how to respond when your boss asks “are you busy?”

A reader writes:

How should I respond when my boss asks me if I’m busy? I’m fairly new to my job in HR/health and safety administration. My company doesn’t have very clearly defined goals for me to meet, but I get the impression that I’m meeting or exceeding all of the standards that have been informally set so far, and I have a review scheduled for next month. But I get anxious when faced with questions like “are you busy?” because I don’t want to say no and look like a slacker, nor do I want to say yes and appear to be unwilling to take on new things. What’s the best response to this?

Similarly, I don’t know how to respond when the same boss occasionally comes into my office and tells me that she’s bored and is having a crappy day. I don’t want to agree (“gee, this job sure is terrible and boring!”) but I don’t want to be rude if she’s just venting (“you’re bored? oh, well, *I* am doing lots of fulfilling and challenging work!”).

Am I overthinking these conversations? I’m probably overthinking again.

From one over-thinker to another, yes.

In the context that I think you’re asking about — a boss popping into your office and asking, “Are you busy?” as opposed to a more serious discussion of workload — really just means “can I interrupt you or is this a terrible time?” It doesn’t mean “are you sitting here with nothing to do?” or “do you have enough on your plate to keep you busy?”

(And of course, from some people it just means “I’m interrupting you and softening it by asking this question first, but let’s discuss what I’m here to discuss regardless.”)

Good responses are:

“What’s up?”

“I’ve got some time — what’s up?”

“I’m keeping busy, but I can make time! What’s up?”

(Yes, I lean heavily on “what’s up?” in this context. It’s a useful phrase.)

Your boss telling you that she’s bored or having a crappy day is a different thing entirely. I’d go with neutral, helpful-ish responses, like “Anything I can do?” in response to boredom and “Sorry to hear that!” in response to the crappy day.

With all of these scenarios, I think you’re feeling more put on the spot than you need to be. The basic posture that you want is pleasant, helpful, and sort of neutral.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Kyrielle

    Also from one over-thinker to another, re “Are you busy?”, another phrase I’ve found is, “Always, but nothing I can’t interrupt. What’s up?” (…yep, I like that phrase too. It’s awesome.)

  2. AB

    I like to go for a glib response… whenever my boss asks me “are you busy” my response is “not if you don’t want me to be”.

    1. Not usually anonymous

      Or, “Not if you need me.”

      My current boss goes with “Got a minute?” and I find that much better. (Even though his “minutes” sometimes last a half hour or more…)

      1. AMG

        For the right person who knows me well enough I can pull off ‘For you Jane, I’ve got five’ (knowing of course that I am kidding and there to help).

      2. AdminAnon

        My boss typically asks if I can do her a favor, which amuses me to no end. I usually make some sort of joke about how it’s not a favor if she’s asking me to do my job. When she does ask if I’m busy (which she will do occasionally), I tend to just say a lighthearted “nope” with a smile–we have a really good relationship, though, and she knows that I am always busy.

    2. LizNYC

      That’s pretty much what I say to my boss (we have that kind of relationship), since I know he’s asking me so he can add something else — and it’s way more urgent — to my plate.

      I’m an overthinker too and I used to think people were gauging how much work I had. I then realized they just didn’t want to come over and start off the conversation with, “I know you’re working, but I need you to do this instead.”

    3. Chinook

      I also go for a glib response of “it depends on what you want” but it is the truth. I won’t know if I have time for something until I know what that something is and weigh it against what else is on my plate.

  3. HR Generalist

    +100 to this post.

    Right away I thought “THIS WAS ME IN MY FIRST YEAR IN THE OFFICE!” (also in HR and a constant over thinker). And a huge plus to Alison’s answer as well – I always respond with “Why, what’s up?” Questions are amazing ways to not quite answer a question.. ha

    1. AMG

      Yes, I do the same thing. I go with , ‘Sure, what’s up’? to the ‘Do you have a minute?’ question so that I don’t give the mistaken impression that it depends on what the other person is about to say. Overthinking? check.

