I don’t want to be the go-to person for everything at work

A reader writes:

I keep becoming the “go-to” person who people rely on for more and more job functions until I’m unable to keep up. I’m the type of person who goes to my own birthday party and ends up fixing one friend’s phone and cleaning part of a different friend’s house before I go home. I like to be busy and helpful, but there are limits.

At work, no matter what my job is at the start, I end up being put in charge of multiple people’s jobs as they leave the company, have sick or maternity leave, or in lieu of hiring more staff. Multiple supervisors have said they like me because they just have to tell me to do something and they know it will be handled.

In my current position, I’m handling the job I was hired for, have taken on all entry-level technical jobs from two other employees who were moved to bigger projects when a contractor quit, am the primary cover for any receptionist shortages, and am a replacement for a part-timer in a different department. I’m doing all of this while also doing project management and supervision that would usually be handled by my boss.

In my previous position, I started out covering for two people. Then when we had a staff shortage, I ended up covering three and a half positions to the tune of almost 200 hours overtime in my last six months.

In the job before that, I ended up covering three peoples’ jobs by the time I quit. And they were still trying to call and see if I would come back when they heard I’d left my last position.

When I was hired in my current job before the pandemic, I was up-front with my current boss that I was leaving my previous job due to the drastically increased schedule, and was assured that it wouldn’t be a problem here and that they didn’t encourage overtime. But here I am.

Coworkers have suggested just being worse at my job or playing up my failure to do the primary job I was hired for, but I hate that idea – in part because when they talk about just not doing parts of their job and how it’s fine, I’m reminded that I’m the reason that it’s generally been fine, as I’ve handled emergencies and cleaned up messes.

I’m very tired of having to job hop for the same reason. How do I find a job that won’t put me in this situation again? Or barring that, how do I change my behavior to keep this from happening? I just want to be able to be good at my job without having to be good at everyone else’s.

I’m not a fan of the “Be worse at your job” advice either — mostly because when someone is very conscientious like you, it’s an impossible suggestion to follow. It can work — and frankly, you’re probably going to have to do some of that, whether you want to or not — but when you’re someone who takes pride in doing good work (and you clearly are), relying on that as your primary strategy can be painful.

Instead, I’d argue that you need to be better at a part of your job that you’re probably not thinking of as part of your job at all: setting boundaries on your time and labor.

It sounds like you have a natural inclination to be helpful and you’re competent, so people are glad to take you up on that. But while it might be beneficial to your employers in the short term, it won’t be in the long run. Not only will you get demoralized, burned-out, and leave faster than you otherwise would, it also means that you’ll be hiding from them the true cost of running their business. It’s not helpful for a manager to think that A, B, C, D, E, and F can all be done by one person and plan their staffing and budgets accordingly, if in fact when you leave they’ll need to hire three people to fill the gap.

The bigger issue, of course, is that it’s a problem for you — for your quality of life and energy levels and job satisfaction. But because you’re someone with a strong tendency to be of assistance, it could help to mentally reframe what you’ve been doing as not actually advantageous for anyone in the long run.

Instead, you need to enforce boundaries on your time and energy — and you probably need to do that even when you technically could find a way to squeeze something in. Get in the habit of assessing what you “can” do based not on how much you could do if you sacrificed all quality of life and joy from your job but on what you can reasonably do in a normal-length workweek without leaving yourself feeling exhausted and exploited at the end of it. The way to do that sounds like this:

“My plate is already full, and I wouldn’t have time to add X.”

“If you want me to do X, I would need to stop doing Y.”

“Just to make sure you know, X hasn’t happened in two weeks, and I won’t be able to get to it in the foreseeable future. I wanted to flag that in case you’d like to bring someone else in to do it.”

“I want to remind you that we agreed I wouldn’t focus on Y because you needed me to prioritize Z.”

“I can do X and Y, or X and Z, but not all three. My plan is to do X and as much of Y as I can get through by the 15th. Let me know if you want me to prioritize them differently.”

“I want to make sure we’re on the same page about my priorities. From what I understand, A, B, and C are the most important things to take care of. Assuming I focus on those, I won’t have time for D and E at all this quarter. I can train Jane to do those, or we could hire help, or we can keep those indefinitely on the back burner until we have another solution. But I want to be transparent that I can’t do all of this, so we need to pick where I should focus and what should be de-prioritized.”

If you’re told to find a way to do it all: “There aren’t enough hours in the day for one person to do all of that, so a lot will need to be on the back burner until I have time, which doesn’t look likely to happen in the next few months — and probably not at all this year unless we hire someone to take over A and B.”

The key, though, is that you then have to be vigilant about sticking to, “Okay, that means I will stop working on X for the foreseeable future.” If you have an impulse to help, that could end up being tricky! You have to get really clear in your own head that you’re committed to solving this on your side, and that means not agreeing to take on more than you want to.

It’s also worth noting that by letting yourself fulfill all your employer’s needs, even ones far outside the scope of your job, you’re preventing them from recognizing the need for any other solution. When you agree to try to do everything yourself, you’re agreeing to be the only one who carries the burden, and it stops feeling urgent to them. It’s better for the organization if things don’t get done. That way, your employer realizes the problem is pressing and finds better ways to address it.

Part of approaching it this way likely means that you need to be less emotionally invested in doing a good job. You sound like you’re dedicated to helping things run smoothly — but it doesn’t make sense for you to be more dedicated than your management is! Remind yourself that if they really care about keeping things running smoothly, they can redirect resources accordingly (i.e., hire more help). You are a person they hired to do a specific job, not the person in charge of making everything work.

Now, sometimes people worry that they can’t set boundaries like this without some sort of dire consequence to their career. But it sounds like you’ve been highly valued at all your jobs. As an exceptionally competent employee who has proven their value, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be fired for saying that, in fact, you are not superhuman and that there are limits to how much you can do. Your managers might not like it, and they might grumble, but you’re not likely to get in any serious trouble. And if a manager does react badly to this kind of reasonable boundary-setting from a productive employee, that’s a sign that you need to get out anyway, because there will always be serious toxicity there.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 302 comments… read them below }

  1. Sloanicote*

    I really like the title at The Cut better: “I don’t know how to say “NO” at work.” Revealing.

    1. Gerry Keay*

      Yes, the fact that this has happened at multiple jobs AND OP reports this being a trend in their personal life indicates that setting boundaries might be something OP needs to get more comfortable with overall.

      1. Fran Fine*

        Yup, this.

        It’s okay to say no, OP, and to let balls drop. That’s usually the only thing that lights a fire under a manager’s behind to hire more staff. Why would they bother when they know you’re going to bend over backwards to get it done at the same rate they hired you in at?

        1. Sloanicote*

          I’m passionate about this letter after a career in nonprofit, which creates and facilitates attitudes like OP’s. I’ve seen a lot of people burn out without ever understanding what happened or how or why. It’s an intersection of people who desperately want to help and underfunded, urgent needs.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            So true. I’m seeing a post-covid shift in this mindset but I have a hard time believing it’s sustainable.

            1. Eldritch Office Worker*

              Immediately regretting the word sustainable – it SHOULD be sustainable, but without PPP loans and the world returning to “normal” whatever that means, I suspect we’ll see a revert back to the pre-covid expectations on those nonprofit workers that might have gotten a break.

          2. calonkat*

            I grew up with a parent who was a museum director (and volunteer at multiple other non-profits) in a rural area. I grew up thinking it was normal to have your family be voluntold to help with work things (newsletter prep, cleaning, stuff that would be too identifiable). It’s a really hard mindset to get out of, especially because some bosses will take advantage with most of the “rewards” of a non-profit (we value you, we couldn’t get by without you, wish we could pay you what you’re worth (or anything)). Honestly, the only thing that really started changing my mindset was having a boss (in government of all places) who was clear that I shouldn’t do more work than I was able in my workday without permission and that I should ask for help when needed.

          3. Quickbeam*

            I just retired from a job where they were *shocked* to have to hire 2 people to replace me. Job creep had gotten so bad that I was waiting to be asked to handle the HVAC issues at work. When I would push back it took a huge amount of emotional currency for me. Just glad I was old enough to retire.

        2. ArtsNerd*

          One of the hardest lessons for me to learn is that sometimes things need to fail SPECTACULARLY before management will take steps to rectify exactly this situation. See also: “I can’t leave because the project/organization will fail entirely.” (I did, and it did. But once I was out it was so clear to me that the failure wasn’t my fault in the slightest.)

      2. Specks*

        Exactly this! OP, would you be open to reading some books about boundary setting? There are lots of great ones out there. And, as with most situations, it sounds like some therapy would benefit, particularly figuring out if you maybe stake your value on being needed a bit too much?

      3. OhNoYouDidn't*

        Agree. This is something that a life coach or a counselor might be able to help with. Setting boundaries is a crucial life skill. Where those boundaries should lie are different from person to person, but everybody needs them.

    2. Antilles*

      That’s a more honest post title, really. There are certainly workplaces with wildly unreasonable expectations of staff doing five people’s jobs…but with OP continually running into these workplaces, it’s the old saying about “the common denominator in your struggles is you”.
      The one that really makes me blink is the current position. OP is apparently trusted enough to handle important project management/supervision…but also fills in for the receptionist and does the work of a part-timer from a completely different department? Wait, what? Really?

      1. Rachel 2: Electric Boogaloo*

        Not to mention all the entry-level technical work. I’m exhausted just reading that list!

      2. Spoo*

        It almost makes it sound like OP isn’t just assigned these jobs but jumps in when they see something not covered

            1. Darsynia*

              I think this is a case of the person meaning to say ‘their,’ as in ‘None of that is their concern’

      3. Rose*


        OPs coworkers are telling her that they’re able to manage their workloads by deprioritizing less urgent/important tasks and OP is frustrated because that means she winds up picking them up. She seems to view the issue as colleague laziness when the real issue either her inability to prioritize or to say no. If someone else has decided an aspect of their job isn’t that important, why would you rush to start doing it?

        1. ArtsNerd*

          I had to do this, but it was also an office of 4 FTE (full-time equivalent employees. Many of my coworkers were part time). OP’s employer sounds like quite a bit bigger office!

      4. Elizabeth West*

        I swear, I just saw a job post that looked exactly like this. Like, really; if you’re doing project management work, you shouldn’t be subbing for the receptionist unless the entire workplace has only three people.

        I also think some companies call a job a project manager or coordinator (or whatever slightly higher level job title they can get away with), and then they classify it in their system as an admin. This means they can make them do stuff like that and justify paying the employee a lower salary. “Well Jane does X and Y and that’s general admin work, so she is in the grade 2 salary band.”

      5. tamarack and fireweed*

        I agree with the boundary-setting advice, but I would also keep in mind that the failure isn’t only with the OP. A lot of bosses are perfectly happy to have an employee around who is super flexible and never says no to jumping in to fill a gap – even one that’s far out of their main duties. Or should I say her main duties, because this isn’t a gender-neutral problem in many cases. So the managers stop giving the career development of people like the OP less attention and support, and they keep stagnating at “jill of all trades” – ever exhausted, and feeling indispensable to the running of the place.

        My advice would be threefold:
        1. The boundary setting that Alison rightly put up front
        2. In this case a general status conversation with the manager that goes back to what was said at the outset. ‘They said it wouldn’t be a problem in this job, yet here we are” needs to get to the ears of the manager.
        3. Career planning with the manager as a guideline that helps decide what tasks to take on and which ones to bounce over into the someone-else’s problem field.

        (I’ve been there, too. I’m a generalist in an area where many make careers out of being very narrow specialists. It takes attention and planning.)

    3. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      Ugh I’m out of my monthly allowance so I can’t read Allison’s reply. I actually really need this one! I’m the employee that’s been at my job the longest, so people keep asking me how to do things to the point that it interferes with my own work.

      1. As per Elaine*

        Here’s advice that I’ve given someone in my own life who has problems with spending too much time helping more junior employees get their work done: You probably need to stop thinking about “the most efficient use of time” and start thinking about “the most efficient use of MY time.”

        Yes, it will take Cecil two hours to do X on his own, and it will take you only 20 minutes to help him do it. But if you spend your whole day on those 20 minuteses, you don’t have any day left, and if you’re the person who knows how to do all the things, your time is more valuable to the company than that of all the Cecils (in opportunity cost, if not in actual pay).

        How can you arrange your work life so that the time spent helping your coworkers is maximally efficient FOR YOU? Instead of helping Cecil find the problem, tell Cecil that you would look in the error message to find the database name, and then look for errors on that database. Instead of helping Ann figure out what plants should be on the green roof, ask Ann to bring you a proposal that you can offer suggestions on.

        You’ll probably also need to work on being less available. This might look like blocking off time on your calendar and *sticking to that,* or it might look like a conscious decision to not respond to requests for help the instant they come in, in favor of focusing on your own projects. (With luck, being less available may also help train your coworkers to look for solutions that don’t involve waiting for you to get back to them. As long as this doesn’t lead to cutting corners on important things, this is good!)

