A reader writes:
For the most part, I really enjoy my job. It is my first job out of university, and I’m well-paid and appreciated and work in a small, tight-knit division. One of my coworkers, “Cecilia,” drives me nuts though. Because my boss, “Jack,” is fairly understanding and flexible about time off and vacations, she takes advantage and regularly takes off two weeks or so almost every two months, often during busy seasons. We are supposed to have three weeks off the entire year, but Jack will let you have time off if work is slow because we work so much during crunch time. I feel terribly because she’s past retirement age and has grandkids and an ailing mother. But every single time she leaves, her work falls to me.
My boss has tried many, many things to accommodate this issue. He switched some of our roles so my work was more stable. He has told her he will not approve absences when key tasks are not done. He has limited approvals for vacations (though family emergencies can’t really be mitigated). However, her area of work is intricate and ongoing, and I’m the only person who has enough knowledge to do it without prompting or diverting too many people, even though I now primarily work in a separate area.
I am deeply, deeply sympathetic to her tragedies, but I cannot keep doing Cecilia’s work for her. This Thursday, she gave notice that she would be out of the country by Monday for yet another family emergency. I’ve asked to speak to Jack about what my role is in Cecilia’s absence. What can I say to show that while I’m a team player, I’m starting to feel as if I am being taken advantage of? I can do the work she does along with my work; it is just terribly stressful, extremely tiring, and I have to help her catch up. How can I say to Jack that I know he is trying his best but I cannot accommodate her at the expense of my well-being and with no extra compensation?
Say this: “I’ve wanted to be accommodating to Cecilia and have put a lot of energy into covering her work when she’s out. However, I’ve been asked to cover for her so frequently at this point that it’s becoming unsustainable for me. When she’s gone, I have to do her work as well as my own, which adds significantly to my workload and takes a lot out of me to keep up with it all. I can do it occasionally in an emergency, but I can’t keep doing it regularly. And even if there were a way to lessen my own work during those times, I want to continue working in Area X, where my job is, rather than being pulled into Area Y to handle Cecilia’s projects. I’m happy to help cover for Cecilia for the normal three weeks we all get off every year, but I’d like to limit it to that. Is that possible?”
Note that you’re not getting into whether or not Jack should be approving all this vacation time for Cecilia; that’s his call. You’re keeping the focus on your part of this, which is that you’re not up for covering for her all the time.
From there, Jack has a few different options: He can take this as a wake-up call that what he’s doing isn’t sustainable for the organization and change how much time off he’s allowing Cecilia to take … or, if he’s committed to allowing Cecilia to take as much time off as she wants, he can hire additional staff to cover for her … or he can find other people already on staff to handle her workload … or he can tell you that you have to suck it up and keep doing Cecilia’s work all the time, in which case you can decide if you’re up for that or whether you’d rather go elsewhere.
But by having this conversation, you’ll push him to deal with the situation, which so far it sounds like he’s been able to avoid because he just sticks you with all the burden.