Distinguishing Between Overwhelmed and Overworked and Why It Matters

2020 was, according to many and for many, a year of being completely overwhelmed. According to research by Gallup, 2020 marked a year of a twenty-year low in mental health for Americans. While people longed for the calendar to flip, the beginning of 2021 did not offer the relief people hoped for. We are still in an overwhelming season.

Being overwhelmed is real. People I serve alongside have experienced it. Close friends have shared this season has been the most overwhelming in their careers or their ministry lives. I too have experienced it. One day while discussing challenges, a close friend asked me “Eric, have you discerned if you are overwhelmed or overworked? Because you will deal with being overwhelmed differently than being overworked.”

It was an extremely wise question. I thought about it for days afterwards and discussed it with a therapist. I realized I was experiencing moments of being overwhelmed. The uncertainty. The changes in approaches to fulfill our mission. The grief over aspects of my role that are not the same in a Co-Vid environment. The compounding impact of many things. I was not being overworked; I was overwhelmed.

Why does it matter to properly discern the difference? Because to misclassify being overwhelmed as being overworked can cause you to address the wrong set of issues.

If overworked, one should look to simplify aspects of his or her role. If overworked, one should look to adjust work rhythms. If overworked, one should look at the most fruitful parts of their role/job and make a case to spend less time on other aspects. While those are always good to look at, those changes will not solve the issue of being overwhelmed.

So, what do we do when we recognize we are overwhelmed?

Rejoice that you are overwhelmed.

The apostle James encourages us to welcome trials with joy because we know they will result in the maturing of our faith. For years I have encouraged leaders to be intentionally overwhelmed. You cannot grow and develop without seasons of being in over your head. If you view a challenging season as a gift, being overwhelmed can force you to learn new skills, to develop your leadership, and to expand your capacity. For the Christian, being overwhelmed brings to the end ourselves and helps us depend more on God’s grace and power. On the other side of seasons of being overwhelmed, believers are typically more sanctified. And on the other side of seasons of being overwhelmed, leaders are always typically more skilled. May we be both.

Yet be overwhelmed as wisely as you can be.

The key to growing muscles is lifting more weight than you have previously while not putting so much on the bar that you are completely crushed. The person who works out with more weight must work out wisely. Being overwhelmed for too long of with too much weight can be crushing. Wisdom is needed on how to navigate this long season of being overwhelmed. On my next blog post, I will share some thoughts on being overwhelmed as wisely as we can be.