    2. carlotta

      Yes this was me! I noticed that my colleagues always had a minute for the boss, so I realised that I should, too. Even if he was interrupting.

  4. CollegeAdmin

    Another response for “Are you busy?” is, “I’m just working on that new teapot design we talked about yesterday, but I can pause that for a bit if need be. What can I help you with?” That way, you’re showing that you’re not sitting there bored, but you are willing to take on new things if needed.

    1. Janet

      I use a variant of this response when I’m working on something that’s high priority and/or has a tight deadline. It’s a way of letting the boss know that you already have a significant demand on your time, but you can adjust your priorities if needed. That way the boss can either give you the new project if it’s more important or realize that what you’re working on is more critical and find another victim…er, I mean volunteer.

  5. QualityControlFreak

    Yes, it sounds like a leading question, but really it’s just a quick preface to asking for a block of your time. Coworkers will ask me this, often with a sardonic smile or even a chuckle as I really am always busy with something.

    I usually just turn from whatever I’m working on to face them, smile and ask “What can I do for you?”

  6. JC

    OP, is your boss asking you “are you busy” more globally—like, asking, “do you have enough to work on right now?” My boss will ask me this from time to time, and she truly just wants to know if I have enough to keep me busy or if she should give me more to do. If you think that’s the case, just answer truthfully! You can say, “Yes, I have plenty to do with X and Y projects right now,” or you can say, “Project Z is wrapping up, so in a couple of weeks I will have more time I will need to fill.”

    1. Turanga Leela

      This is the spirit in which my boss asks me if I’m busy (and sometimes he literally asks me, “What are you working on right now?”).

      1. JC

        Mine will do that too. She even sometimes sends an email with the subject line of “work,” which I find amusing.

        1. HR Generalist

          Mine used to do this a lot too, when I was new to the office. It used to go both ways – I would go to her office and say “I’ve run out of things to do, if you’ve got anything for me” and periodically she would check in with “Are you busy?” or “Do you need something to do or are you okay?”

          Usually now it’s more in the spirit of “Can I talk to you for a second” then truly “are you busy”, but I guess for OP it could go either way!

      2. AdminAnon

        Mine does that too. We have check in meetings every other week or so, just to catch up on the status of certain projects and for her to add things or help re-prioritize during busy times. She travels a lot, though, so it’s more for her benefit than mine.

    2. Golden Yeti

      My experience is mixed. One manager asks it, but only as a formality to drop stuff off for me to do, or to ask about something. Another asks it more globally like you say–as in, “What are you working on now?” That’s why I’d say it depends on the person asking.

      That’s also why it’s always good to have a backup project you can be working on. You’ll be prepared for either intent.

  7. Katie the Fed

    I ask people this all the time – because I hate to be interrupted if I’m in the middle of something and don’t want to interrupt others. Actually I usually ask “Do you have a minute?” but I was told that was making people nervous like they were being called to the principle’s office so now it’s more like “Do you have a minute to talk to me really quickly about ___?”

    I might also be an overthinker :)

    But yeah, don’t read anyhting into it. It’s a casual approach, so a casual answer is fine :)

    1. SherryD

      When I have to talk to a coworker at another branch about something that will be easier to hash out on the phone, rather than email, I used to email them to say, “Can you phone me when you get a chance?” It was a minor matter, so I didn’t want to interrupt something more important they were working on.

      Then I started to worry that I was making them worry that I had bad news. So now I always say, “Can you call me when you get a chance. It’s about Project X,” so they know not to worry or freak out.

  8. The IT Manager

    I get the “are you busy question?” via IM since I work on virtual teams. If I am in the middle of something quick, I’ll often say “let me just finish this thought” to get a minute so I can finish an email or sentence so whatever I am in the middle is not left hanging.

    Other times I’ll ask people to give me 5 or 10 minutes or I’ll IM them after my next meeting. Easier when they aren’t standing at your desk, but if you’re preparing for meeting or have to complete something ASAP you can do this.

