The Difference Between Overwhelm and Overload

Mental health, work and marginalization - things can't go on as they are.

by Sohra Behmanesh, May 25, 2022
The Difference Between Overwork and Overload

I've long thought about myself as not being that resilient; I can’t carry that heavy workload. I used to think that with an inward, ashamed sigh, because I knew that being professionally resilient is a non-negotiable. I also knew you can't say that out loud, as it really doesn't go down well.

And at some point the scales fell from my eyes: my (work)load IS pretty heavy! And I'm doing pretty damn well with it!

I was still in college, not long married and had just become a mother when I unexpectedly became a single parent. That means that for quite a while I juggled parenthood, college and job on my own - and all that with a backpack full of older and newer emotional baggage that had hardly been examined or worked through. Today I know that some of these issues have to do with my traumatic experience of flight and migration as a very young child, with racism, and with ADHD, which was undiagnosed until recently. This is the package with which I started my professional life. In the more carefree years before this, I was doing internships almost every semester break, writing for music magazines on the side, working jobs, being politically active, reading a novel every week, building muscular upper arms, partying the night away 2-3 times a week, and sometimes just half-jokingly saying I wanted to be a workaholic when I grew up. And then some adjusting screws changed and I somehow didn't understand why I didn't manage to do even nearly as much as I used to.

I already described in my penultimate column that most of us (and some especially) have only a limited chance to assess the value of our performance in a healthy and objective way. Most of us also have hardly any chance of being able to assess healthily and objectively with which burdens and levels of being challenged they already start the day as a personal default setting, so to speak. And that has a lot to do with privilege and marginalization. For example:

  • Racialized people automatically expend a certain contingent of their daily available energy to deal with daily Racial Stress. Incidentally, the more racially and diversity insensitive the workplace, the greater the Racial Stress.
  • Chronically and/or mentally ill or handicapped people need a certain contingent of their daily available energy automatically to do mundane and most necessary things of everyday life, which healthy people do incidentally.
  • Neurodivergent people (neurodivergent is the umbrella term for neurological norm variants such as ADHD, autism, dyscalculia, etc.) automatically expend a certain contingent of their daily available energy to process stimuli such as noise, commotion or social interaction.
  • Parents (especially mothers and above all single parents) automatically spend a certain contingent of their daily available energy on the physical, emotional and mental care work for their children, and neither after-work nor vacation time is really available to them for recreation.
  • Trans people automatically spend a certain contingent of their daily available energy to perform a gender that is not theirs (if in the closet) or to deal with othering and discrimination (if outed).

Many of us spend all the energy we have left on our jobs - and all the rest falls by the wayside: hobbies, self-care, nightlife, friends, private self-realization. The job demands that WE are flexible, resilient, available, trouble-free, and able to work in a team; conversely, we cannot make this demand on our job. But... why not? There are many strategies employers can use to support their employees' mental health in a discrimination-sensitive way, they just need to make it important enough - the information is available.

The fewer demands and responsibilities life places on us, the better we are able to compensate for the challenges. Long before I knew I had ADHD, I simply changed my major when I couldn't cope. When I had to read a text that was difficult for me to access for a required seminar, I was able to take the time I needed to make sense of it. And when I didn't (because I was more interested in hanging out with friends in the park), no one really cared. That's different today, to say the least. My capacities to compensate and pretend have long since been exhausted.

Time and again, I find that even those whose political convictions have a lot to do with criticizing capitalism have a work ethic that has a lot to do with self-exploitation - out of loyal consideration for colleagues, out of passion for the job, out of fear of failure or termination, out of helplessness about alternatives, out of internalized beliefs that link our self-worth to our productivity.

For me, it was a breakthrough realization to realize that I wasn't overwhelmed, but overloaded. It wasn't my discipline, my skills, my willpower, my organization - it was the load, it just couldn't be done.

Little has changed in that regard, and the pandemic has only worsened things. I am still overloaded, my workload is not even manageable if I sleep less, relax less, spend less time with friends or doing other nice things that would actually be good for my health.  This is because I am affected by many of the marginalization categories I listed above as examples. But...don't many of us actually feel this way? "Actually, it's too much. The price of wanting to make it, of having to make it, is very high." The German Medical Journal reported in 2018 that statistically every second person in Germany feels threatened by burnout - that was BEFORE Corona!

There are people working on how we could do this differently. For example, there is Initiative Gesundheit und Arbeit, there are smart articles and und smart magazines that deal with how it can work differently. I find that quite inspiring, but for me right now it's a matter of starting much earlier, namely by talking face to face and saying, "I can't do it either."

And not with a shoulder-shrugging, helpless laugh that actually means "Well, grit your teeth and get through it!". But rather, "I can't do it either. It can't go on as before." So that at least we don't further burden ourselves with our shame, with our common silence about it.


In this column, presented in collaboration with our friends from Wildling Shoes, we want to give more space and visibility to the issues of anti-discrimination, belonging, and intersectionality in the workplace. Through articles, interviews, and diverse perspectives, we aim to both challenge and inspire those working in the impact sector - while encouraging them to create authentically lived workspaces that foster more belonging and less discrimination. By gaining new perspectives and engaging in a shared dialogue, we can take a collective step toward radical systems change in the impact sector - from "power over" and "power for" to "power with." 

Our columnist for 2022 is Sohra Behmanesh. She lives with her family in Berlin, works as a freelance anti-racism trainer, and finds caring and empathy just as superb as intersectionality. 

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Photo: Kris Wolf