        1. CM*

          This is great advice, and I want to emphasize the “ask Ann to bring you a proposal” part… if you’re a naturally helpful type, people will come to you because it’s such a pleasant experience and their work gets done with little effort on their part! You can counteract this by asking them to do a task. For example, if someone comes to you with a “quick question,” you can say, “Sure, can you write up an email with the question and a list of what you’ve tried so far, and then I’ll take a look?”

        2. Boof*

          I was going to say, having a sort of “office hours” (essentially blocking in or blocking out time) for helping stuff may make sense

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        I can really relate to this from my grad student days. When I was the senior student in our research lab, I really wanted to pay forward all the help I had gotten along the way from students who were ahead of me. But it was hard to find a balance between supporting them and also getting my work done (which often required uninterrupted reading or writing time).

        I ended up gently instituting a rule. They could only ask me about things that they couldn’t figure out themselves with 3 minutes of investigating with Google, reference books, etc. (And yes, if they asked questions, I tried to point them towards how I would go about solving the issue, since that was going to help them more in the long run than if I just told them the answer).

        It worked like a charm! I got interrupted way less. They still asked me questions that were reasonable, and started preemptively telling me the steps they had already taken to try to figure things out. Of course, it helped that the junior students were both good people.

          1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

            It might make sense in other contexts to have a different cutoff time. Most of what I did was plugging away at giant long-term things. So some level of disruption wasn’t going to cause me immediate problems that week. In other contexts, 20 minutes might make more sense.

    4. Not A Girl Boss.*

      Ugh, this one hit so close to home for me. I’m definitely someone who receives praise for “just handling things” and “driving to closure” etc, but it is so frustrating to have that nature taken advantage of.

      After working 80+ hour weeks in my job for 9 months and receiving constant kudos, I went to my boss with a proposal that he promote me to “senior” and hire a second person to assist me. This isn’t out of left field, they’ve been “meaning to” hire a second person for the position for 9 months. Of course because I didn’t make it really painful for them, they were never motivated enough to make it happen.

      In response, I was told “no one asked you to do all that extra stuff,” and lectured on how I can’t just “unilaterally decide” to jump into projects (never mind that I’m asked to jump into them by people at my boss’ boss’ level).
      Then HR took me out for lunch to give me advice on how to be better at saying no.

      And for a long time after that, I was paralyzed because suddenly a personality trait I was praised for was “bad”.
      And I’d struggle to work up the courage to say “no” to things…. And people would trample all over me. Disrespect my boundaries or throw temper tantrums on me. I’d go to my boss and ask for help prioritizing or pushing back, and he’d say he “trusts my judgement” on what to prioritize.

      And I’m finally at the point where I just reject it all. It’s not my job to stand up to a bunch of people’s requests. It’s not fair to put it all on me to say no all the time, and then blame me for prioritizing the wrong thing. It’s a boss’s job to help prioritize and manage work, and to provide a backup. Because at this point, no longer putting in the extra hours, backlogs are getting longer and longer and I spend more time explaining why things aren’t done yet than actually making progress.

      1. Not A Girl Boss.*

        All of that being said, here are 2 things that really did help me say no more:

        1) realizing that it’s my boss’ job to run as efficient of a team as possible, which means getting as much work out of me as possible. He’s just doing his job, and I’m just doing mine by saying no and letting him deal with the consequences (it’s his choice to let them fall or hire someone new, it’s not my job to protect him from that choice).

        2) I read about the drama triangle. Basically it says all drama comes from a social structure of villain/victim/hero. But if we can reframe that in our mind to critic/creator/coach, we will be much better off. It’s a form of disrespect to make all these people victims I swoop in to save. If I actually respected them, id trust they were capable of doing the job if I just take the time to coach them.
        By making myself a hero, I am making other people victims. And why would I want to create victims?

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Really, really good stuff here, NAGB.

          I especially like the part about swooping in to save people. Ya know, an odd thing happens when you do that. They don’t feel saved. Matter of fact, all they do is give you more to do. That “high” or that satisfaction of being a “hero” only lasts a very short time. It doesn’t take long to feel like an overloaded dump truck with flat wheels, because of carrying too much load that everyone has dumped on the back of the truck.

          I also did too much. Eh, I know how. I grew up in a family where a lot of stuff fell down to me. So I started young. I had a weird sense of obligation that I had to shake off.

          Random rules I now follow:
          I hand out fishing poles, not fish. I will teach someone with the expectation that at some point in the near future they will do it on their own.

          I don’t help people who do not want help. These are folks who have not tried a single thing on their own OR have a long pattern of feebly trying some things and then giving up. These are also folks who do not write things down and have to repeatedly ask. Some of these folks are so blatant that you can actually watch them burn out other cohorts before they get to you.

          I do not need to fill every vacancy or every need I see. I don’t consider myself a super-observant person. But somehow I seem to notice a lot of stuff that (perhaps?) others don’t notice. Just because I notice it does not mean I have to fix it.

          If I reach the point where I no longer feel good about myself or my work, then I gave too much and I should have stopped giving a while ago. The two go hand-in-hand. Give too much then develop resentment for the job. I recognize that I can create my own problems if I do not keep myself in check and follow some guidelines.

          Now here’s the selfish component. How’s your career going, OP? It sounds like it’s zigzagging all over- the straight line of progression isn’t always clear. Every time we take on any ol’ task we see, we dilute our career path, we lose our direction.
          On the surface it looks like we are helping people and that feels good in the moment. But over time, all we have done is weakened our ability to grow and progress in our chosen line of work. And this causes upsets and it causes quitting. Sometimes we can conflate two very different activities: we can confuse helping other people as meaning we are helping ourselves. In some cases, not all, people can be hoping someone will come along and help them the way they are helping others. That very seldom works out.

          If you like the level of work you are at now, then no problem. But if you do not want to be stuck at this level for the rest of your life, then start now handling things differently. Wade in, take one idea you see somewhere in all the posts and start with that idea. Then gradually add in more and more boundaries. Decide to help YOU first, before you help anyone else.

          1. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

            … somehow I seem to notice a lot of stuff that (perhaps?) others don’t notice. Just because I notice it does not mean I have to fix it.

            Ooh yes, I like this way of thinking about it.

            1. AnonPi*

              Ditto. I have a hard time with this because I’m very much a problem solver and want to get sh** done kind of person. Then I get frustrated because the people I need on board to help fix it will argue about it (typically argue that I’m wrong and have to prove to them that no there really is a problem here’s the proof). It’s been hard for me to step away from that.

            2. coldfingers*

              same…I need to put the statement “Just because I notice it does not mean I have to fix it.” on my monitor in big bold letters…

          2. AnonPi*

            My problem with the “those that don’t want to help themselves” types is they then go to our boss and complain I wont’ help them (I was once called a b**** because after 4th email asking questions we’d already been over, I emailed them the quick guide and said to check in here because it has all the info they need). And boss just makes excuses for them and typically turns it around on me and that it’s my fault/problem to deal with. But I know it’s one part of a very dysfunctional office and I’m working on getting out and finding something better. It’s just frustrating to deal with when managers won’t manage their employees because they don’t want to.

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              You need to leave. Are you allowed to take vacation time, or constantly pressured to work while sick? If so, you need to find some other place to not be the ‘go to person’.

  2. Sloanicote*

    I think anyone could have this problem in one role: if you’ve got a good track record, especially if others don’t, you can get more and more dumped on you because it’s easier than dealing with the problem in other ways. But OP has this issue at multiple jobs and even outside of work, like at birthday parties, which means it’s an OP problem. Are you naturally a fixer or helper in all your relationships, OP? Are you attracted to people who seem to need you? Is this coming from low self esteem or a sense that your needs aren’t important – perhaps because your family treated you this way as a child? I actually think therapy might be valuable here if any of these questions are resonating for you; some people, particularly women, will be stuck in a people-pleasing, self-effecting attitude until they untangle the motivations behind it.

    1. CrankyPants*

      This is my life. I recently had to point out to my bosses that I had 2 full time and 3 part time jobs with them when they tried to add something else.

    2. That girl*

      This is definitely something I NEED to consider. I too, like the OP have a very difficult time setting boundaries and telling people, “no”. I find it very difficult and so what happens with me at work is that I end up being the go-to for a lot of things. Filling in for the project manager, writing reports and reviewing documents that are actually other peoples’ work. It has gotten to the point I have to manage work from by direct boss, the head of my department and our grand boss (who has told me essentially that he is my *only* boss when I’ve complained about not being able to do it all). I have been promised promotions but I honestly feel that my bosses prefer to keep me where I am at because it really doesn’t serve them as it will be very difficult to replace me.

    3. Brightwanderer*

      Yes, and I’m very struck by how this part is phrased: “I’m the type of person who goes to my own birthday party and ends up fixing one friend’s phone and cleaning part of a different friend’s house before I go home”.

      Ends up is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. I can think of a few ways to reframe it, depending on the circumstances:

      – “I have a lot of friends who are so confident that I will put aside my own needs to serve theirs that they don’t think twice about asking me to fix their phone or clean their house at my own birthday party”
      – “I am so uncomfortable being celebrated or appreciated that I go out of my way to look for ways to serve people at my own birthday party”
      – “I am so accustomed to serving people that I can’t switch it off, and once I notice a way I could serve them better, I can’t not do it”
      – “I am afraid that if I don’t serve people to the best of my ability at all times they won’t want or need me anymore”

      … and OP, that is no way to live. To quote a very wise cartoon (She Ra): “You are worth more than what you can give to other people”.

      1. Batgirl*

        These are good rephrasings; my bet was “ends up” is like the Big Bang episode where just showing Sheldon Cooper a messy closet gets his friends free closet organisation. I am hearing nothing about pressure or coercion for OP to do anything the OP doesn’t want to do. Most people would be aghast at the very idea of doing these roles, but OP actually tried hard to get all the plates spinning? They want to be “helpful”…at their own birthday party and “hate” the idea of dropping some balls when severely overloaded, because they are the only person who can pick them up again, right? I agree the OP shouldn’t get deliberately bad at their own job, but they shouldn’t be picking up the slack of others, and is anyone actually making them?

      2. Smithy*


        In personal and work circle, there can also be an anxiety of what happens when there’s a moment of not having anything to do. There’s a quiet moment at work when I don’t have much on my plate or a moment in a party where no one’s talking to you. And instead of taking that pause to exhale, pause and review at work or at a party take a quiet moment, there’s a huge discomfort that the pause will take over and someone will be let go as not longer being useful. Or their friends no longer have any interest in them.

        Therefore, instead of taking advantage of those breaks as a regroup moment, there’s a rush to fill them with something. Be it doing the dishes at a party or offering to take on more and more duties at work because there was a slow afternoon.

        This is where the advice of being “bad” at a job is actually quite flawed and if there is any mental health unwiring that needs to happen….would benefit from happening first. If you’re hired to groom llamas and are confident that you’re good at grooming llamas, then if one week your appointments are down 25% then you’re able to reflect that it’s likely cause of a mix of bad weather and an upcoming holiday and just enjoy the slowness, knowing that your scheduling will pick up because you’re good at grooming llamas. You don’t take that slower week as a sign you also should take on IT support and filing tax paperwork as a way to showing your overall worth to the company that hired you to groom llamas. Being bad at IT support/filing tax papers/whatever as a way of showing your company that you’re good at grooming llamas is both wonky at best but also puts you in a position to hear more negative things about yourself. And focus less on being a good llama groomer.

      3. Chriama*

        Ooh, those reframed phrases are powerful! I also agree that this seems to be an OP thing, not a job thing, and that they need to look inward at themselves before they can address the external situation.

      4. turquoisecow*

        There’s a big difference between these two scenarios:

        Friend: Oh yeah, I’d look that up on my phone but I’m having a problem with it. I guess I’ll take it to get fixed tomorrow.
        OP: oh I know how to fix phones, let me see. *fixes it*


        Friend: *opens door* “Happy Birthday OP! I’m so glad you’re here! Can you fix my phone?”
        OP: “I guess….”

        In the first case it’s easier for OP to step back and offer suggestions or stay silent rather than taking on the task of fixing that they don’t want to do. In the second case the OP needs to set boundaries with their friends or maybe get new friends if they keep getting roped into doing things they don’t want to do. In either case, though, it’s bad that it’s messing with their free time as well as their work time! I do agree that therapy would probably help because these sorts of ingrained habits are hard to break either way.

    4. Nanani*

      Yeeep and then promotions, bonuses, etc., roll around based on how many llamas you groomed, but the pleasers spend so much time making the office run smoothly that they don’t get as many llamas groomed as Bob, even though Pleaser COULD do way more than Bob if she, yknow, had a full day’s worth of time to do so instead of taking care of all these extra tasks that management doesn’t want to actually hire for.

    5. JamminOnMyPlanner*

      I’m definitely not near as extreme as OP, but I also have trouble keeping boundaries at work.

