Luciana’s habit of over-functioning at work had helped build a multi-billion dollar business. She had spent over 15 years leading, organizing, staying late, and, if necessary, doing the work for everyone else. Now in her third year as Senior Vice President of communications for a manufacturing company, she felt totally and utterly burned out.
The only problem was that Luciana’s self-worth was deeply intertwined with her performance and reputation at work. She moved through the office as if it were her duty to remedy every problem, even if it was below her level or required her to pitch in on a project last minute.
At the end of most days, Luciana fell into bed with her husband, who often went to sleep hours before her, after working long into the night at the dining room table. Even though she was constantly exhausted and guilty about falling short as a mother, wife, and executive, she kept going anyway, hoping her stress would eventually resolve itself.
Luciana’s story exemplifies what over-functioning at work looks like. It’s a pattern I see in my work as a coach among Sensitive Strivers – high-achievers who are also highly sensitive.
What is Over-functioning?
Over-functioning at work means you are taking on too much responsibility and trying to control things that you can’t. When you over-function, you try to “fix” or “rescue” situations and people, because you fear that if you don’t, no one will.
Overfunctioning can masquerade as helpfulness. For example, overfunctioners are quick to act. They are usually the first to raise their hand to volunteer for an assignment because they enjoy attacking a to-do list and seizing control. They are usually the co-worker who is always willing to lend a hand and pitch in when a team is short-staffed or a project is going sideways.
But, over-functioning has a dark side. Signs of over-functioning include:
- Absorbing the emotions of your boss, team, and family and being overly focused on their problems
- Worrying about other people’s perceptions of you
- Changing your opinions and actions in an attempt to make others happy or “keep the peace”
- Being overly accommodating in rescheduling meetings or giving up your personal time
- Beating yourself up for never “doing enough” or never being “productive enough”
- Struggling to relax , sit still, or enjoy downtime
- Perfectionism, striving to get an A+ in everything you do, and feeling like a failure if you fall short
- Avoiding asking for help because it will make you appear “weak” or incompetent
Most of all, over-functioning at work manifests as doing tasks for others that they can do for themselves. In the workplace, this can look like:
- Remaining involved in basic administrative tasks or daily execution, even though you’re a leader
- Constantly reminding your team or co-workers about due dates instead of letting them self-manage
- Researching information when someone can look it up themselves
- Having goals for your team that they don’t desire themselves
Over-functioning, Under-functioning, and Burnout
It may be clear why I also refer to over-functioning as heroing. You’re constantly in a fear-based, reactive mode trying to “save” everyone around you in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control, validation, or security.
However, when you assume too much responsibility, it creates a dynamic where others can under-function. You become the consummate student in a group project who ends up doing all the work and then feeling resentful for doing so.
When you assume responsibility for “fixing” situations and rescuing other people, they don’t have to do their part, which can be frustrating at best and damaging at worst. And as a result of their constant pace and self-sacrifice, overfunctioners tend to be prone to burnout.
How to Stop Over-functioning at Work
You may feel like you are being generous and helpful by over-functioning, but in actuality, it’s coming at the expense of your own mental health and the quality of your relationships. Overextending yourself and carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders isn’t good for you – nor does it allow the people you work with or others in your life to step up, grow, and lead themselves in the way they need to.
Overfunctioning is a habit that takes years to get set in place and takes a long time to unravel. The process doesn’t happen overnight. But that doesn’t mean you need to continue being a victim of it. Here’s how to take small steps to stop over-functioning, starting today.
1 – Observe your patterns.
Self-awareness is always the first step to creating change. So pay attention – when do you find yourself taking on more than your fair share of the workload or responsibility in a project or relationship?
In particular, look for areas where you feel an outsized sense of resentment. That is, you feel overworked, underappreciated, or otherwise not recognized for your efforts. Resentment is a strong emotional signal that you are over-functioning, and it can guide you toward specific situations that need changing.
2 – Update unhelpful mental scripts.
Overfunctioning is driven by deeply held – but unhelpful – beliefs about the way the world should work and your responsibilities within that. For example, you may believe that your duty as a manager is to provide air cover for your team. In other words, to take on small, monotonous tasks below your pay grade in an effort to protect your team’s time.
In Luciana’s case, one reframe she embraced was to consider that she was doing a disservice to her company. By spending her time on lower-value work, she wasn’t fulfilling the organization’s objectives, and was letting the executive team and board down. She began to value her time and efforts more, freeing up more bandwidth to focus on strategic, bigger-picture work that could make a larger impact. Consider what stories, scripts, or “rules” you’ve been holding yourself to. Which are no longer helpful or true? What needs updating or refreshing to allow you to be at your best professionally and personally?
3 – Teach people how to treat you.
You have probably conditioned your boss, co-workers, friends, and family to treat you like a push-over. They have probably come to regard you as the one who is “always there,” always says “yes”, and is willing to be overly accommodating to their preferences and desires.
The good news is that these relationship dynamics can be changed. But it requires that you begin to respect your time and energy. After all, you can’t expect others to honor your boundaries unless you uphold them as well. That may mean:
- Creating blocks on your calendar, and sticking to them without allowing others to book over them
- Ending work by 6pm and communicating you will not be checking emails after that
- Setting clear expectations at the beginning of a project about what you can and cannot contribute
4 – Recruit help from others.
Get better at delegation, taking it slow at first. Look for opportunities for others to take on pieces of work that you are currently doing. Also, coach your colleagues and team members. Instead of automatically fixing an issue for them, engage them in thoughtful questioning instead. Ask about what they’ve already tried, solutions they’ve considered, and how they might approach the problem.
You’ll likely be surprised by how enthusiastically the people around you step up once you step back. Delegating and taking a coaching approach empowers them to build confidence and agency and also creates greater efficiency. It’s important, though, that you be comfortable letting others do things imperfectly, make mistakes, and approach them differently than you would.
Last, leave unstructured time in your schedule. Prove to yourself it’s safe to exist without being productive every second of the day.
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Burnout is the norm for many high-achievers. Long hours and chronic exhaustion are normalized—if not celebrated—in many workplaces. A lack of boundaries between work and life can cause workers who previously felt fulfilled to feel resentful and unhappy.
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