Interview Question: "How Do You Handle a Heavy Workload?"

A busy office worker on phone with stacks of paperwork

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During a job interview, you will likely be asked a few questions about how you managed your work responsibilities in your previous jobs. A typical question is, "Describe a time when your workload was heavy and how you handled it."

This question can come up in interviews for jobs at all levels, from entry-level to executive. Many jobs have times when the work piles up, and your answer will help the interviewer determine if you are a good match for the position.

What the Interviewer Really Wants to Know

This is an example of a behavioral interview question, asked by an interviewer who is trying to predict how you would handle an issue based upon your behavior in the past. He or she expects you to provide an example of an event that happened previously in your career, including a description of what caused the issue, how you addressed it, and what the results were of your intervention.

TIP: Use the STAR interview response technique to develop your answer to behavioral interview questions.

How to Answer “Describe a Time When Your Workload was Heavy”

When answering the question, “Describe a time when your workload was heavy,” provide a detailed anecdote about how you’ve dealt with this challenging situation in the past. Offer some context into how the situation arose and how you came up with an effective solution.

In your response, include mention of specific problem-solving or time management skills that helped you to handle the heavy workload.

Examples of the Best Answers

Here are some examples of how to answer interview questions about heavy workloads. You can see how each interviewee offers plenty of illustrative details in their anecdotes.

While at the HKL plant, we were faced with a sudden order increase for the j-ball bearing from a new customer. I immediately sat down with the production supervisor, our materials/supply manager, and the union steward. We were able to lay out a workable plan that minimized hourly costs, guaranteed materials were available, and, with only a slight adjustment, met the production deadline. While it was challenging and involved long hours, the payoff was a signed contract with a new customer.

Why It Works: This answer uses the STAR response technique to describe a past Situation, outline the Tasks and Actions involved, and conclude with the positive Results of her actions. She proves that she knows how to proactively use her teamwork, communications, and project planning competencies to handle increased workloads.   

When I was working on a software implementation team at ABC Company, we took over another company and had to transition many clients to a new product in a short amount of time. It took a lot of planning, time, hard work, and effort, but we were able to complete the project in a timely manner.

Why It Works: This response, too, describes how the candidate was able to handle an unanticipated increase in his workload through strategic planning, teamwork, and by increasing the work pace. His tone is calm and measured, avoiding the pitfall of complaining about or over-dramatizing the challenge.    

When Judy was on maternity leave, I took over servicing her clients as well as my own. It was a good challenge to ensure they got the same amount of attention from our company as when both of us were on the job. At times when we had increased demands, I brought in George from accounting to assist in calls and tasks to ensure everyone got good service.

Why It Works: This candidate shows how she has willingly taken on extra work responsibilities in the past in order to accommodate an instance of understaffing. She also shows her ability to think “out of the box” in order to creatively address heightened workloads.   

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

Keep your tone positive and mature. Your interviewer is looking for employees who can react effectively to an increase in workload, without drama or a haphazard handling of the situation. There’s no need to point fingers at coworkers or bosses, or even at yourself.

Maintain objectivity when explaining the circumstances. The cause of the heavy workload should be stated in such a way that you aren't blaming somebody else for a delay or incompetence. If it was due to a co-worker being absent for illness or leave, this is acceptable to mention. Of course, if the heavy workload was due to some positive achievement on you or the team’s part, be sure to include that information.

Highlight your contributions. Explaining how you thought out a plan of action and worked together with others to ensure all contingencies were addressed is a good way to answer this question. Your potential employer will want to know how much of the plan was your idea.

What Not to Say

Don't play the blame game in your answer. If the workload was heavy due to mismanagement, procrastination, or another type of failure, pass by the cause or only discuss it if asked further. Starting off your response by blaming someone else for the situation is a red flag to a hiring manager that you may not be a strong and positive team player.

Don’t offer a confessional. If you were the cause of the problem that led to the work backing up, it's best not to discuss that element unless asked about it directly. "I overslept so I had to do eight hours of work in four hours, at least once a week," is certainly not an answer you want to provide.

Avoid too much drama in your answer. You don’t want it to appear like you were in any way phased or stressed out by the challenge of an unanticipated workload. Rather than elaborating upon how difficult the situation was, simply provide a straightforward account of how you helped to efficiently and effectively resolve it.

Possible Follow-Up Questions

More Job Interview Questions and Answers

The best way to feel confident before heading into an interview is to sit down and practice how you would answer the most common interview questions and answers. Doing so will help to ensure that you aren’t blindsided by a question posed by a member of the hiring committee. If possible, have a friend or family member pose as the interviewer so you can practice answering the questions out loud.

It’s also wise to prepare a list of questions that you would like to ask during your interview about the employer or the specific position to which you are applying. Hiring committees almost always ask the question, “Do you have any questions for us?” at the end of an interview.

The interviewer will expect you to ask a few in order to demonstrate your interest in their company and your enthusiasm for the job they’re offering. If you’re not good at thinking of questions to ask on the fly, take some time to think of your questions now.

Bottom Line

CAPITALIZE UPON THE QUESTION: Use your response to this question to showcase desirable job skills that have helped you to handle difficult workloads in the past. These skills might include soft skills such as teamwork, proactive problem-solving, diligence, and flexibility in assuming extra work responsibilities.

TELL A STORY: Use the STAR interview response technique to illustrate how you’ve dealt with workload challenges in previous jobs.

CONVEY A STRONG WORK ETHIC AND A POSITIVE ATTITUDE: Avoid the temptation to complain about the situation or to blame others. Instead, try to demonstrate your enthusiasm, willingness, and ability to tackle critical problems in the workplace when they arise.

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