      I think the main reason is I’m single with no kids. Three of my colleagues are single moms, and the other one is (frankly) lazy. I end up taking on extra work because, well, someone has to! My boss has noticed and he wants to compensate me with a bonus, but unfortunately, the business isn’t doing well right now, so there’s just not the money.

      1. Nanani*

        Actually, the someone who has to could be the manager, or a new hire!
        It does NOT have to be you!

        Your boss is all aw shucks there isn’t be money to reward you, but what if you weren’t available either? Your boss would have to step up, do their job, and hire enough people to do the work instead of dumping it on you with a sketchy excuse based on out-of-work factors.

      2. TeaCoziesRUs*

        If your boss wants to reward you, then there are other ways than money to do so! They can give you a day or two of extra vacation time, strongly encourage you to take a mental health day (or a few extended lunches) if you’ve worked yourself to the bone over the last few weeks to get something big knocked out. Even enough time to take a walk around the block or go to a nearby park to sit and listen to birds on a slow day would be refreshing! They could give you a couple hours a week to take a free or cheap course that interests you (bonus points if it furthers your career, but so long as it fuels your curiosity then enjoy it!), etc. You can find a lot of free courses through a library – at least 2 in my recent past have given patrons access to the Great Courses program.

        Take money out of the picture – are there other ways the boss or company can reward you? Are there ways that don’t require a lot of money that can reward you? (Even something as cheap as a nice new pen, or access to an app behind a $10 paywall can show you that you’re valued without hitting the budget too badly.) Are there things that would be less than the cost of a raise but still a bit spendy – like a conference dedicated to a professional goal in a fun place to visit, or the opportunity to volunteer to open a site in a fun place – with an extra day or two off to explore said city on your own dime?

        I see too many bosses saying, “Gee, I value you but a raise just isn’t in the budget right now.” They’re not thinking of other ways to reward you! Help encourage their creativity by thinking about ways they can reward you with time, rather than money, and give your boss a list. If they value you, they’ll take them into account.

      3. Reluctant Mezzo*

        And this means you will never be rewarded for picking up the slack, because you’re doing it for no extra reward already. Now that the boss knows you’ll keep on doing it, why bother to reward you?

  3. Reluctant Manager*

    I used to tell my colleagues, and now I tell my staff (and my spouse, when they’ll listen), that if there is a gap between what can be done and what needs to be done…. Don’t throw yourself in it. If something can’t get done without jeopardizing your health, sanity, or willingness to do your job, then it can’t be done–so skip the part where you sacrifice yourself and get on with finding the real solution.

    Not easy to do when there doesn’t seem to be a real solution and leaving it undone seems impossible. But it’s a goal.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      “if there is a gap between what can be done and what needs to be done…. Don’t throw yourself in it.”

      I’m filing this with “don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.”

      1. Sloanicote*

        Right! I think OP may need to re-calibrate her sense of what “doing a bad job” means, because I feel like she may have interpreted “don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm” as “just phone it in and do terrible work.” We’re saying, “set and maintain healthy boundaries for the sake of the product and your own sustainability.”

        1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

          I would bet a package of cheap-ass rolls that OP’s coworkers are saying something like “stop doing so many things outside your job description” but what OP is hearing is “do a bad job” because they subconsciously equate “doing a good job” with “making sure nothing remains undone.”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            If OP has a written job description it might be a good idea to keep it handy and review it on a weekly basis until it starts to make more sense as to what is and what is not OP’s job.

      2. Chilipepper Attitude*

        These are both great things to keep on hand as need!

        “if there is a gap between what can be done and what needs to be done…. Don’t throw yourself in it.”

        I’m filing this with “don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.”

    2. GlitsyGus*

      Yeah, that is a great way to put it.

      OP, I would see how often you actually end up volunteering for these things as well. I realized at some point that when my manager would say, “we need someone who can cover X” if I knew how to do it I would say, “I can do that.” Well, then, I essentially volunteered to do it FOREVER. Even if I meant “if you are really stuck I can do it FOR TODAY ONLY.” Just don’t volunteer for stuff, especially very entry level stuff. Or at least wait and see if anyone else will speak up first. I really did not realize how often I was doing this until I stopped, so it’s just a thought.

      Also, when you are asked to do something, remember that no one will know it’s too much if you don’t tell them! your manager doesn’t have your load memorized.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Ha, I kick my boss in external meetings all the time to remind her NOT to volunteer for everything. That’s just the way she is. What she doesn’t see is that she’s actually quashing everybody else’s initiative and enabling/ disempowering them – why should they offer any resources when she’s always diving in to take everything on for free?

        1. Jenni*

          Yes, when you stop doing something you’ve always done, or don’t volunteer, y0u’re giving someone else a chance to get that experience. And that’s true for jobs, church, other volunteer opportunities, etc. Just because you don’t do it doesn’t mean it won’t get done, and if that’s what happens, it doesn’t seem like it was that important.

          1. Raine*

            The hardest part about learning not to jump in and do things is having the grace to walk away when someone takes longer to get it done. Yes, it can be frustrating to walk someone hunt-and-peck their way through a task you could get done in 20 minutes, but a) why are you still standing there when you could be doing something else and b) they’ll never learn and get faster if you’re always standing there, holding their hand.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              They will never pick up speed unless they are repeatedly allowed to do the task.

              The flip side is that at some point, a looong time ago, is that someone looked at me through the same lens. It was painful to watch me work so slow. I never thought I was slow back then. But I was.

      2. Cascadia*

        I used to be the volunteer until I was so overwhelmed at work I had no time to get anything done. One of my coworkers kindly took me aside during a freak-out and explained to me that my problems were of my own making because a) I never said ‘no’ and b) I volunteered for everything I was remotely qualified to do. This got me quite a positive reputation at my company, while also destroying my work-life balance. It took a lot of intentional resetting, and actually switching of some roles at my current job to get me to a much better place. I’ve really taken that to heart, and hardly ever volunteer for things. I’m much happier, I’m still doing great at work and have a stellar reputation, and I only do the one job I was hired for.

    3. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Boy I needed to hear that… six weeks ago. It’s a good framing, and I’m going to tuck it away for next time.
      I’m a LOT better telling my team this than telling myself.

  4. oranges*

    If this has happened at multiple places, this is a YOU issue. (Which I say with great kindness.) And if this is also happening in your personal life, this is a bigger, life issue. I’d recommend finding a good therapist to help with boundary setting and identifying the line between “helping people brings me joy” and “my inability to say no is literally killing me”. That person is out there, and LW very much needs it.

      1. heyo*

        Absolutely. I’ve spent the past year in therapy focused on my work boundaries, and it’s been a huge, huge help.

    1. Artemesia*

      Most businesses will happily take advantage of doormats who are willing to burn themselves out doing it all and not being paid or promoted for it either. Set yourself on fire and they will toast marshmallows. The way to deal having made this mess, is for the OP to set boundaries one new task at a time. First NEVER jump in to reception. — ‘oh I can’t do that, the TPS deadline is today’. Then when a new project is not covered start using Alison’s lines. But first, stop doing low level work that makes you the ‘office girl’.

      1. Metadata minion*

        And in the most generous possible interpretation, if you keep saying yes when asked to do things, they’ll assume you have space on your plate for them, especially if you’re the kind of person who volunteers for things because you want to be helpful/agreeable/not have to deal with the thing not happening. (I say this as someone who also compulsively volunteers for stuff and has lately gotten much better about not doing that.)

      2. Caroline Bowman*

        Being ”office girl” (or gender neutral worker bee, though of course it IS so often worker girl rather than boy) is so, so hard to get out of once you’re in. It literally sucks you back in and sticks like honey mixed with glue. If one has ever been a receptionist, getting away from it completely often takes at least two complete job changes if one stays at a company, because every time the receptionist is sick, or out, or in the loo, guess who needs to be a team player and pitch in?? That’s right!

        Those lower-level jobs are super-hard to stop doing because no one else wants to do them, they have seen you doing them many times and why are you being so difficult? Would it kill you just to cover the phone and maybe organise meeting room availability because gosh, I have no idea how that works. Also, the guy who cleans the fish tanks is here, can you… you know, let him onto the various floors? Oh man, it took me years. Years.

        1. Raine*

          Yeah. It took me finding a job where my role was strictly “these responsibilities and nothing else” to hammer home that volunteering to do anything outside of those boundaries did me no favors, which made saying, “Yes, I know how to be a receptionist and a llama herder but I only want to be a llama herder” a lot easier for the next job.

        2. Galactic Teabag*

          “Worker Bee” might seem like a gender neutral term, but interestingly, in most species of bee, the workers are all female as well…

      3. Mr. Bob Dobalina*

        Oh so true… the doormat burn-out, the office girl, etc. Upon reading OP’s letter, I was immediately thinking of that position one sees in small companies, which I will call “office assistant” – the admin type person that ends up being the office catch-all, the temporary receptionist, the general coverage, the extra help to understaffed departments, managing those special projects that no one else wants or has time for…Yep. I’ve seen that person at every small company that I have worked for. Starts off with a (usually young) capable eager accommodating person who eventually either gets promoted into a defined position in a particular dept OR quits for a new job elsewhere. Always gets a heap of hodge-podge work. As others have said, this is really about the OP’s behavior and what the OP creates, permits, accepts and accommodates.

        1. Fran Fine*

          This was how I started in my career (as on overworked, but underpaid Office Assistant). It took years to get away from that kind of thing, but 12 years later, I’m a comms manager and that’s the only thing I do, lol.

        2. Dana Whittaker*

          Indeed. My last position was office manager/AP/AR/billing/facilities/whatever. I could go from applying for a PPP loan to managing replacement of half the building’s HVAC units in 10 minutes. I am used to pivoting and taking on everything from emptying a hoarder’s house to managing the company holiday mailing of 250+ cards the week before Christmas.

          (My replacement does billing. That is all. And they neglected to water all the office plants so they ALL DIED. Who does that?!)

          In my current position, I have found myself approaching a panic attack when I see a co-worker who doesn’t have the ability to anticipate the related pieces to a specific task (updating report A means you should pull out checklist B, and also update data sheet C, etc.). Reading all of these replies with a notebook to write down all these great points.

    2. MicroManagered*

      Yes. So much of this dynamic relies on “the fixer” not realizing she’s co-creating the problem through inability to say no. It FEELS like you can’t just sit by and let a task go un-done, but you can. If you don’t fix someone’s phone, they will ask someone else or call tech support. If they’re attending your birthday party, they already like you and won’t die if you don’t fix their phone.

      Ask me how I know.

    3. Not that other person you didn't like*

      I’m very much like this letter writer and have spent decades teaching myself to say no (easier, honestly) and stay out of other people’s problems in order to try to solve them (much, much harder). I love solving problems and helping people, but it’s very easy to not solve your own or help yourself. And when I think about where this tendency came from in my own childhood, I can see how it’s unhealthy if I’m not careful. My own therapist has been super supportive with this process.

    4. NYWeasel*

      I used to be afraid that if I said “No” people would be upset, angry, not like me. But I’m finding that when I maintain clear boundaries, it actually improves my relationships. I’m not tired, I don’t resent the “askers” and I’m actually able to guide my energies to things that make the most difference. Occasionally someone really begs but because I’ve clarified my position, it’s easy for me to explain.

      “I need to focus on X for the quarterly reports, but if it’s super important you can ask Jane if there’s a way to prioritize your ask.”
      “I’d love to do that for you but I’m booked up over the next two weeks. Can it wait until Y?”
      “I’m sorry, I wish I could help, but I’ve already made promises to (help Derek paint his son’s room/support Teapots United Fundraiser/pick Suzy up at the airport)”

      PS: If the other task is that you simply want to veg out watching tv, that’s totally fine. Just keep the explanation vague and clearly firm. “Sorry, I have a family obligation tonight so I can’t help you with your bake sale.”

      1. Not So NewReader*

        One thing that sometimes people can forget- honesty. People genuinely want to know if we are okay taking on one more thing. If they have never heard us say NO then there is a bit of doubt. But if people know we can and will say NO then they also see that when we say “Yes, no problem” then it probably is actually no problem.

  5. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

    I think you have more control over your work hours then your work “content”. So you can’t control what your bosses ask you to do, but you can control your overtime. Refuse to work unpaid overtime. Work only the normal office hours. If you can’t do everything in that time (hint, you can’t), ask your boss how to prioritize. Don’t essentially become an evening/weekend volunteer at your normal job.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I’m glad the LW gets OT, but almost 200 hours overtime in my last six month is a lot. That’s around 30 extra hours a month so 75% of an whole extra week each month or around an extra 8 hr work day per week. Then LW burns out and quits.

      LW needs to refuse to do unreasonable overtime; that what limits how much you can do or extra you can to take on.

      Or do not do any OT for tasks that were not her original role. I don’t have time in my day/schedule for extra job. if it mean you have to stay late.

