How to ask for help when you’re stretched too thin

How to ask for help when you’re stretched too thin

If the phrase “Why don’t you ask for help?” makes every fiber of your being uncomfortable, then you’re not alone. American culture, with a strong emphasis on self-reliance, breeds insecurity about asking for help. This is especially true in U.S. workplaces, where employees are often expected to work more like machines (that is to say, ceaselessly and without complaint or to the point of exhaustion) than human beings.

As a result, people may fear asking for help because they worry they will burden others, lose control over a project, or be perceived as weak or incompetent. And if you’re a man in a leadership role, research suggests you may face additional pressure to appear in charge at all times.

Whatever the reason for your hesitation to ask for assistance, it’s important to acknowledge the universal need for support. At this point in the history of work, we need all the help we can get. We’ve said it before, and we’re saying it again now: Americans are overwhelmed at work. More than half (53 percent) of U.S. workers report feeling burned out and overworked. Common stressors include the large influx of email, inefficient meetings, workplace distractions, lack of paid vacation, and the constant pressure to do more with less.

In other words, giving and receiving help is essential to our individual and collective wellbeing. Here’s why you should adopt a more positive outlook on help, plus tactical ways to ask for assistance.

How to ask for help when you’re stretched too thin

The benefits of asking for help at work (and how to do it)

In the face of increasing workplace demands, not only is help a necessity, but it’s also good for business. Working collaboratively can increase productivity and efficiency, build strong relationships among coworkers, reduce employees’ collective stress, provide employees with more time and energy to think creatively or tackle other projects, create opportunities for coworkers to share their skills and strengths, and unify employees around a joint vision.

So it’s official: Asking for help at work is good for you and your company. But if you’re still nervous about expressing a need for support, you’re not alone. Break through the mental barriers and learn how to ask for help at work by adopting the following strategies.

First, problem solve

Don’t ask for help the minute you face an obstacle at work. Instead, make sure you’ve exhausted all possible solutions before seeking assistance. Asking for help before trying to find the answer on your own is a surefire way to get on coworkers’ nerves. On the other hand, no one should resent you if you’ve tried to fix the problem yourself but need help identifying an adequate solution (especially if addressing the issue interferes with your ability to meet deadlines or finish projects).

Once you realize you need help, ask for it

If you’ve exhausted all solutions, then it’s time to ask for help, stat. Waiting to do so can take its toll in the form of missed deadlines, snowballing problems, compromised work performance, and undue stress. Promptly seeking assistance on the other hand will allow you to address issues before they become massive productivity drains.

Don’t ask the same person every time

Research suggests we tend to overestimate the possibility that requests for help will be denied. This means that we assume most people will say no to our requests for assistance. So if one person says yes, we tend to over-rely on them moving forward. This is a quick way to burn up somebody’s good will and it also limits your opportunities for relationship-building with other coworkers.

Instead of constraining your requests to one person, try to focus on asking the right person for the job. This means seeking out the person (or people) most likely to have useful insights and trust that they are willing to collaborate. Even if they aren’t able to assist, they may be able to direct you to someone who can. And if someone does reply back with a simple “no,” that’s not an indication that there’s anything wrong with you, your request, or your relationship with that person. It likely means they don’t have time at the moment.

Properly frame your request

As we’ve established, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. But the way you ask for help can do a lot to shape how your coworkers perceive you. Rather than talk about how hopeless or frustrated you are, frame the conversation with an eye toward problem solving.

Before requesting assistance, take a moment to clarify the type of support you need and how long you’ll need it (i.e. short- or long-term). Next, clearly communicate the challenge you’re facing, what you’ve done to try to solve the problem, and why you need help. (Perhaps the deadline got bumped up, or the project requires a skill you don’t yet have.) Then, propose some additional solutions and/or ask the relevant party if they’d be willing to share their advice or expertise. Not only will you stroke their ego a bit, but you’ll retain control over your project by making it clear that you want to identify a solution together (instead of just pawning off your work to someone else).

Paramount to all of these strategies? Always convey an attitude of gratitude. If people are willing to help you, then it’s important to communicate that you’re thankful when the help is offered and when it’s completed. And remember that help should be a two-way street; if you’re asking for it, you should also be prepared to give it. By consistently honoring requests for help and modeling the willingness to ask for assistance when you need it, you’ll contribute to a work culture built on support and collaboration.

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How to ask for help when you’re stretched too thin