As much as you try to manage your workload and avoid burnout, an increase in work is sometimes inevitable, like when a co-worker goes on vacation, or takes a longer-term parental leave. 

It may feel admirable to be the office rockstar while your co-worker is away, but taking on more work can become exhausting, and if you try to power through without setting boundaries, your colleague’s time off can become a serious source of stress for you. 

Whether your teammate is on a week-long trip or an extended leave, here’s how to keep from getting overwhelmed while they’re out of office.

Press pause on non-urgent tasks

When you start to feel stressed by how much is on your plate, it’s important to press pause on non-urgent tasks to avoid getting overwhelmed. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time management coach and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment and Divine Time Management, says that in the interim, it’s important to shelve all tasks that can wait, or delegate them to someone else with more time. “If you have a massive increase in urgent work, you may need to suspend nonurgent work entirely, such as a project with no deadline, process improvement items, or networking meetings,” she explains. “Suspend any meetings about them until more time opens up in your calendar.”

Separate focus time and email time

If your co-worker is on leave, they likely left you as their out-of-office contact, so your inbox may become a daunting place pretty quickly — and that can be stressful. With the influx of notifications that flood your phone and computer screen throughout the day, it can feel like a natural instinct to check your email whenever you feel a buzz — but research suggests that keeping designated time for emails that’s separate from your work/focus time can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Separating your focused work from your email-checking will help minimize distractions, and will allow you to get your own work done without the noise of a secondary inbox. 

Talk to your manager about your workload

If you work on a team, it’s important to remember that there are other members, too — and to reach out to your manager if your plate is simply too full. “When you’re giving help, you also need to ask for it,” Saunders points out. See if a boss can cover a few responsibilities, or if a coworker can take notes for you at meetings so that you don’t need to attend. It’s common to try to accept your new workload to seem like a team player, but if covering for your co-worker is stressing you out to the point where you can’t focus clearly on your own tasks, don’t be afraid to be compassionately direct about the situation, and don’t wait until you reach your breaking point to speak up.

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.