    2. Anonymous Koala*


      I’m like this too, and one thing that really helped me was holding fast to the 8 hour day. Now I work for eight hours, and when they’re up, I stop working and shut down my computer. When I’m asked to take on new projects, I think about them in terms of hours. Before committing to a new project, I ask myself how it will fit into my 8 hour day. My personal schedule allows this and my office culture supports work/life balance, so that also helps enormously – I wouldn’t be able to do this if I was juggling caregiving responsibilities during work hours or in a more dysfunctional office environment. But if your bosses support it, OP, sticking to prescribed work hours might really help.

      1. CPA*

        Ha! When I read that I thought… that’s less than 50 hours a week. That’s not a lot.

        **Cries in tax season 65 hour week minimums.**

    3. sofar*

      Exactly this. It’s almost too easy to end up getting stucked into more hours, when you’re checking email, Slack, and playing catch-up on nights and weekends. Get more comfortable with playing dead before and after whatever hours you decide on within traditional working hours (say, 9-6).

      I work in a place where it’s not really feasible to say upfront that you can’t take something on. Even saying you need to “stop doing X to do Y” is seen as “admiring the problem.” So, I’ve gotten better at just shutting work off outside 8:30-6 and just …. not getting certain things done.

  6. Sharon*

    I could have written this letter. One thing I’ve found helpful is to find out who is responsible for certain tasks, and refer people to the correct source every time even if you can do a certain task yourself. Then they get used to going to the right source instead of just going to you for everything.

    1. Ashley*

      Which is why smaller growing companies is terrible for this personality type. You can easily become the go to person for so many things. For those of us like this the salaried job without defined hours / expectations can be super problematic.

      1. Sloanicote*

        I agree. If OP can’t stop herself from taking things on, one extremely practical suggestion might be to focus her career on larger and more established companies, where there’s likely a higher degree of role specialization. She’ll be less likely to be sucked into multiple areas if there’s official positions for those tasks whose toes she’d presumably be stepping on when she took on more than she should.

    2. anonymous73*

      I think the issue here is that she takes on tasks when people leave. Management sees that she can complete the work and doesn’t feel the need to hire a replacement. But yes if there are other people to go to or other ways for people to help themselves, OP needs to push them to do that. I ran into this a lot when I was in support, and I had to re-train people to follow procedure and not come to me immediately when they needed help.

      1. Sloanicote*

        That’s a good point, maybe OP can focus on the extremely actionable: when somebody leaves, practice deliberately thinking something like, “that sucks! I hope management hires someone great to replace them. If management thinks it’s important, they may decide hire a temp to fill in in the interim” rather than “heeeeere I come to save the daaaaay!!”

      2. Fran Fine*

        I think the issue here is that she takes on tasks when people leave.

        Yeah, every time someone leaves it appears her companies start(ed) dumping the work left behind on her. That’s when those conversations with management around workload prioritization and sticking firm to an 8 hour schedule comes into play.

      3. Maseca*

        Yes, exactly this. When you shield your managers from the pain of that role being unfilled, they have no incentive to fill it. The problem has to affect THEM or they aren’t motivated to solve it. What’s to solve as long as everything’s getting done?

        I’ve been that “go-to” person at a couple jobs, too, OP. Early in my career, it was helpful – I picked up a lot of odd duties that didn’t have a natural fit with anyone else’s role, I was designated the backup for a number of different job functions, etc. It made me indispensable … until it didn’t. Later, at a new company, that “say yes to everything” attitude did help me climb the ladder, but I hit the same point you have now, where I felt overloaded and overwhelmed. It took a mini meltdown (luckily once my rep was already established) to show my bosses how much was on my plate and get them to re-prioritize some of the less critical work. That also showed me that bosses need to be managed just like the rest of us. They’re busy, they have competing priorities, etc., and if a problem isn’t actively pinging on their radar, they’re not going to solve it. Make the problem visible to them, and make them feel its impact. You’ve already seen how much it affects you to bear the burden of solving it all yourself. Now hand off some of that burden to the people who are getting paid to carry it.

    3. MicroManagered*

      find out who is responsible for certain tasks, and refer people to the correct source every time even if you can do a certain task yourself.

      And recognize that THIS IS ALSO helping.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      This. And it’s not going to be successful all the time, either. If I refer someone to the right person, and the right person drops the ball, they come back to me the next time. Sometimes, it takes multiple attempts and a chat with the right person and then, if that isn’t effective, the right person’s supervisor.

      My team ended up being power users of a system that is owned and administered by another department. Because we ended up knowing more than the system owners, we ended up as the de facto “help desk” for it because we were more helpful than the “right” people. And we had no admin rights, so we couldn’t solve all problems. It took several heated meetings with the other department head and a bullet list of what they needed to bone up on/do better with to even start shuffling people over. When they replaced this same system last year, we sent use cases, system requirements, messaging suggestions, and other info to the system owners and laid down the law very early on.

  7. KHB*

    I’ve found that a useful way to frame this (both to myself and to my colleagues) is that the whole reason I’m good at my job is because I take the time to do it right. It takes me two weeks to make a widget. I can make a widget in one week, and I occasionally will if I have to, but it won’t be as good as the ones I make in two weeks. So whenever colleagues and higher-ups start in with the push to do more more more, I make sure to chime in and point out that there’s a trade-off between quality and quantity, and we can’t produce the quality product our customers expect if we’re spreading ourselves too thin. Even if that doesn’t keep all my colleagues from trying to “helpfully” make a bunch of crappy one-week widgets, it usually works to keep them from pushing more stuff onto my plate.

    1. Fran Fine*

      I take the same approach in my career, and I’ve generally been successful in either getting the task taken from me altogether or at least getting management to know that if they want me to do tasks that are outside of the scope of my actual work, then it’s going to have to have an extended deadline to be done up to standard.

  8. Gingerbread Gnome*

    You need to be upfront with your manager that you were hired for job A and taking on all the extra projects is not working. They will absolutely not hire staff to take items off your plate if you continue to do it. Personally, I suggest doing the job you were hired to do. If you are done before your 40 hours for the week are in you could cover some of the other duties but you should absolutely not be working overtime (unless paid very well for it separately from your regular pay and you want to).
    Short form: Tell your boss you need to do the job you were hired for and can’t cover the others starting this coming Monday. Do the job you were hired for well. Stop doing all the others. Go home after you have worked 40 hours and don’t take any extra work with you. I expect it will take 2 weeks to train your coworkers you only do the job you were hired for.

  9. Junior Assistant Peon*

    This is really common when someone stays at a company for a long time. I worked with a woman who started as some kind of low-level office assistant, and she ended up being very hard to replace when she retired because she had evolved into being our marketing manager and a weird amalgam of other responsibilities.

    You need to work someplace where you’re valued. Management recognized that the woman I worked with was doing important things, but she could have very easily been kept at a low salary and title elsewhere.

    1. Sloanicote*

      Yeah I’d say it’s 50/50 that this person gets recognized and promoted versus just kept as the World’s Most Valuable And Underpaid Secretary.

    2. Karia*

      I’m convinced this scenario is part of the reason for the ‘golden unicorns’ featured in several wildly unrealistic job posts lately (mentioned on another post by a user).

      1. are you out there4*

        Years ago, I used to constantly run into ads that wanted a Database Administrator who was also the lowest level Admin Assistant.

        I assume what happened is, the person in the admin role had been tasked with doing their database (since it’s just data entry, right???!!!) and had grown in it and become their database person.

        And then left.

        So now they have this database. Someone needs to manage it. So they’re advertising and requiring all these database background, because it’s not an entry-level database job. But. Half the job duties are still taking notes at other people’s meetings, scheduling things on calendars, covering the phones, etc. Because one person did both, so when they fill it, they can’t understand those are *two different jobs*.

        1. Maggie*

          Good grief, if they can’t even figure it out and writing the post to replace the person, will they ever? What a useful red flag for people considering the company.

          1. Karia*

            Too many places do this. I left a technical job after a few months because they insisted that customer service was a ‘normal’ part of that role (it was not). I’ve seen the job re-advertised four times since I left, and they don’t seem to have gotten the hint.

          2. Gumby*

            Well, the company is thinking “we’re trying to replace Sara. Sara did X, Y, and Z so that is what we need to advertise.” The company is not thinking “we need to replace our DBA and our team admin” because they are not thinking of those as separate roles. They never had been separate roles! They were just “Sara’s job.”

            So to the OP of this – that is another favor you are doing for your company by setting boundaries. You are allowing them to learn what actual roles exist in the wider world so they don’t sound completely out of touch in future job adverts.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

          That’s shockingly close to why I left one firm in a blazing hurry – was hired as a DBA but on the second day they told me I also had to cover reception/make coffee for visitors etc.

          I get it was a small firm but still….

          (After the first time they tried to get me to make a 6 person coffee order and I refused the atmosphere got decidedly frosty)

    3. nonprofiteer*

      Right, and constantly taking on random work from other roles will make you very useful to that company – but not develop your skills for an actual role.

      Think about what it would mean if you were so great at your actual job and adding tons of value that they wouldn’t think of pulling you away from it.

    4. Uranus Wars*

      We run into this issue where I work, too. But I think the OPs situation is different because it has happened to her at multiple places! Not just one job. There is no doubt in my mind there are companies/managers who will take advantage…but she runs into this everywhere – work and socially. It can’t be, quite literally, everyone else.

      1. Junior Assistant Peon*

        If she doesn’t have a paper credential, there’s a good chance most companies will deny her the promotion and raise she’s earned and keep letting her be the World’s Most Valuable Secretary for peanut money.

    5. cncx*

      yup, i had a coworker who started as the receptionist and wound up doing some rather complicated insurance stuff and had never got a raise. she asked for a modest bump in salary to what the other insurance techs and they used her lack of certification as an excuse even though two other people in the team also were lacking certs but still made around 20k a year more than her. she didn’t even ask for the 20k, it was literally COL and a smidge and stuff people give all the time in annual raise discussions.

      she left, and they wound up hiring THREE people at insurance tech salaries to do what she did on her receptionist salary. ridic.

  10. J.B.*

    I have gotten really good at setting boundaries since having kids. I love my kids but they need boundaries. And I have to prioritize what I can do because it cannot be everything.

  11. Thursday Next*

    This is so timely because I have an employee who struggles with this. It’s not that I’m giving her extra work (I’m definitely not) but whenever there is an issue with our software, her instinct is to jump in and do stuff herself rather than letting any failures happen due to another teammate. I’ll read all your responses closely!

    1. Esmeralda*

      Tell her to stop…

      She also may be jumping in where there WOULDN’T be a failure, because the other person will in fact get to it or is already doing it.

      I’ve been the victim (that’s the correct word) of an over-eager “helper”. Had to redo work. Resented having worked many hours on a project that “wasn’t getting done” (no, it just wasn’t finished) pointlessly since Helper finished it. What finally made Helper stop it was (1) I told them that they were not actually helping, because they were making me look bad with our boss and (2) I asked the boss to redirect Helper.

      Maybe that is not a problem with your employee, Thursday Next. But it could be.

      (BTW, love your user name! love that series)

      1. Thursday Next*

        Right now the rest of the team is happy to let her jump in and solve problems and I need to address that as well. I’m new to the company/team so I’m still assessing everyone’s skill level so I can assign work accordingly

        (Jasper Fforde is one of the most creative writers I’ve ever read :))

    2. Antilles*

      For you as the manager, the answer is something like this (modify as appropriate for your situation, obviously):
      Look Jane, I really appreciate all your efforts in working with the software. I like that your first instinct is to help out, but we really need to divide labor to be most efficient here. You have excellent Teapot Design skills and I need you to focus on that; using your time to do the job of IT installing software for Sarah just isn’t efficient. We have an IT Department specifically because it makes sense to free your time to focus on technical design, in the same way that we have Admin Andy to cover the mailroom to free up myself and other team leads to focus on client development. For small things? Sure, it’s fine to give a hand, offer the 2 minutes to help change a setting in the PDF or put more paper in the printer or quick tasks like that. But that should really be the limit; having you doing time-consuming IT tasks just isn’t an efficient use of company resources. Again, I love your enthusiasm and willingness to help, I just want to make sure we’re directing it in a way to really make our department as successful as we can be.

      1. Thursday Next*

        I really like this phrasing! I’m keeping this page up while I do her 1:1 later today so I can use it!

    3. Rosie*

      Yeah I have a couple people like that. I’ve gotten good at directly assigning work so they can’t jump in and just take over (and then complain later about how they’re the only one working)

    4. tessa*

      I can relate to this. I have a coworker who jumps in to “help,” but it’s clearly driven by her insatiable need for approval and attention. Meanwhile, manager won’t do a thing about it, even though co-worker usually screws up processes precisely because she doesn’t have the most updated info. – BECAUSE the processes aren’t part of her job. And round and round we go.

      A one-off from LW’s situation, but I have to say that working with narcissistic people pleasers is beyond exhausting.