    I agree she’s just using that question as a way to ask for some of your time to talk.

    1. College Career Counselor

      This is where the venerable British sitcom, Are You Being Served?, comes in handy.

      Captain Peacock: “Are you free, Mr. Humphries?”

      Mr. Humphries (looks pointedly around empty store) “Why, yes, Captain Peacock, I am!”

      Theoretically, the “are you free” gives Humphries the option of saying that he’s not.

    2. Connie-Lynne

      I’ve learned that if people IM me with “Are you busy?” or the incredibly more annoying “YT?” I minimize the message and wait to see if they’ll tell me what they want.

      If they don’t (and it’s not someone who I expect to hear from and can therefore guess why they want me), I let the inquiries stack and respond before lunch, bathroom breaks, etc.

      For an in-person “are you busy,” I recognize it as the soft-interrupt it is, and usually say something like “How can I help you?”, “I’ve got a few minutes for you,” “If you can wait five minutes I can chat,” or, if I’m really under the gun, the blunt but true “I’m swamped until Tuesday, but give it to me quick and let me see if I can point you at someone else who can help.”

      1. Connie-Lynne

        …occasionally that last gets a and then I have to say “Oh, dangit, that *is* really important AND time-dependent, too. Gimme a second to figure out what to do…”

  9. Laurie

    If someone asks, I usually go with “Not particularly. What’s up?” or if it’s someone I’m friendlier with, I just go with “Never for you! What’s up?” :)

  10. amp2140

    Also, depending on what you’re doing, asking if they can give you 5 minutes/an hour can help.

  11. LCL

    I have been known to ask “Are you busy?” to interrupt workplace squabbling. Indirect, but the persons asked know they have crossed a line. It is culturally very bad here to tell people to shut up and go back to work, though that is sometimes the best response to those fights that aren’t about work issues.

  12. OP

    Oh this is such a relief! Thanks for answering my letter Alison. I’ll definitely use those “what’s up?” based responses next time.

    I guess I’m anxious to be visibly productive, and I’m not sure if it’s always immediately obvious that I’m getting things done. Most of my work doesn’t really require me to report to anyone, so it would only be clear to my coworkers and manager if I did absolutely no work or made extremely big mistakes. And even those issues wouldn’t be obvious until significantly later, as I learned when I discovered some pretty severe mistakes that my predecessor made that were never caught!

  13. Tinker

    For this one, I usually go with a brief status update sort of thing — “I’m working on the thus and such scripts, and I just got this chunk of interesting information” — in a way where the space after that update is designated for whatever it is that my boss is inquiring about.

    That’s just what tends to arise as a consequence of our respective functions, in that I think that information is apt to be what is relevant to him. The question of what larger image I’m thereby presenting as an employee (which I think might be lurking in the question?) is no doubt involved, but I’m mostly thinking of it as an interaction between people who are doing things.

  14. Gem

    Yeah, the way I see it is a ‘Can I talk to you right now?’ rather than ‘what are you doing?’ but then my managers are also fond of asking what ‘my time looks like [today/this week/etc]’, which means ‘what are you doing/how much work have you got’.

  15. Shell

    If it’s the “can I interrupt you” type of “are you busy”, I usually respond with “what can I do for you?” I don’t go into a spiel of what’s on my plate unless the deadline for current tasks OR new task is extremely tight, and how I manage my worklist is up to me anyway.

    But there’s also a second class of “are you busy” which is “do you have enough work or are you watching paint dry?” in which case it’s totally fine to answer truthfully one way or the other. You can usually tell what kind of “are you busy” your boss is asking about by their tone, and if not, just ask them for clarification.

  16. amaranth16

    I totally interpreted this letter as asking about “are you busy” in the sense of “are you un-busy enough that I can assign you this new piece of work, keeping in mind that the only correct answer is no you’re not busy and yes I can”… but that says more about my workplace than the OP’s.

