John Fisher warns that:

Much of the speed of transition will depend on the individual's self perception, locus of control, and other past experiences, and how these all combine to create their anticipation of future events. The more positive you see the outcome, the more control you have (or believe you have) over both the process and the final result the less difficult and negative a journey you have.
(John Fisher, Process of Personal Transition, 2012)

Changes caused by Covid-19 have largely precluded us from any sense of ownership or control. Simply, we have felt done unto. If you look at Fisher’s change (or transition) curve you’ll see this means we risk feeling perpetually stuck with ongoing anxiety, fear and threat.

Tactic to try: focus on gaining even small, sometimes insignificant control and ownership of changes wrought on us. Even these smallest gains will help us edge along the transition curve, leaving those fears and anxieties behind.

Seek what you have to gain, rather than what there is to lose

We know humans tend to resist change more from fear of losing the old and familiar, than on what we might stand to gain. 

Covid-19, particularly during the worst of the lockdown periods, meant we lost a great deal of those things we most enjoyed about our jobs, with very little for us to recognise as gain, thus creating additional resistance.

Socrates (the character in Dan Millman’s The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, rather than the Greek philosopher) advised that ‘the secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new’.

Try this tactic: focus on the new technology, the ability to work from home (great for getting on with projects and strategic planning, without endless interruptions), and all the other positives you can think of, however small.

Complexity model

Ralph Douglas Stacey’s complexity model helps us understand how lack of certainty and agreement in management, contributes to chaos.

The lack of certainty created by constant, unpredictable, changes due to Covid-19, also results in lack of opportunity for agreement, and therefore an overall feeling of chaos.

Try this tactic: focus on the areas where we can take control, then work democratically and collaboratively with colleagues and teams to forge agreements, especially when formulating plans of action. Even the smallest of certainty and agreement gains can nudge us away from chaos. We might still be far from ‘simple’, but you’ll soon have it back in your sights.

I’m the ultimate problem solver – for everyone but me

Do you need help solving your own problems and dilemmas? Do you put others first, leaving no time or capacity to look after yourself?

Try this

If you struggle to find solutions to your own dilemmas, imagine instead a colleague has asked you for help. Consider the steps you’d advise them to take, the value you’d put on making them feel safe and supported. Then apply this to yourself. 

Don’t limit your energy to sorting out problems for others. Value yourself and your role and invest time and energy to make things for you.

And finally…

Hang this quote on your wall to remind you to make decisions every day that benefit you.

The average person makes 35,000 decisions a day. How many decisions did you make today that brought you closer to better health, to thriving relationships, a personal goal, or a happier life? Choose more of what benefits you and less of what keeps you in the same old unproductive and unhealthy cycles.
(Emily Maroutian, In Case Nobody Told You: Passages of Wisdom and Encouragement)

Further reading

Last Updated: 
03 Feb 2022