  12. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

    I find that this scenario is happening to pretty much everyone I know. My friends are all competent and helpful, and we find ourselves basically getting punished for it with more work.

    I think Alison’s advice is good, but I would also advise that the best way to implement it is to commit to that from the beginning of a new job. It seems like it’s very difficult to get an employer to listen or realize the scope of this problem once they have already initiated it by overburdening you. As Alison says, they don’t feel the urgency. Even if you increase the urgency by passing tasks back, talking to them about your condition, even telling them that you will eventually quit if they don’t hire more people and back you up in giving tasks back to their owners, it’s difficult to pass the pain back in a way they will respond to if they’re the type who already overburdened you (especially if it’s really bad, and they should definitely know it’s way too much).

    If you are an employer, please don’t do this to people. It’s incredibly short-sighted, and you will lose the person. Get better at hiring competent people and managing those who are less reliable, instead of dumping everything on one person.

    1. JulieZ*

      “My friends are all competent and helpful, and we find ourselves basically getting punished for it with more work.”

      Yes, my friends and I call this “The curse of competency.” When we come into a workplace that is disorganized or in any way dysfunctional, there’s that instinct to organize things and get things working again. But what ends up happening is that because you’re someone that management can rely on to Get Things Done, more things end up landing on your plate.

      I have a friend who went through the exact same problem as the OP. She would start a job, be very competent at it, and as more and more things landed on her plate, she’d end up working 80 hours a week. When she tried to pull back, management would always balk (because they needed all that work to get done, and she did it well). She’d quit for a more reasonable schedule, but sooner or late would be back working 80 hour weeks again. I’ve watched her career for about twenty years now, and she’s gone through this cycle several times. (She’s also worked herself up to the VP level, but the early part of her career was several cycles of overwork, quit, overwork.) I think Alison’s advice to set boundaries and keep them is very important.

  13. Zombeyonce*

    Figuring out when to say no is also something OP has to do here. They may want to help out and make things run more smoothly while still making their quality of life better, in which case they can decide how much overtime would make sense. 2 hours a week? (Please no more than 5!) Also consider where you’re just not interested in helping (like reception ). Then sit down and figure out what can and can’t be done in the amount of time and the jobs duties you’re willing to do. Then present the findings to their boss to begin to drastically cut back their hours, because they’ll need to have that initial conversation before just dropping everything extra, but stick firmly to your boundaries so you aren’t convinced to “just do it a little longer.”

  14. Ann O'Nemity*

    I love Alison’s reframing that this “never say no” attitude isn’t actually as helpful as it first appears. These employees take on too much until they drop balls or burn out. By that point, it’s hard to hand off anything to someone else because there likely hasn’t been time for proper cross training or documentation.

    1. Sloanicote*

      Right! The ultimate outcome of this situation is that OP gets burned out and/or crashes and leaves, and the whole pile of plates she’s been balancing comes crashing down in disaster – it turns out nobody else knows how to do anything because OP has been “rescuing” everybody for so long and never had time to train others. This is not setting the org up for success although it can feel that way to OP, particularly if she enjoys being needed.

      I remember my mother was donating a lot of stuff to their church without tallying it up, and the minister actually asked her to please track and report accurate expenses even if she wasn’t going to ask for reimbursement because the elders need to understand the actual cost of their programs. This is similar.

    2. Goldenrod*

      Agreed! It’s not helpful. It’s also bad for the next person who takes the job and realizes that the expectations for the workload are totally out of whack.

      I had a job where I was assigned too much and I had to let some of it drop. It was hard, because I hate letting people down, but I focused on my actual job and put my energy there. It all worked out for me in the end – I got great recommendations from the people I actually supported, who knew nothing about the extra work that had been assigned to me by a pushy and inappropriate middle manager.

      I sense a “martyr” tone in OP’s letter – I feel like she is getting a something out of this emotionally. My advice to OP would be to think about that – if you are honest with yourself, are you enjoying complaining about this and feeling superior? In some way, do you enjoy feeling aggrieved? If you are getting an emotional payoff, it might be hard to let go.

      In my opinion, communicating boundaries and setting priorities are important job skills – so if you aren’t doing that, you really AREN’T doing the best job, even though you may tell yourself that.

      1. Anon5This*

        “ if you are honest with yourself, are you enjoying complaining about this and feeling superior? In some way, do you enjoy feeling aggrieved? If you are getting an emotional payoff, it might be hard to let go.”

        I’m not someone who is easily offended, but goodness this is uncharitable and hurtful!

        I have similar impulses to the LW, as do a significant number of my close friends. (I also have a fairly decent level of emotional intelligence, so I mostly keep the inclination in check.)

        I definitely receive an emotional payoff from this kind of thing. But I can promise you that neither I nor any of my friends are sitting around cackling about how superior we are. This is an impulse that comes from a place of low self-worth. The “payoff” for fixing the phone is to feel like there’s a reason for someone to be my friend. The “payoff” for doing a zillion extra work tasks is to feel like I’m worth keeping on staff. Whereas the alternative to either of those things is to lie awake at night in terror of not being worth having around.

    3. Quinalla*

      Agreed and I find it helpful to reframe to myself that it is better to choose (with boss help/direction as appropriate depending on your job) ball to set down than to have ball drop unexpectedly because you are trying to do too much or burn out and all your balls are suddenly dropped!

      I’m salaried and could probably work 24 hours a day every day until the end of time and still have things I “could” do, it’s just the nature of my job, and then I have projects with deadlines. But deadlines can usually be moved if they have to or work can be shifted to someone else, but not if I just keep working 50-60 hours weeks without saying anything. You have to set reasonable limits and you have to communicate with your team to make sure folks are taking on reasonable shares. Not everyone is going to work exact same hours because of life circumstances, etc. but If I am working 60 hours and 3 people on my team are working 40, they can bump up to 45 each and I can bump down to 45.

      But yeah, you have to get used to saying things like Alison suggested “You want me to do X, Y & Z by end of week, but I only have time to get one done and get half way through another – what should I prioritize?” Or if you are more senior “I plan to get Y done and get started on both X & Z to hand off to a teammate on Tuesday, who has capacity?” If everyone is busy, even then it might be more like “X, Y & Z are all due Friday, only one of them will get done, we’ll need a week more each on the others – let’s push those deadlines back now.”

  15. CheesePlease*

    Sometimes it’s hard to set boundaries when people ask “Can you take over the weekly finance report now that Hank is gone?” because you think “well I *can* do that if I stay an hour extra twice a week which is easy enough and I know the finance report is important” but I just have to yell at myself in my head “No you CANNOT because you have a LIFE outside of work! Say no say no!!”

    1. JSPA*

      “not realistically, given my current workload” is a good way to focus on assessing the situation, rather than assessing your ability.

      1. Sloanicota*

        “Hmm, maybe we can ask [my boss] if I can give [coworker] the [other hated task] and take this on” is a good one too.

  16. Dona Florinda*

    OP should read the letter from a few days ago, the one where the boss got mad because his go-to employee was sick.
    Set your boundaries now before it’s too late.

    1. MEH Squared*

      This is where my brain went immediately as well.

      OP, it’s easy to say, “Eh, I’ll just do it” because you’re highly competent and want to be helpful. And because it can be quicker in the short run to do it yourself than to wait for someone else. But you’re training people (in both your professional life and your personal life) to rely on you as the fixer and the one who’ll just do, well, everything.

      This can be immensely gratifying, but also a burden as you are discovering.

  17. Airy*

    “Surface Pressure” from Encanto began to play in my head as I read this. I’m not being flippant by quoting a Disney song – the line “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service” really hit me in the heart and I think it’s something a lot of people could reflect on.

    1. Generic Name*

      Yessss! I know everyone loves (not) talking about Bruno, but Surface Pressure is my favorite song from Encanto. A lot of us were raised to be helpers, and got heaps of praise for being helpful. The “miracle is just you” message also resonated with me.

    2. Dana Whittaker*

      Two of my three sisters and I just start bawling whenever Surface Pressure comes on. All the feels.

  18. JP*

    Sometimes I feel like competence is a curse at work. People realize you’re reliable and capable and start giving you more and more, and by the time you realize you’re overloaded, it’s become expectation that you handle all this extra responsibility permanently.

    1. anonymous73*

      That’s why you need to speak up when the tasks are being added. Before you agree to another task, figure out if it’s actually feasible to complete it given your current workload. I agree that employers need to stop taking advantage, but sometimes they may not realize how bad it is if the employee never addresses it.

      1. Fran Fine*

        Agreed. It doesn’t sound to me like OP even took that initial step to sit down with her manager and give her an outline of exactly everything she’s been doing and asking to have things removed from her plate. So if that’s the case, that should happen first. Managers are busy managing and don’t always have line of sight into exactly what their staff is doing at any given time, so you as an employee have to proactively have those discussions about workload and bandwidth often in my experience.

      2. JP*

        Well, it’s easier said than done, in a lot of ways. You’re traditionally told that this is how you get ahead, by being willing to go the extra mile. Next thing you know, you’ve never been promoted because you’re so good at what you’re already doing that they don’t want to move you.

        1. anonymous73*

          If getting ahead requires me to take on so much work that I’m close to a nervous breakdown, I’m not going to just accept it because it’s “traditional”. You need to stand up for yourself and if that prevents you from being promoted because the company only values you if you’re overworked and stressed out, it’s not a company worth caring about.

      3. JamminOnMyPlanner*

        It probably speaks to how much I undervalue myself, but I’m always of the opinion that “I’m sooo lucky just to have a job, let me take on so much work that I die,” lol.

    2. Batgirl*

      I agree in a lot of ways, but competence also involves knowing your lane. Few people are hired to be the all around office saviour. The most competent team players also know the value of letting other people fail. That includes letting a bad management decision play out.

      1. tessa*

        Oh, this. I can’t sharpen and master my own professional expertise if I am caught up in over-helping, which is so infantalizing, anyway.

  19. JSPA*

    I’d pick the job that’s most distracting, and also solidly handled by a pleasant almost-anyone from a temp agency–for me, that would be receptionist–and point out that this particular job is a bad match for my skills.

    I might also lean into, “getting vocal cord pain” or some similar complaint that’s a) often true of almost anyone but b) something that if it were a core part of your job, you might work around, suck up, get seen to by a doctor, etc.

    A limited set of outside jobs can be as good as a break…but the ones that are not, label the “bad fit” and focus on discussing how to offload them, and to whom.

  20. anonymous73*

    You need to learn to set boundaries and more importantly, stick to them. This isn’t a job issue, this is a you issue. I like to be helpful too, but you’re enabling your bosses and colleagues to take advantage of your helpfulness. I think you need to figure out WHY you won’t say no or push back. Maybe speak to a good friend, or look for a therapist.

  21. TimeTravlR*

    Hello, Younger Me! This was me for so very long. I finally resolved it by saying, “I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.” Rinse and repeat as necessary. They figure it out! But they won’t figure it out if you keep taking it on. I sleep better now that I finally have learned to say that.

    1. After 33 years ...*

      ++++ Written as a guy who had a tendency to do this, both at work and at home, for many years. I’m not totally free of that yet, but you do have to start letting things go – or risk professional and personal burnout in the long run – perhaps not-so-long. My impending retirement has been a trigger for me to realize that I won’t be here forever, and that colleagues may only need a gentle nudge to take over what they used to think only I could do. Talking with someone – friend, therapist, partner – can help a lot.

      It is hard to say “no” to people you respect and like! However, if they respect you, they are going to understand that you are entitled to some time when you’re not on duty, or feeling that you are. Altruism is a great quality, but not if you’re neglecting your own well-being and needs. You can enjoy your own birthday party!

    2. MJ*

      Yes, a younger me too.

      I was fortunate to have an exceptional boss early in my career. My go to phrase at the time when asked to take something on or thanked for completing a task was “no problem”. At my annual review a couple month after I started reporting to him he pointed out that sometimes it *was* a problem and I could say no to some of the favours.

      It took some brain rewiring to start saying “you’re welcome” in response to the thanks, but it helped reframe things in my thoughts so I didn’t default to always accommodating requests.

  22. Retired (but not really)*

    It has taken me years to realize that just because I CAN do something doesn’t automatically mean I’m SUPPOSED to be the one doing it.
    Does that mean I remember not to feel like I should pick up everybody’s slack all the time? I’m getting better at saying No or stopping when I run out of umph.

    1. Mockingjay*

      <i."just because I CAN do something doesn’t automatically mean I’m SUPPOSED to be the one doing it."

      I am going to tattoo this on the forehead of my project lead. He loved to task me with everything but my assigned role. I have gotten firm about boundaries with him, especially in the last six months. He didn’t (and still doesn’t) like it, but came to realize that the work I do in my actual role is more valuable than me flailing to get something done that’s normally handled by the finance dept. or the engineering staff (yep, the requests swung that wide). He finally brought on more dedicated PM staff to assist him and directed the engineers to manage their own tasks. I’m enjoying my job again. (But I want that tattoo just in case.)