  17. HeatherHR

    My favorite response to “Are you busy?” has always been “What can I do for you?”. That way, when they detail what they want, I can figure out what priority their request is with my current work and avoid the dreaded “No, I’m busy”

  18. K.

    My old boss always used to come by to give me new assignments with, “What are you working on?”

    And my answers were always either: “[X important task or project with a deadline in the immediate future],” or, “Nothing that won’t keep for an hour, what do you need?”

    A later boss used the, “Are you busy?” variant but since that (short-term) job only used about 10% of my time and my brain I was rarely busy and so I’d usually just go with, “just wrapping this up, what’s up?”

    The “what’s up?” is definitely the way to go almost all of the time. If there really is a major, major looming deadline (like it’s 10:30 and you are desperately preparing things for an 11:00 meeting) then it’s ok to turn the boss down in the short-term but openness to new directives, while acknowledging you are completing your old ones, is key.

  19. Not So NewReader

    On rare occasion, I have said, “No, this machine is on fire over here and I cannot focus on anything else right now.” But this is very rare and I immediately offer a concise explanation for saying no.

    Bored boss. I have had this. “Oh, it’s so boring here today, I don’t know what to do with myself.” It took a while, but I developed a running list of non-urgent things that I needed the boss’ inputs on. I would just pull an item off that list. “Oh, then now is a good time for us to talk about X. I figured we could look at this on a slow day. I would like to fix X up and to do that, I just need a couple questions answered.” One of two things will happen, the boss will answer your questions and go away, OR the boss will suddenly think that this is an interesting project for a slow day and work on it with you.

    Boss having a crappy day. I find it easier to ignore this part if the boss mentions being bored in the same breath. But as others have said, sympathize and just ask if there is something you can do to help make the day a little lighter.

    1. Raptor

      The two best lines for sympathy I’ve found are as follows… When someone comes to you with a problem, you ask them ‘what can I do to help? Or even a more general if they look like they want to say more, but need permission, ‘would you like to talk about it?’. If you want to put your input in on what’s going on, then you first ask ‘would you like my advice?’. And never, ever before. Some people really do just want to vent and don’t really want your input.

      That said, once you utter, ‘what can I do to help?’, and you might get roped into something. Be ready to help if you say that.

      Though I do like Not So NewReader’s comment above about having things sitting around that aren’t priority, but will eventually need boss’s input on anyway, so may as well hand it off then.

  20. MaryMary

    Another thing to keep in mind is that some managers will use an “are you busy” question to guage if you have capacity in general, not just for one specific immediate need. If your manager is asking if you’re busy but thendoesn’t pull you into a specific project or give you a task, she might just be checking in. Especially if you’re new, your manager may be trying to figure out if you’re overwhelmed, bored, or at a happy medium. Usually I use the phrasing “are we keeping you busy” or “do you feel busy” if I’m trying to work out capacity.

    If your manager is asking “are you busy” a lot, without pulling you into something specific, be honest! If you’re happy with your work load, you can say something like “busy, but not crazy busy” or “busy in a good way!” or any of the other great wording people have suggested. Particularly if you manager is keeps asking to check in, I think it’s fine to be direct and ask if she thinks you should be doing more or communicating better about your time.

  21. Noah

    Like other’s have said, usually “are you busy” is said in a way that it is really asking “can I interrupt you for a moment”. In these situations my response depends on who is asking. If it is a coworker or my direct manager I will usually answer “what can I do for you” or “give me 15 minutes and then we can talk” depending on what I am doing at that moment. If it is someone higher up the org chart, like the CEO, my answer is almost always going to be “what can I do for you” because I assume their time is worth more than mine and they are really only asking to be polite.

    On the other hand, my direct manager will also ask “are you busy” during our weekly check in meetings sometimes. What he means is “do you have enough to work on or can I give you new project x?” In this case I answer truthfully, sometimes “I’m slammed with a, b, and c right now” or “let’s discuss project x, I can probably work it in depending on the time commitment required.”

