Stressed… or Overwhelmed?   These Are Not Interchangeable Words

“I’m overwhelmed.”  She paused, as if for dramatic effect, but then said “… and I think I’m going to cry.”

No one gets on the phone with the consultant expecting to cry.  But there she was, feeling the weight of her work world on her shoulders. Susan[1] is the head of human resources for a multi-million-dollar organization with more than 600 employees.  Responsible for “all things people”, she was juggling multiple projects, among them simultaneous integration of a newly-acquired 150-employee company and launch of a new compensation program for current employees. Acquisition of another company was in the wings. 

On the last business day prior to the compensation program launch, Susan learned the CEO had decided a month previously to gut the compensation increases and failed to communicate his decision. Almost overnight the communication strategy had to be revised and supervisors and managers had to be retrained. Cutting compensation packages generally increases turnover, dissatisfaction, and disengagement from the current workforce.  But there was hardly time to consider that because there were 150 new employees to onboard. “Overwhelmed” hit the nail on the head.

Many of us say we feel stressed and overwhelmed. In fact, we talk about it all the time, but despite some similarities, these two words are not interchangeable. 

The medical version says stress is the physical and emotional reaction we experience as we encounter changes in life.[2] The lay version of stress, however, is highly subjective, and most of us use the term to complain about how we feel about everything in life. We don’t like to admit that stress is a normal condition or that those feelings move us to take action, but stress is a springboard that helps us get through challenging times. [Note: although prolonged periods of stress can cause a number of physical and mental maladies, I’ll be referring to a normal feeling of stress for this article.]

Overwhelm, conversely, is a feeling of absolute crushing, overtaking, or submerging.  It’s a feeling often associated with despair and tends to bring a person to a screeching halt. 

That’s where my client was. Totally overwhelmed.  As though she had nothing left to give.  Not knowing which direction to go.  Not seeing a path forward. Her ability to effectively make decisions, lead her team successfully, and continue to produce results was compromised. The good thing about overwhelm is that it is not fatal.

Let’s see what Susan did to overcome and what you can do as well:

  • Susan needed to just sit for a minute and breathe.  So, we did. Multiple times throughout the call.
  • Get Real About What’s on Your Plate. Make a list of the thoughts in your head, consolidate the notes on your desk and calendar, and use whatever tool to prioritize them.  Doing one thing at a time and giving yourself permission to slow down in order to move forward is required to take the first step out of overwhelm.  I take the old school approach of writing my projects on sticky-notes, one project per note, putting them on the wall and arranging into larger categories.  I’m able to visually see what needs to be done by when, and by whom. 
  • Communicate FACTS to Your Boss. Leave your feelings at the door to ensure your message is not misconstrued as an “emotional” reaction. Lay out your plan and determine, together, what projects are priority, who else needs to be involved, and align the expectations with the deliverables.  Many leaders do not understand the time and effort it takes to complete projects.  Engage them to help them help you.
  • Ask For Help. Admit that you don’t have to do it all. Identify the deliverables of the projects for which you’re responsible and determine next steps including who can assist with each aspect of the projects.
  • When everything feels like it’s too much, just stop. Push away from your desk, stand up, stretch, and deeply inhale.  The air and body movement will adjust your brain to be more focused.

What I hope you glean from this article is this: 1) A better definition of stress will help you take more appropriate action; and 2) Knowing the signs of overwhelm is the beginning of controlling and moving beyond it. 

Executives, remember that there are implications and consequences of your decisions.  Knowing when to push forward a project that develops an individual’s or team’s capability is one thing.  Recognizing and understanding the ramifications of overwhelm in an individual contributor or within a team is completely different.  Pushing a person, or team, when overwhelm sets in is counterproductive. 

CEOs: Step back for a moment and look at your executive leaders.  Are they exhibiting signs of stress or overwhelm?  Are you experiencing stress or overwhelm?  If yes to either of these questions, ask yourself “why” (i.e., strategic plan, unrealistic number of objectives and projects, etc.) and then do something about it.   

Executive Leaders: Step back and look at your leaders.  Are they exhibiting signs of stress or overwhelm?  Are you experiencing stress or overwhelm?  If yes to either of these questions, ask yourself “why” (i.e., unrealistic number of objectives and projects, not enough resources, state of constant change and upheaval, etc.) and then do something about it.  

It doesn’t stop at the executive level.  Every employee has a role and responsibility to step back, look around, and determine the level of stress, or whether the company is in a state of overwhelm. 

If YOU are in a state of flux because of overwhelm, let’s chat.  We’ll review what’s on your plate, outline priorities, and determine a path forward. There’s no judgment for tears, by the way. 

The investment is just 30 minutes of your time and a commitment of taking the next step. Let’s chat.


P.S.  Book a Complimentary Strategy Session so we can get you moving in the right direction; click on my Complimentary Strategy Session calendar link here and let’s book a time together so you can get started today!

P.P.S. With over three decades of professional experience in corporate operations and executive human resources, I am a proven results-driven leader. My expertise includes strategy, change management, talent management and organizational development, employee relations, and executive and leadership coaching. I am a highly effective communicator and team leader with demonstrated ability to build long-term relationships across internal and external customer environments built with integrity, confidence, authenticity, and trust.


[1] Name, company size, and other details have been changed due to client confidentiality.

[2] Stress | NCCIH ( March 28, 2022