Feeling overwhelmed at work can lead to stress, frustration and mistakes. A hiring manager is looking for candidates who have strategies for coping when they feel overwhelmed, and this may be something they ask about in job interviews. Common ways this question is phrased during interviews include “what would you do if you were overwhelmed by your work?” and “how do you deal with a heavy workload?”
Learn why interviewers ask these tricky questions and how to give them what they’re looking for in your response.
Why do interviewers ask this question?
Workloads fluctuate in most jobs, whether you’re a barista dealing with the morning rush or an accountant on a time crunch to meet the tax deadline. An interviewer wants to see if you’re equipped to handle a shifting workload.
Companies want to hire people who are cool under pressure, so your interviewer is asking to see how you handle stress. They want to know that you won’t melt down or lose your temper if work starts piling up.
What interviewers are looking for in an answer
Managers want to feel like they can trust their reports to balance their workloads. When an interviewer asks how you respond to feeling overwhelmed, they want your reassurance that you’ll be able to use good judgment, shift priorities when necessary, and ask for help if you need it.
Your answer should show them your ability to work independently and deal with stress; that’s a routine part of the job.
How to answer, “How do you deal with a heavy workload?”
Highlight your decision-making capabilities
In talking about your response to a heavy workload, show your interviewer that you have strong critical thinking skills by walking them through your thought process. Explain how you weigh different priorities, assess your response options, and choose the best path forward, even under pressure.
Showcase desired skills
Does the job description ask for leadership skills? Organization? Strong communication? This question offers a chance to show those skills in action with an anecdote about how you leveraged them during a stressful period at work. For example, if you know they’re looking for someone with experience in Jira, you might say, “the first thing I do when I begin feeling stressed about my workload is to make a list. I use Jira to outline all my tasks and set corresponding deadlines.”
Even if you’re coming from an environment where you consistently felt overworked, try not to let your frustration show. You want to come across as a consummate professional who can handle the occasional stretch of being overly busy, not someone who will start job searching at the first twinge of feeling overwhelmed.
How not to answer
Focus on the stress level
In describing how you deal with a heavy workload, don’t focus too much on what a burden it is or your feelings of stress, as these don’t contribute to moving forward under pressure. A hiring manager wants to hear about how you plan to get through it successfully in spite of being overwhelmed.
If you choose to describe a time when you were overwhelmed in the past, don’t point fingers to assign fault or bemoan your previous employer for asking too much of you. Instead, focus on your actions to tackle a heavy workload effectively.
Sample answers to “How do you deal with a heavy workload?”
“In childcare, things can shift from calm to stressful very quickly. I became overwhelmed last fall when we had several new children starting in the same week, and one of my best employees had to step away due to a family emergency. We needed more hands, fast. I quickly remembered the stack of applications we received over the summer from students that were home from college. I decided to start calling through the strong ones to see if any of them were still in town. I could find two great candidates available on short notice, and my team stayed late several evenings to help train them. Even though we were down one full-time staff member, we could get the new children acclimated successfully without delaying their start dates.”
“We received a production order from one of our dream clients, but we weren’t used to dealing with such high-volume orders. I immediately got together with my production coordinator and floor manager, and we were able to come up with a plan to have the factory running 24 hours a day in three shifts. This would allow us to complete the order in the desired time frame without bringing on any additional labor. It was an adjustment for our staff initially, but it worked out so well that we maintained the three-shift structure even after the order was completed.”
Remember that this question could be a red flag of a company culture where overwhelming workloads are the norm. Don’t jump to conclusions, but definitely consider asking more questions to help you gather additional information, like “could you tell me what the normal workload would look like for someone in this position?” Use it as one data point alongside the others you gather during the interview process when deciding if this is somewhere you’d want to work.