    2. Anonymous Hippo*

      This is a huge part of why I’m leaving my job. I have discovered I’m incapable of not catching a falling ball it is is anywhere within my power to reach it, and I apparently work at the bottom of a ball waterfall. I can’t figure out how to let things crash and burn around me (I can’t even figure out how to word it to sound like it’s my fault) so the only thing I can figure is to just walk away altogether. I’ve tried to get the waterfall shut down, or get a few extra catchers on hand, but with management as it is, leaving is my only resort. Maybe one day when I’ve recuperated from the extreme burnout I can refigure out how to work while not taking on everything.

  23. Lacey*

    This could have been written by a former manager I had. She was so competent and helpful, but she would accept any responsibility requested of her, even if it was wildly outside the scope of her job or even our department! And taking on outside roles bled into the rest of the department as a consequence

    Once we (graphic design) were given a project that clearly belonged to billing & told, “Well, what’s important is that it gets done. They won’t do it, but you guys will.”

    It was madness. And when she finally left the company there were a million gaps that had to be filled, because she had been filling them all. I can’t imagine how burnt out she must have been.

      1. tessa*

        Graphic designers handling billing? I can’t, lol!

        Maybe Alsion could solicit a relevant theme for a blog post, i.e. jobs you had to do way outside your scope because boss is a raving lunatic.

        Reminds me of when I once worked in a cafeteria and then was pulled away from chopping vegetables to snowblow the sidewalk because “We’re a team!” Uh, wut.

        1. Fran Fine*

          I second this post suggestion, lol. Your story also made me almost choke when reading it, lol.

  24. Annony*

    I was un almost this exact situation a year ago. I have a great boss but she didn’t realize just how much time all the extra tasks were taking. Not doing it wasn’t an option because this stuff had to get done in order for me to do my actual job. I ended up making a list of all that I was doing and how much time each task took. When she saw it laid out we worked together to reassign most of it and switch to a more expensive but less time consuming option for one task. Sometimes when you jump in and do things because they have tone done, others don’t realize just how much is on your plate.

    1. Dust Bunny*


      List out what all you’re doing and bring it to your boss, who I’m sure has lost track of how much you’ve taken on beyond your original job.

      And also, yes, learn to say “no” and to redirect to other people.

    2. Gail Davidson-Durst*

      Yup, I wondered as I read this letter if the person assumes a boss saying “Can you take care of this?” is not a non-negotiable command. Most of my bosses have been perfectly receptive to the answer “No,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t ask for impossible things. Bosses lose track of how many tasks an employee is doing, and have little feel for how long those tasks take. And of course they’re going to go to the most competent, reliable person when something needs doing. But the vast majority of the time, I’ve found my bosses don’t expect me to take on EVERYTHING – they just assume I’ll let them know if something is too much.

      1. Generic Name*

        I think a lot of people interpret the “Can you” part of this to be softening language for a command rather an actual question where “no, I can’t” is a valid answer.

      2. Cedrus Libani*

        If you have a good boss, they need, want, and EXPECT a regular dose of “yeah I could, but you don’t want me to, because I’d have to delay More Important Thing A, B, or C”.

        If you have a bad boss, it doesn’t matter what you do, it won’t be enough to please them. Might as well draw the line at an honest day’s work, rather than having to slam the emergency brakes when you exceed the limits of your personal endurance. Use the extra time and sanity to polish your resume, and in the meantime practice your grey-rock skills. “That won’t be possible. I understand, but that won’t be possible.”

  25. My own boss*

    I totally could have written this letter too. Employers love me because I can do almost any task they throw at me, but it comes at a huge cost for me and ultimately for them. I’ve had to get really good at saying no and sticking to it, even when it means things would fall apart. That means I’ve also had to document the heck out of conversations with bosses so that the falling apart doesn’t come back on me. My old job was really bad about circumventing my boundaries and completely burnt me out. So I left.

  26. SomebodyElse*

    This is a blessing and a curse. One thing that all people who find themselves in this position is that they do actually wield a fair amount of power. The hard part is to get used using that power.

    I’ll give a couple of examples. I was once tagged to be someone’s maternity cover. I accepted that role but at the same time negotiated that at the end of it I’d be assigned a project that I wanted. I did have to be very clear to a lot of people that my cover was temporary. There were a few awkward and uncomfortable conversations, but at the end of it, everyone was happy. I walked away from the role, then moved onto the project I wanted, my cover came back to a mostly functioning (definitely not broken) job, and everyone was clear on my boundaries.

    Another time, I was ‘temporarily’ given a function I had actively been dodging for years. I told my boss that I would do it, but only temporarily, and after that I would never do it again. Again, it gave her time to find a permanent home and I was still able to help out. The next time that function lost it’s owner, I could almost feel her eyeing me up for it. I reminded her of our deal and she laughed and looked elsewhere.

    The last thing I would suggest is to help, but not take ownership. There is nothing wrong with saying “I’ll help, but I’m not responsible or owning this going forward.” It doesn’t always work, but it works more times than it doesn’t.

    Oh… and the last last thing… use the ‘next’ thing as an excuse to drop or walk away from something. There will always be a next thing, so it’s the perfect time to say “Sure, I can do that, but you need to find a home for X first. I can’t do both” In my experience the new shiny thing always wins over the other stuff.

    1. Mel*

      This is brilliant. I have learnt the hard way never to take on a responsibility without knowing the exit route, but letting a trade happen just hadn’t occurred to me for some reason!

  27. Mr. Cajun2core*

    I am the same as you. I ended up being the “go to” person at my last job. They are still emailing me about once every two weeks even though I left *extensive* documentation. To make it worse, I was the lowest paid person in the college.

    Luckily I got a new job and I have learned how to say “No”. Of course I still help out when asked but I don’t offer. If I don’t know something, I don’t figure it out. Yes, it is at times very tough to not help people out but I got so burned by being the go-to person at my previous job that it is easier to say “No” or to not figure things out.

    As though as this might be, you may just have to learn to say “No” and most definitely don’t volunteer for anything!

  28. Beth*

    I had this LW as a co-worker, with an extra topping of martyrdom — she wouldn’t take time off because she would just be even more behind when she came back; when she did take time off, she didn’t relax because of all the work waiting for her. She had an incredible work ethic, and she was horribly exploited as a result.

    I couldn’t save her, but I did learn to save myself — if I was handed too many balls to juggle, I dropped the lowest priority balls (with due communication, of course). I tried to suggest that we add more staff to even out the load, but our bosses couldn’t be bothered

  29. Shannon*

    Ah, LW. I understand. You’re lighting yourself on fire to keep everyone warm when there is a pile of perfectly good blankets right nearby.

    Until you get more comfortable having, verbalizing, and enforcing boundaries this will continue. I had really really detrimental boundaries at a job I loved and I got burned out because I just. kept. taking. more. on. And when I said I needed more help, my bosses weren’t super responsive because I was doing just fine. I ended up quitting (insert surprised Pikachu face for them) but on my way out, told my staff to hold their boundaries firmly. But my regret in that was if I could have enforced my boundaries, I may still be there and I loved that place!

    Basically, this WILL keep happening. You have to push back, say no, and keep your no. And for goodness sake, please stop cleaning up friend’s houses on your birthday!!!

  30. Workerbee*

    My first thought was definitely, “Learn how to say No, and mean it.”

    The temptation to help is strong! So is any variant of “But Thing or Person is relying on X to be done, and if X isn’t done, Terrible Things and Persons Will Happen.” When you pair that with “I know how to get this done so I’ll just do it,” here we are.

    OP, you are still the awesome, knowledgeable, skillful person you are even if you say “No” 100% of the time! You will, however, not be the awesome, knowledgeable, skillful person you are if you continue to burn yourself out. The transitory feelings of praise & goodness for being the active solutions-person are just that: Transitory. They will not give you back your time, energy, well-being, past, or present, and are obscuring how you should be thinking of your present and future.

    It’s time to give yourself at least the same level of courtesy and consideration that you have been giving all these other people and organizations for Reasons. And to ask yourself why you haven’t been, all this time.

    Alison’s suggestions are solid ones to follow.

    And don’t beat yourself up over this. It’s a retraining process when you’re driven by wanting to help the organization or to help others. Which we’ve all been taught is a noble thing, looking to the greater picture, the greater good! . . .except it is prone to exploitation. And I’ve sadly found that people lauded as fixers or, in the case of caregivers, saints, are oddly enough never helped as much in turn. People pat themselves on the back for acknowledging what a rock star that person is, yet when it comes time for compensation, promotion, giving them a break for a change…they are passed over. Interesting, eh?

    So it takes time to put yourself first. You may find the pendulum swinging wildly for awhile before you reach a balance that takes yourself into consideration. Here are some virtual vibes to you!

  31. Currently managing*

    Get in the habit of assessing what you “can” do based not on how much you could do if you sacrificed all quality of life and joy from your job but on what you can reasonably do in a normal-length workweek without leaving yourself feeling exhausted and exploited at the end of it

    I am a manager currently coaching one of my staff to do this! I have told them I want them to get to the point where they could go home twenty minutes early every week or so– they don’t have to, they can almost certainly find a non-urgent email to answer or a newsletter or an industry website to browse– but if every second up to or beyond their normal end of day is accounted for, this is TOO MUCH.

    Yes, this is partly about their quality of life– but it’s also that they are a better colleague when they are able to plan and manage their work rather than constantly firefighting, and able to respond to occasional last-minute requests or changes of priority without it feeling like an utterly intolerable burden.

    It is genuinely a very, very hard change to make, and I am having to be really strict with my staff member to enforce it. I feel for you if you’re trying to do it without a manager’s support, LW!

  32. Decaf coffee is just broken*

    This happens to me at every job I work too. I have worked in the retail/restaurant industry and I’m desperately trying to get out but nobody wants to hire for any office or work from home jobs if your background is food/retail (except call centers which I refuse to do. I cannot deal with phones) I am not a go to person I just learn quickly, have a lot of experience and work fast and efficiently. Unfortunately saying no or setting boundaries in any of the ways Allison suggests has always ended up with me being told no it is my job, or my hours being cut or being fired for some made up reason. The retail/restaurant industry is toxic and I have yet to find a single business in the industry who respects any kind of boundaries or pays well. Hence why I am desperate to leave it. I also find different areas have different ways of treating working class vs management in all industries. The county I live in seems to foster an entire culture of awfulness for employees while business owners in all industries sit back and run business after business into the ground. Now our county has mass poverty, thousands of crumbling abandoned houses, thousands of residents who don’t have working water or half their house has no electricity, contractors won’t work in many areas of the city, only in the suburbs and if you live in the city and can even get one to come give an estimate they quote so high it’s way over industry standard so people can’t afford it. Our city is becoming a ghost town and collapsing while the middle and upper class in the suburbs are all trying to work in different counties to avoid the horrible jobs available here.

    1. OP*

      I hope you are able to find somewhere that will give you the chance you deserve and treat you correctly.

      1. Decaf coffee is just broken*

        Thank you! I hope you successfully set limits and your job respects them!

  33. Doing 3 people's jobs*

    This hits close to home and is really hard to learn to do. I know some people can easily say “just say no.” But to the people who find themselves in this situation because they are the fixers/planners/doers in every are of their lives, it is much much harder than that. It’s like completely changing a part of who you are and learning to evolve every single day. It’s akin to telling a procrastinator to just start early or telling a loafer to all of a sudden be an overachiever. It’s hard and it takes time.

    Just here in solidarity, LW. What I have learned in my 18 years of being the one that everyone relies on, good bosses really do value you and your abilities and will much rather retain you than lose you to burnout, even if it costs them money. You just have to communicate.

    1. I'm Done*

      This. I found myself feeling responsible to fix things totally not in my area of responsibility. No vacuum that I could bear to leave unfilled because seeing things not getting done would make me anxious. This on top of my high expectations I held myself to. I actually ended up with major burnout. I think some therapy for the OP is in order. On my end, I just quit working altogether. I’m fortunate enough that I could afford to.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      We do get, it, though–there just isn’t any other solution to offer you. There isn’t any magic way that you can stay the same and yet have this problem change. And it really is 99% dependent on you doing it for yourself–even the best bosses aren’t going to have the same insight into your overworked-ness as you will.

      I will say, though, that you’re probably thinking people will think worse of you than they will. I say no to things all the time, but nicely, so people still think I’m really nice even as I get to protect my reserves of time and energy. “Sorry, I have too many other things to do this afternoon already and there’s not way I can finish by that time**, but Wakeen has had some instruction in that–ask him instead.”

      **and maybe you could finish if you really knocked yourself out, but you don’t owe them that. The point here is to start redistributing the work before you’re at the outer limits.