  22. Gene

    My boss asks, “Got a minute?” What he really means is, “I process things by talking about them out loud to someone. It’s your turn.”

    My response is either, “For you? Always.” or “Give me X minutes to finish Y and I’ll be right there.”

    1. LittleMouse

      +1.

      My supervisor and the next boss up BOTH do this. Usually “do you have a minute” means “I’m about to steal an hour of your time, and you’re going to walk away confused and/or with a TO DO list a mile long”.

      I also do an HR/Health and Safety mix (more H&S than HR), and I’m thinking that there truly are no guidelines, objectives, measurables or schedules that we can follow. It’s really a “we’re required to have this program, so go manage it and make it work” thing. I feel your pain!!

  23. Ann Furthermore

    My boss always goes with, “Do you have a minute?” And my rule is to always say yes, unless I’m in the middle of a call or working on something time-sensitive. In those cases I say, “I’m on a call with the Project X team and I’ll be done in half an hour. Can I come see you then?” Or, “I’m right in the middle of testing Process Y. Can you give me 10 minutes to finish running the program?” Your boss may just want to ask you a quick question about something. In my experience, talking about whether your workload or wanting to hand off a new responsibility to you would be done in a more formal one-on-one type meeting.

  24. Susan

    I used to have a “boss” that wasn’t my direct boss but rather my boss’s boss, and very, very rarely she’d shoot me these quick emails like “Hey, are you busy?” and I swear I always happened to be completely swamped at those moments. It was uncanny. Anyone else, I would have easily just told them I was busy, but I feel like when it’s someone you don’t interact with much and who barely asks you for anything, it gives off a bad impression. I was probably way overthinking it too, though. I probably just wanted to impress someone that wasn’t necessarily already familiar with my work ethic. It’s almost the same concept as when you’re new at a job.

    1. Not So NewReader

      In the setting you described, I would give the same answer. The people that do not ask much manage to get me faster. With her being the boss’ boss, that would be two strikes in her favor. I would feel that I really should respond quickly.

  25. dawbs

    It does vary a lot with how the question is asked.
    I usually go with “I’ve been working on teapot handle TPS reports, but I’m interrupt-able” –it answers the ‘what on earth are you doing with yourself’ question but lets boss know I’m happy to switch gears.

  26. kristinyc

    If it’s coming from a manager, I usually go with, “I’m working on ____ right now. Can I help out with something?”
    That way, they can say, “Could you drop that and do this?” or “Oh, that’s more important than what I was going to talk about. I’ll email you/check back later.”

  27. Brittany

    Oh, geez. Flashback to my first week at my first post-grad job:

    Editor, whose role I was taking over: “Hey, are you busy?”
    Me, trying to run a website by myself while she packs up her desk: “No, what’s up?”
    Her: “Come back here. You should *never* be not busy here.”

    I was groaning so loudly internally, I thought the whole office could hear.

  28. Amy

    “It depends” is a vague response that seems appropriate to the vagueness of the question. It leads to more information e.g., I just need a minute of your time or I need you to sit in on this one-hour meeting

  29. quick reply

    I am always afraid of that phrase and have never known the best response. Therefore, I say, “How can I help you?” or “What do you need?” with a smile as I turn to face whoever is asking me the question.
    I avoid a hard “yes” or “no.”

  30. Matt

    I second the most common interpretation that it really just means “can I interrupt you?”.

    I’m also one of those “always” answerers :)

  31. Cheesecake

    I was used to “are you busy?” as in “can we discuss something?”, but my recent boss likes to ask “what are you doing?” and at first i was a bit surprised by why is she asking this at all. But that was her “are you busy?” line :)

    Anyways, rule is: if your boss really wants to talk about your performance, or give you a big new task, it won’t be a casual “are you busy?” line.

