Have you ever been through a slog of work and thought to yourself, “When is this going to let up?” It may be due to layoffs where you are now taking on an additional workload. Perhaps the team is already short-staffed, or maybe you are going through a major culture change/re-org at your company. Regardless of what the reason is, Unsustainable work expectations may be able to be met for a short time, but shouldn’t be something that you deal with for the long term. 

How to address unsustainable work expectations


While you may not control who and what is thrown at you from a work perspective, there are some ways how you react and respond to those situations. 

Set (and reinforce) boundaries
As much as we want to blame a leader or the organization for unsustainable work expectations, we play a part in the issue as well. When having coaching conversations where the leader shares about their team, it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “They need to learn to say no more,” or “They always take on anything that is asked of them even when they are at capacity.” 

Servant leaders and those aligned with company values like helping others. It’s part of their DNA. Setting boundaries is important to you as an individual and as a leader. If you continuously take on too much, your team suffers because it’s more time away from them, and you suffer, because you are now likely out of balance with your work-life rhythm. 

When someone asks something of you that you know you don’t have the time or capacity to take on, respectfully respond that you can’t take on the ask and give some context as to why. Next, offer some guidance or feedback on how they may get some help in getting the task done.  “I’d love to help, but we are currently at capacity with this project that is due in the coming weeks. Scott’s team may be able to give you a hand with this though. I’d be glad to give you an introduction if you haven’t met him yet.”

Setting healthy boundaries is just as important to you as it is to everyone that you work with. 

Connect to your leader’s intention and give feedback
Unless you have an awful boss, more than likely they have positive intent when they come to you with an ask. Realize that they are coming to you because they have a need, and likely feel confident in your ability to get things done. 

There is a good chance that your leader may not fully realize or understand what your current workload looks and feels like. Be courageous and have an honest conversation with them and share your perspective. If you have a good level of trust and respect with them you may even share some of your struggles and concerns. They won’t know there is an issue until it’s too late if you don’t give them feedback and share your insight and feelings. 

Manage up to your leader
Part of being a holistic leader is the ability to not only lead the team below you but also your peers and those above you as well. Just as you reinforce and encourage your team as they show good behavior and positive impact, do the same for your leader when they give you or help you have a manageable workload and expectations. Show appreciation to your leader during those times to reinforce and influence them as the work continues to evolve. 

In addition to influencing your leader through relationship management, you may also need to drive consistent communications. If your leader doesn’t communicate with you effectively or consistently, you’ll want to be proactive in reaching out and communicating with them. Ask focused questions to understand their expectations and again share your feedback if you feel that there may be a gap or misalignment. Doing this consistently, helps you understand your role better and helps your leader understand what kind and type of communication they need to provide to help you be successful. 

Create a timeline or workflow outline to support your perspective
Sometimes a new work project is thought up and created with positive intent, either for the customer or for the employee. When you are seen as a high performer they may bring you things without realizing what all the ask needs to be successful or how the ask connects or impacts other areas. They just see how you get things done!

Take some time to create a quick timeline or workflow starting from the due date and working backward to the current day. Doing so will help illustrate the extra complexities, prep, alignment, and other resources needed to be successful. It could also be helpful to create a version with realistic expectations or how additional resources would be needed to accomplish the task on the original timeline. 

Prioritize well-being and celebrate success
As you make it through big (and small) projects and workloads, be sure to celebrate your team, and yourself, as part of the process. Your work-life rhythm is just that….a healthy rhythm from one to the other. Sometimes it leans a little more work-focused and other times frees up to allow more personal time and space. Be sure to schedule self-care and personal items and to-dos on your calendar to ensure that you are taking care of yourself well. 

Don’t fall victim to long-term unsustainable work expectations.  Lead your team, yourself, and your leader, to ensure that proper expectations and resources are in place in order for you to be successful. 

Make a better tomorrow. 
-ZH