Workplace Doctor: Coping with the burden of overlapping roles at a small company

We are a small business with a team of eight, so out of necessity, we all have overlapping responsibilities. As the administrator, I also oversee payroll and human resources, while the receptionist is also the head of sales. And the marketing manager doubles up as the head of content. Although it’s great to learn so many new skills, some of us are feeling overburdened and stressed. How do we raise this with a company founder, whose only priority is pushing the business forward? MD, Dubai

Overlapping responsibilities and competing priorities can be a big part of working in the hustle and bustle of a growing small or medium-sized enterprise. It certainly gives you the opportunity to learn lots of different skills, and adds variety to your day. This can be exciting, making every week different, while many in more established businesses struggle with often-repetitive work – such as factory workers assembling the same parts day after day. In that respect, I’m sure there are a lot of positive factors in working in such a dynamic environment.

I can imagine your marketing manager going to a meeting focused on the marketing activity to increase brand exposure, and afterwards going to another meeting to discuss the content of the business. I see the receptionist greeting certain clients when they arrive, and engaging others as part of the sales process, continuously building the customer-supplier relationship.

Some (including your boss) will say that this way of working gives employees an overall understanding of the business. It also increases opportunities for collaboration as people connect and work together more frequently than if they were only in one area of the business.

That being said, I can see how it might be draining for you and your colleagues, especially if you are already feeling stretched in the areas you were hired to work in. Although there are some benefits to juggling responsibilities, multitasking is something all humans struggle with psychologically, especially when stressed, tired or depleted.

It’s a difficult situation: as our workload increases, the variety of tasks we need to undertake typically widens. This makes focusing even more challenging. Take yourself, working on complex administrative tasks which require attention to detail, and then jumping straight into personnel issues which may require empathy and understanding. Both tasks are equally as demanding, but require a different focus, and it takes real skill to operate effectively while spinning this many plates.

We cannot all be Olympic triathletes, switching between swimming, cycling, and running in immediate succession. Business leaders tend to have developed the capability to work across different fields during their rise to the top, but the rest of us tend to feel much safer in the comfort of our specialism.

Every task and responsibility at work requires different types of attention and this “chopping and changing” uses up mental energy, a resource that we must manage effectively in busy workplaces. It seems to me that this is what you are experiencing at the moment, as you and your colleagues struggle with the draining effect of wearing a number of very different work hats.

I think you can raise this with the company founder if you make a considered and balanced business case. In a small business you are unlikely to completely remove overlapping responsibilities, but they can certainly be managed more effectively. First, you should acknowledge the opportunities that you have had to develop new skills through this way of working, conveying that it has given you and other colleagues a broader understanding of the business as a whole. Approach the issue together, and think of ways that you can make switching your attention less mentally taxing. Is it possible to split up your working week so that different tasks are tackled on different days? Your boss wants the best out of you, so I’m sure he would welcome ideas that help him get more out of his team.

Explain that it is the frequency of multitasking and switching between roles that you are finding overwhelming, and that it is not just you who does. Let him know that key tasks can be delivered more effectively (such as sales or marketing) if a higher level of attention is given to them. If you still feel overwhelmed, the company could take on additional support, either in a specialist role such as human resources, or in the form of administrative support for the routine tasks, allowing you and your colleagues to tackle the tough stuff.

Doctor’s Prescription

Small businesses tend to be highly entrepreneurial, with people taking on many different roles. Leaders of today’s SMEs have developed the dexterity to manage several areas and often want to see this same ability in the people around them. However, you can only multitask so much and it is important for team members to speak up. Explain that you still want to be the best you can be in your work area, and are still willing, with support, to slowly broaden out. Advancing the business equires some flexibility, but equally it needs everyone to focus.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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