  34. SnootyGirl*

    Oh my goodness, I see myself in every word of this post. I was raised to be a “pleaser”, I literally feel pain if I say no. I am also a VERY great employee (based on years of annual reviews) and if I am asked to do something by my boss that is outside my normal scope of work, it never occurs to me to say no. This was never a problem with my previous bosses because they knew me well, knew what I was working on, and were scared to death to burn me out and cause me to leave. Then they left and HE came – HE had no knowledge of how our department worked, didn’t care to learn and would not listen to reason. The line-crossed came for me when HE assigned me two full-time projects on top of my already strained normal duties. I was so stressed out! I finally talked to a manager-friend in another department who told me I was crazy to not push back so I went to HE and told him I could do A and B but not at the same time and what one did he need first. HE answered, “Both”. That’s the day I went to HR and made a formal complaint – HE didn’t last too long after that (there were other issues with HE, obviously).

    In my personal life I am still struggling to say no; my new ‘go-to’ seems to be that I will say yes to something, then go home and think about it for a week and then go back and say no. It’s not the best strategy but it seems to be working okay for me right now (any being essentially quarantined for a few years has helped with this a lot).

  35. Mockingjay*

    …by letting yourself fulfill all your employer’s needs, even ones far outside the scope of your job, you’re preventing them from recognizing the need for any other solution.

    OP, this is the crucial point. It’s okay to tell a boss you can’t do something. That’s information they really, truly need for accurate scheduling and sufficient staffing. As Alison succinctly points out, you can only fit a finite amount of work within 8 hours. It’s normal business practice for employees to ask for priorities and to point out that if you fill in for someone/something, work already on your plate gets dropped.

    Managers dangle the OT carrot frequently, usually because most people don’t bite. My view on OT – shared by my company – is that OT is RARE and NOT a substitute for staffing.

    PS: I also want to point out that the variety of roles and assistance you described are likely hurting your career. You are covering everything from the front desk to doing your boss’s project management role. Fixers tend not to be promoted or assigned big projects because managers love having them available for every little problem. Where do you want your career to go? If you want to continue helping, accept only help requests that enhance your experience and skills.

    1. Fran Fine*

      + 1 to your PS. My mother got stuck at her company because she got “too good” and “too valuable” to be promoted, and she was definitely one of those people who ended up picking up the slack for others all the time. It never pays off and leaves you feeling used and bitter.

  36. Call Me Petty (Many Have)*

    I dealt with this at my last job and with what is sort-of the opposite situation: an invidual or dept head who refuses to do things that are clearly within their purview. In this case, it was Accounts Payable. The dept head constantly pushed back on tasks that were clearly their responsiblity with the constant refrain of “We don’t have enough headcount” and/or “So and so in my group is overtaxed. Purchasing will have to handle this” and (my favorite) “Your dept pushed to bring in this software/process. You guys need to support it.” It was maddening. The dept head was backed up by their boss, pretty much in a knee jeck fashion. Boss eventually retired and sans their protection, dept head had to (finally) own up to taking responsbility for some of these functions. Even then, they pushed to offload some of it to other parts of the Finance dept.

    1. OP*

      I feel this very much. My C level boss and my project head coworker have been fighting with each other for the last two years. Including project head demanding someone get hired(contractor) only to refuse to work with him to the point contractor quit and everything got dumped back on us. Only for project head to throw a fit over having that happen and boss assigned me to keep track of his outstanding projects. So every time I ask for help its the other side of the fight that “needs to do that”

      1. Generic Name*

        Oh no. I think you need to have a different conversation with your boss. Instead of thinking about all of the random and sundry tasks you now find yourself doing as “your job” sit down and think about what actually is Your Job. What role were you hired in? What do you LIKE doing? If you have trouble knowing what you like doing, maybe take note of how you feel when you sit down to do a task. Are you excited to tackle it, or are you filled with dread. Any tasks that fills you with dread isn’t a task you like doing. I would write down everything you are doing and sit down with your boss and be very explicit at how long each task takes in a given week and tell him that you cannot do everything on your list, and you need his help deciding which tasks you will focus on and which tasks you will no longer do. It’s not your problem who will do them moving forward. That’s a management problem. It’s not your problem C suite Boss and project head are fighting. Frankly, that’s a Boss problem.

  37. Panda (she/her)*

    I would like to reinforce what Alison says right at the end: you might worry about impacts to your career, and they can happen in some company cultures, but they are not a given.
    I have had to be very firm with myself around setting and keeping boundaries at work. I take pride in doing a good job and being reliable, and in many cases have been tempted to take on more than I could reasonably handle. I work on a team with people who regularly work 60-80 hours a week (or more), so there has definitely been pressure to work overtime. But I work no more than 40 hours a week at least half the time, and I never work more than 45-50 hours (and never for more than a few weeks in a row). I have received steady promotions, and recently became a manager less than 10 years into my career (this is on the early side in my company). I always wondered if not working overtime would hold me back, but it hasn’t. And it is WORTH IT to have a life outside of work!

  38. idwtpaun*

    In a perfect world, being competent and capable results in rewards (promotions, pay increases, etc.), but in the real world, it actually just gets you more unofficial responsibilities with no tangible benefits.

    Learning how to say “no, I’m sorry, but I can’t accommodate this request [for extra work from me] right now” was an invaluable skill to me at work. And it turns out, the world doesn’t end, and my coworkers don’t get mad at me! They just say “ok” and find another way to handle it.

    In terms of work that’s already been piled onto the letter writer’s plate, I think it would be beneficial for her to put it all in writing. What are her actual duties and then what additional duties and tasks she has taken over. And then you take it to your manager (or wait until a regularly scheduled check-in, whatever seems best) and lay it out: Here’s what I was hired to do and here are all these extra tasks that have become a permanent part of my responsibilities. In order for me to be optimal at my own job, I need task X, Y and Z offloaded back to their proper positions. And if I am to continue to do bonus tasks A, B, and C, I’d like for a raise of [appropriate amount] to reflect my new, expanded role.

  39. Essess*

    I had this happen, and the most effective thing I did was schedule a meeting with my boss. I reviewed a sheet I created showing what tasks took the majority of my time (especially the ones that aren’t part of MY role) and informed him that I could no longer maintain the workload of X people. He was stunned to learn that I was in 26 HOURS a week of status meetings plus hours needed for prep for those meeting, when my role was supposed to be writing code and I was assigned a workload of 32 hours of code needed each week. I was doing 80+ hours every week without a single day off in 40 days at that point and couldn’t do it any more.

    I told him that in that meeting we needed to identify the people that these tasks would be transferred to and to determine an appropriate set of responsibilities for me.

    If your boss refuses after you show exactly how you are unable to fit this into a normal 40-45 hour work week (at MOST!) then let him know which tasks you will not be able to accomplish and stick to that. If you are punished for not accomplishing them, go to HR about the workload if you have one. If you don’t, they still can’t punish you for being human and having limits of time outside of work hours. Show the number of hours you worked on the items you did accomplish and ask them again who can take on this extra load.

    Leave work at a reasonable time. Declare that you have outside commitments. It’s no one’s business if that commitment is to stay home… it’s still a commitment for your personal time that is not available to them.

  40. LPUK*

    It’s really down to letting things drop so that the problem can be seen. Management will never address it until they see there is a problem for themeselves – but they won’t see that if you are making a superhuman effort to keep all the plates spinning… and as you’ve discovered, you get no credit for it either. I’ve been here myself and I’ve also coached others through it
    1. Create hard stops in your working day. Don’t work past your agreed end of day – to help you initially, have another ‘appointment’ booked – a class at the gym, a phone call with a friend, a visit to the cinema, a trip to a shop before it closes, home on the settee to watch a programme. then switch off your computer and go ( even if you WFH) and that’s just leaving your office area. If there are things you still need to do, note them on a list and then put it down until tomorrow.
    2. Spend 15 minutes mapping out your priorities in each area and how much of your weekly time you think they’ll take up. Go to your supervisor/manager to get her to agree that those are indeed your priorities. Make sure that’s what goes into your annual performance plan as your stated objectives. If anyone asks for anything outside these priorities, then they will have to negotiate it with your line manager as you already agreed your priorities with them.
    3. Operate a one in one out policy on your objectives – if they want you to do something else then they’ll have to agree (with your manager) what drops from your current list. Be completely matter-of-fact about it – of course you can do it if they want it -they just need to let you know what they are replacing on your objectives for it to happen.
    4. smile sweetly and say matter-of-factly, no I’m sorry I can’t help with that – I am committed to these other projects. Deflect to your manager – they get paid to deal with this.
    5. If your or any other manager get frustrated with this situation that is totally out of your control, then maybe they’ll be motivated enough to find a better solution. Maybe they won’t, but it’s their problem not yours.

  41. mashed potatoes with lots of butter*

    I once had a job where I was being cross-trained on a particular piece of equipment. It was sort of tangentially related to my job, but barely. A manager a couple levels above me that I had a good relationship once caught me using it and took me aside to say “this isn’t something you want to get good at.” I always remembered that whenever asked to pitch in on extra stuff that wasn’t really a part of my job.

    1. Fran Fine*

      My current manager told me not to become the person who does the PowerPoints, lol. I hate putting together presentations, so I already knew there’d be no chance of that.

  42. Nanani*

    To second the thread about potential impacts to your career – it’s important to not only consider “what if they get bad at the boundary” but also the long-term costs of being seen as a jack of all trades, master of none.

    It is extremely common for the helpful person to be spread so thin that the one or few things that matter in terms of promotions and pay increases to take a back seat.
    Your total number of painted teapots will be lower because you spend half the work workday doing other people’s jobs and making the organization run smoothly, but meanwhile your colleagues who get to spend 100% of their time painting teapots look “better” to higher-ups only looking at raw output.
    So, your boss might appreciate that you are doing all these other tasks, but it can easily hamper your professional growth by taking time away from whatever your workplace or industry sees as the meat of the job.

    I hope that perspective helps shake the feelings that you “should” be doing more. You can do more (of the really important things) by doing less (of the helping-out things that really should be done by another person)

    Put yourself first – nobody cares as much about YOUR career as YOU after all – and set those boundaries!
    You can do it.

  43. Veryanon*

    Like the OP, earlier in my career I always seemed to become the “go-to” person wherever I worked. Inevitably, I would take on too much and get burnt out and resentful. I’ve become much better about setting boundaries and being realistic about how much time and energy I can devote to something. Recently, I had to let something go that I was very passionate about, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do it justice anymore. I reached out to the other people who were involved in the initiative to see if someone could take over, explaining my bandwidth issues. No one ever volunteered despite repeated requests. So I just dropped it and braced myself for the inevitable “what happened to this????” – I figured if it was important to someone else, they would have picked it up.

  44. Too efficient*

    I constantly have this issue just because I’m super efficient and work really fast. So I actually don’t end up working overtime. I just get more and more job creep and am still able to fit it within my 40 hour work week, but don’t get a raise or promotion for it. Last time I mentioned it to my manager and she said the 2.5 extra jobs I had taken over (one coworker who left and was never replaced and my manager on parental leave plus additional colleagues’ projects) fell under “additional duties as assigned.” How can I set boundaries when actually I CAN handle more work but I just don’t WANT to if I’m not being compensated for it?

    1. Michelle Smith*

      Does your office not have periodic evaluations/annual reviews? I would think if not, then you could set up a 1:1 with your manager or whoever is responsible for determining job titles, promotions, and raises and discuss this. If you want to be compensated, you’ve got to ask explicitly, in the right context and the right way. You may be able to get a title change or salary bump even if they can’t do both, which would help you leverage it into a new job if you want to look for one in the future.

      Alison has good advice on this stuff though that you should probably take over mine:

  45. Holey Hobby*

    OP, are you me? Every time I leave a job, they need to hire between three and five people to take over what I was doing. Every time. It’s awful and I need to fix it.

  46. Rosie*

    It took me several jobs to learn how to set limits around what my job scope is and learn to deflect anything outside of it but it’s something that has to be done because every job and every manager is going to naturally push those limits and you either set your boundaries or you become like OP.

  47. NervousHoolelya*

    I’ve spent years grappling with this tendency in myself, and I do want to flag one particular element of the struggle that lots of commenters are kind of glossing over. In some lines of work (non-profit work and education come to mind), letting balls drop will mean an immediate and detrimental impact on people you see every day and whose welfare you are charged with. I work in higher education, and a big part of why I kept taking on more things is because my students would have suffered if I didn’t. One could characterize that as martyr syndrome if one wants, but that doesn’t make it any less real in the moment. It wasn’t until I started reading this blog that I realized how much I was shielding my employer from seeing the true costs of running my programs (both in terms of my labor and in terms of money I was fronting to make up for budget shortfalls, without which my students would not have had the resources they needed). After my employer decided to increase my already-overloaded workload even more without taking anything out of my portfolio or backfilling positions I was covering, I made a really painful decision to put myself first and quit without another position lined up. They have spent more than a year trying to fruitlessly hire three people to do the work that I was doing.

    So, from the other side of all this, what I’m trying to say is that Alison is right, but depending on the field, that realization doesn’t make the very painful prospect of denying needed services and resources to vulnerable people any easier.

