My clients know I love learning. I often listen to or read books, enjoy podcasts, take courses, etc. It’s rare that I listen to an audiobook and then purchase the physical version of that same book. I did that with Brené Brown’s latest book Atlas of the Heart. I had so many insights listening to the audio version of the book that I needed the physical book to underline, highlight and make notes. One of those insights was the difference between stress and overwhelm. 

When I’m feeling a sense of stress

Brené writes, “We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.” “Overwhelmed means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and/or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.”

My big insight from this differentiation is that when I feel stressed, I may feel overloaded, but I can still create a plan to move through this situation. But, of course, it doesn’t mean it feels great or that the plan is anywhere near ideal.

Stress still feels like I’m overworked, with no capacity, and there isn’t enough time in the day. I still may feel angry or resentful. I may lose my patience more easily with my kids or my partner, but I can still formulate a plan and see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if the light is dim.

When I’m feeling a sense of overwhelm

When I’m overwhelmed, I can’t even devise a plan. I have no idea how to get out of my situation. It’s typically when I tell my partner I just want to cry. I have no idea what to do next, but I can’t articulate what type of help I need.  

We can’t treat stress and overwhelm the same

As managers, we sometimes notice our employees feeling stressed or overwhelmed, but we treat them the same way.

A “good” manager will ask employees, “How can I help?” “What can I take off your plate?” If your employee is experiencing stress, they are likely able to answer these questions.

They are beyond their capacity, but they can still formulate cognitive ideas on what can change the situation. 

If your employees are overwhelmed, they won’t be able to answer the questions.

As the manager, you might feel like you ‘checked the box’ by asking to help them. If they need your help, they should be able to tell you how right? 

It’s simply not true.

Your employees need mental clarity to formulate action

Brené indicates that when you are overwhelmed, you need to do nothing for 10-15 minutes. You need to reset. It might be taking a walk, taking some breaths, or closing your eyes and being quiet. This can help regulate your system.

Suggest this to employees if you sense they are in experience overwhelm. 

If they are like me, even if they cannot formulate an action to take, they will want to keep pushing ahead to move past the overwhelm. This is counter-productive. When the employee has taken 10-15 minutes away to reset, they may still be experiencing stress, but hopefully, they won’t be experiencing overwhelm.

This concept also shows up in our personal life

Many years ago, I read that when someone is experiencing grief, and you want to help, the best thing to do is give that person three options of ways you can help them and let them choose.

For example: “I want to help you during this difficult time. There are three things I’m really good at helping with. Please let me know which you would like:

  1. I can drop tacos off for your family dinner any day this week.
  2. I can do the mid-day walk for your dog on Tues and Thurs
  3. I can send you funny memes each morning

If, instead, you ask them, ‘How can I help?’ they often aren’t able to tell you. They may be in overwhelm and aren’t able to articulate the ways they need help.

Stress & overwhelm affect your health

Long-term stress or overwhelm has too many negative life and health impacts to list here. However, you and your employees will experience stress and likely overwhelm at specific times related to work or life.

Knowing the difference between the two and navigating it for yourself and your employees is a key piece of information to have in your toolbox.