    Another thing i noticed, you don’t have a clear goal thus you are anxious and over-react “do i look busy enough? or do i look too busy and unwilling?”. Then you definitely have to set one-on-ones with your boss as frequent as you wish (weekly is the most frequent). Believe me, those second thoughts and unclarity will disappear.

    And the last thing: i think it is good when boss voices stuff like her mood, it helps to be more alert on what you can come to her with. And when she comes to vent, just listen, noone expects you to pro-actively do something about it. I personally find it helpful to vent sometimes, but all i need is to be heard.

    1. Connie-Lynne

      The first time I had a boss who set regular 1:1 meetings, I spent the first six months freaking out before those meetings, sure he was going to tell me all the ways I was failing.

      Eventually I learned that, no, it was just a good idea, given that I was a remote worker, that my boss and I have some time to chat every week or so. But boy, even though those convos were almost always “things are going well, here’s some good feedback I’ve received about you, let’s solve this budget problem together, what else do you need to talk about,” it still took me a long time to be calm about those meetings.

  32. Beezus

    My boss tends to phrase it as a question if it’s a softer request, and a demand if it’s not. (“Do you have a minute?” vs. “Come here, I need you.”) If I get a query, I’ll drop any non time-sensitive task, but if I’m working on something he’s told me is a priority, or something urgent, I’ll tell him what I’m doing so he can decide whether to let me continue or not. I also work in an open office plan, where everyone has trouble concentrating, so if I’m in the middle of something and have good focus, I will tell him that too, because those moments are few and far between and sometimes he’d rather I didn’t lose it. If he doesn’t word it as a question, though, I go immediately unless I’m doing something urgent enough that I’d only drop it for an actual fire drill, then I check. “I’m right at my TPS summary deadline and I just need a few minutes to wrap it up, can I come back to you in five?”

    For anyone else not in the chain of command above me, if I’m asked about my availability, I make them tell me what they need first, and I figure out where to fit it in. If they want me to reshuffle my priorities, and it’s not a firm no, we can visit my boss and he’ll decide whether to accommodate them. (Most of the time, just saying, “I don’t think I’ll have time to do that by Monday morning, but we can talk to Waukeen and see if we can shuffle some things around, unless Wednesday morning is good enough for you” is enough to make them pull back.)

  33. danielle

    I say “what’s up” all the time! It’s an easy, generic response and usually gets people right to the point. I get self-conscious about saying it sometimes though – I’m a 20-something in a HR Manager role, often dealing with folks much older than I am – and I don’t want them to think I’m too casual or appear unprofessional by using slang. I’ll sub “how can I help” sometimes, depending on who’s asking.

  34. Wren

    If my boss asks if I’m busy, I usually say, “what do you need?” (Sometimes preceded by a laughed, “I’m always busy!”) Unless I’m in the middle of something I can’t interrupt, in which case, I say, “I just need to do X first,” then when I’m done I ask, “what do you need?” And then if I have enough information on the priority of the task vs what I’m already doing, I agree to it or explain why I shouldn’t take it on and suggest he ask my coworker, or ask him to set the priorities, either by adding it somewhere on my list or getting my coworker to do it.

  35. Justin

    I like a statement that reveals what you’re doing but also asks what is needed. Something like,

    “Well I’m working on A and B, what’s up?”

    Inject statements about current task urgency if needed.

    That way your boss doesn’t throw something non-urgent in front of something urgent, and can reassign to someone else if you’re too busy. Also it allows them to remember what else you’re assigned to so they can decide if those can be put on hold for the new request. I find most bosses have a general idea but don’t always know exactly what everything is on your plate, especially if you also do work for other departments or managers.

    In general I like it because it starts a conversation and gets a little rapport going, which is good for the relationship.

  36. aaatyy

    My boss would always me EVERYDAY or sometime twice a day ” What is on your hand” or ‘What are you working on’. How should i respond to him? I am relatively new(approaching my 3rd month) and wasn’t task to do a lot of work as compared to my previous place where i am a crazy bee..

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