    1. Fran Fine*

      Okay, but what help did your students get when you ended up burned out and quit unexpectedly? They ended up without services, right, because as you said, they’re still trying to hire three people to pick up the work that you ended up leaving behind.

      Now, imagine if you had just said, “I can’t take on X because I’m already doing Y and Z,” and then let X drop if and when your manager put it off on you anyway. You would still most likely be in your job, they would have just either had to hire someone to take up X or they would cut X, but your students would still be getting Y and Z. Now they get nothing.

  48. Eternal cynic*

    It’s easy to let this happen to you without realizing it. I know this, because it happened to me. To begin with, I was simply the coworker who was willing to do some extra stuff to mix it up a bit. One day, you suddenly realise projects are being dangled like the eternal carrot for progression opportunities that simply are not there. It left me feeling really cynical and jaded.

  49. Karia*

    Two things to think about here.

    One, if you keep working like this you will very likely get sick. When I did this it affected me years later and I’m still recovering. It had a huge impact on my physical and mental health, and negatively affected my friendships.

    Two, eventually, you will very likely drop a ball or make a mistake. And the danger is that rather than responding by saying “Oh gosh, we’d better hire extra staff, we’ve obviously overloaded OP,” they’ll respond by deciding you are the problem and behaving punitively. Even if you’re considered an excellent member of staff.

    1. Fran Fine*

      All of this. I too am still dealing with the side effects of physical illnesses brought on from working 60 hour weeks for nearly three years. It really takes a toll on your body to work like this, OP. Save your health.

    1. Generic Name*

      I’m going to assume that the OP does not get overtime pay, which is why management is perfectly happy to allow extra-conscientious employees like the OP to work as many hours over 40 as possible.

    2. OP*

      Two jobs ago they reclassified all full time positions to “variable wage employees” to keep from paying overtime. Last job paid overtime without compunction. Current job has us come in late or leave early to cut hours so we don’t have “overtime” per say so much as I dont have any sort of set schedule but also cant schedule my own tickets. So if I need to cut hours but get assigned a 8am ticket. I have to a break in the middle of the day because I’m responsible for end of day close out. Which means there is usually a couple hours of under reported time per pay period when lunch gets scheduled over but I “could have” taken it.

      1. Nanani*

        I think you need a new job, with a non-illegal employer.
        Also, chat up your local authority about wages and hours.

  50. Lifelong student*

    Years ago the office I worked in needed a new task done. There were two people it could be assigned to. The boss assigned it to the one who was always busy rather than to the one with lots of spare time. Why- because he said, “people who work hard always got things done, but people who do not, do not.” I will never forget that- even when, as a hard worker, it sometimes resulted in my doing other people’s work.

  51. Ergo DNA*

    I wonder if this person really has a clear view of what is going on in these situations.

    I had a friend who would describe herself in a very similar manner to the one offered by the letter writer. She had difficulty maintaining friendships long-term. She perceived herself as being “used” by everyone in her life. She also struggled with this at work. However, to an outside perspective, she was constantly asking for tasks, and refused to accept “no” for an answer. For example, I often would have her over for dinner. She insisted on doing something for me in return, even though I always insisted that I did not need anything in return. She would NOT accept that. It got to the point that her request for a task to do in “return” was just exhausting, and I would just give her something to do to keep her busy and to stop her from asking to help. She was never able to just “be”. We also had a falling out when she accused me of “using” her. I’m not willing to accept blame for someone who needs to constantly self-victimize in order to feel needed. I was her longest friendship ever at about 10 years.

    This letter writer’s inability to sustain any long–term relationships really reminds me of my friend. I doubt she is being given additional tasks because she is superior to all others. I would guess she is always asking how she can help and insisting that she help even when told no.

    1. What She Said*

      That is an interesting perspective I did not see. I think I work with someone like this. It is frustrating to chat with her. All she does is complain how she is the only one who could do her work and how so many before her screwed it up. How she has to constantly work overtime to make it work. On one hand I get it, this job really should be two people but come on, stop doing the work of two people and show the bosses they need another person already. Nope, she thrives on the chaos.

      1. Ergo DNA*

        Yes. In addition to the actual fallout of our relationship, it got to the point where I really just didn’t have the energy to be around her. It was so exhausting. I was sad to have lost a friend, but I was having some personal difficulties, and just could not take the constant negativity anymore.

    2. OP*

      Thank you for this feedback. I’m not sure if it sound very much like me. I regularly attempt to train others in how to do mu work, I believe that there should be someone cross trained on everything I do.

      This has including going to my bosses and asking for training hours to be able to get people up to speed on how to do the job. Asking him to take back over responsibility for things he trained me on, etc.

      I try not to take on other work and generally only take it on when someone comes to me. Or when my boss assigns it. For instance when another C level asked him to solve their staffing issue by having me take it on. After I’d refused to take on the extra work and then my boss decided that it would best be handled by having me try to take over a 40 hour a week job because that would make the other C level happier.

      But I will keep it in mind that I may be asking too much of folks and that is the problem.

      1. Ergo DNA*

        Hi OP. Based on what you have stated, it does not sound like a similar situation to that of my friend. When she would bring up these issues in the work setting, once she got to the point of overwhelm, she would be very passive. For example: “It would be nice if you could look into maybe having someone else do X task for a while.” Versus: “I am not able to do X task. If this is something you need me to make a priority, we will need to discuss what other tasks will be taken off my priorities list so that I can fit this in. If that is not possible, then someone else will need to take on X task.” She would often discuss her work issues with me, and was not able to handle direct communication. From my perspective, this had a lot to do with her self-consciousness that she had offered to take on the task in the first place, but then would find herself overwhelmed by her workload. If you are not offering to help and you are able to communicate directly what you are and are not able to do, then this perspective probably does not apply to you.

        If you are comfortable sharing, and I fully understand if you are not. In your example with the C-levels, what was your response to you boss?

      2. Fran Fine*

        Yeah, if you have in fact been telling your boss you can’t do certain things and haven’t been softening the message to be “nice” and he still keeps piling it on, you may just have to stop doing it and let the chips fall where they may. From the sounds of it, they won’t fire you – they’d never get another employee to do what you’re doing (they’d just leave).

        I still find this very odd this keeps happening at every workplace you’ve ever had, especially if you’re being direct with management about your workload and the need to offload things that weren’t your responsibility to begin with.

    3. Karia*

      Equally, I’ve had friends, family and bosses, who will pressure you into doing tasks until you are bled dry, do not understand the word no, claim to respect boundaries but punish you for having them, will refuse reciprocity but then hold favours over your head, and then seem genuinely confused when you cut ties / leave.

      I’m not saying you are like this; i’m saying there’s a reason your friend was like that.

      As an example, several times that I’ve taken, “it’s fine, you don’t need to do anything,” at face value, it turned out to be a trick, and I was meant to read the subtext that I did, in fact, need to do something in return.

    4. Kella*

      I saw no indication in OP’s letter that they have an “inability to sustain any long-term relationships”. They mentioned being super helpful to their friends and that managers always love them because they take on so much work. I’m sorry you went through that frustrating situation with your friend but it sounds like you’re projecting quite a bit from that experience on to this situation. There are plenty of people who genuinely take on far more than they can handle and don’t feel able to say no when given more work to do.

      1. ErgoDNA*

        Hey there. Nope, not projecting. I gave an example from my personal life because I did not work with her. Had I given an example from working together, that would have been a lie, since we did not work together. The only information I had about her work life was when she would talk about it. She spoke very similarly about her work life as the OP. As I stated, she would describe herself in much the same manner as the OP, which you paraphrased.

        In terms of working environments: I definitely realize that many people have difficulty with direct communication. When I used to supervise / manager people with this sort of personality, it was so difficult! Generally, I did not have control over who my direct reports were. When I started my business, it was actually very easy to identify direct communicators vs passive communicators. Having people on the team who are clear with their communications is much easier to manage. When communication is direct, no one feels the need to read between the lines and people are taken at their word. I have found that people who communicate passively are never willing to accept what is told to them, and always believe their is an alternate meaning. It is utterly exhausting.

  52. Anon for This*

    I am and have been in a similar situation. Here is my story, hopefully it helps you.

    First big issue (there are many so I’m only sharing two big ones). One person left. I offered to help in the interim. It became clear a month in I needed help. I asked my boss, my union, and HR for assistance. After three months of no consistent help I emailed them all the said no more. Due to my requests for assistance being ignored I would no longer do the duties/projects of the vacancy. As soon as a person is hired I will assist with training. My boss insisted since our job duties overlapped that I was being insubordinate. I didn’t care. Despite her attempt to paint me as the bad guy I maintained my boundary. They finally hired someone two months later.

    Currently assisting for someone on leave with no return date set. Our company has two main priorities and those are my focus. Everything else is being forgotten. I can’t do it all and I refuse to stress over it. I’ve told my boss every time you add something to my plate you are knocking something off. There is so much I can’t even tell what you just knocked off. I’m letting the balls drop and not worrying about them. I am also not working overtime to get things done. If they come back at me upset I’ll explain to them exactly how this happened and that it was on them not me.

    There is a reason they all think I can do it and why they always come to me. I am good at my job and I’m always willing to help out in a pinch. But I won’t let the work I am completing suffer because of my load. They either get my best work or nothing at all (dropped balls). And I am very comfortable with that.

    *Disclaimer, I understand not everyone can do this. In my job, it’s rare to be fired even for doing a bad job so it’s not a threat hanging over my head. I do really enjoy my work, that’s why I stay and maintain strict boundaries.

  53. Kella*

    OP, this has absolutely been me in the past, so I really really feel for you. Two important lessons I learned that helped me stop taking on everybody else’s work:

    1. Once when I was super stressed out about a problem at work that I thought needed me to jump in and fix, my best friend said in the most loving way possible, “99.999% of the world operates without you helping them. If you choose to not help fix this, they will figure something out.” I still repeat this to myself sometimes.

    2. It sounds like the thing you’re hoping your bosses will do is intuit how much work you can and can’t handle in the hours you’re given. That is both not their job to do and not possible for them to do because they aren’t you. They are counting on you to tell them what you can and can’t do. They can’t make informed, accurate decisions without that information. If you are job-hopping, looking for the magical boss that will read your mind and take things off your plate without you ever having to say anything, that boss unfortunately doesn’t exist.

    1. OP*

      I will keep in mind that I may be expecting too much from my boss.

      I have tried to make this clear to current boss. But they are in the process of slimming down the business by combining a number of disparate positions and divisions. Out Executive Assistant just got handed out Sales Recruitment division(40 hours a week) in addition to her original job. They have cut out rental marketing head and added his work to other rental staff. We cut out accounting team in half. Etc.

      With one of my previous jobs I’ve put my boss on notice that I would quit if help didnt get hired, tried to start multiple initiative initiatives to offload work, and discusses options with multiple regional heads and finally ended up getting a second person hired onto my division by speaking with the president. Only to have my boss try to let me go after. Regional head backed me that I couldn’t be let go for it.

      And last job my boss left six months in. The owners tried to get people hired but took average 8 months per hiring process. And we lost 5 staff over the 3 years I worked there. So while they tried to work with me for staffing there wasnt a single period where we were fully staffed.

      I will definitely try to be clearer with my bosses that I’m overloaded moving forward and try not to expect mind reading.

      Thank you for the response!

      1. BigHairNoHeart*

        OP, may I ask if you’ve worked at consistently small or downsizing businesses? Or startups perhaps? Based on some of your comments, I’m guessing that part of the problem might be setting boundaries (something you can work on yourself) but part also might be terrible luck with workplaces that don’t have enough staff and are very happy to overburden dedicated employees like you to make up for it (something that’s significantly more outside of your control). You can work on setting better boundaries for sure, and Alison + the commenters have made some great suggestions there, but I suspect a more stable workplace would also help. Obviously disregard this if you don’t want to move on in the near future, but it’s something to consider!

        1. Fran Fine*

          Yeah, it really sounds like the small business/nonprofit life just doesn’t suit OP anymore. It may be time to move to a larger company.

      2. Kella*

        OP, something to look at: Is everyone at your job (or previous jobs) overworked? Does everyone have way too much on their plate? If the answer is yes, then that’s either the culture of that job or a sign of badly managed workload. If that’s something you’re running into a lot, it might be worthwhile to look at Alison’s articles about how to ask questions in interviews to learn about work/life balance at a given job. But since in your post you said you didn’t want to be the go-to person for taking on everything, that makes me think that even if there were workload problems around, you were still getting a disproportionate amount, which points to the second option:

        If most people are *not* overworked and it’s just you and a couple others doing the lion’s share of the work, then that’s a boundaries issue. For me, when I’ve said “I’ve tried to make things clear with my boss” that was followed with, “but they really need me to do X, y and z,” because I wasn’t actually saying no. Actually being clear is saying, “I told my boss I can do a, b, and C but I cannot do d, e, and f” and then sticking to that plan, which is typically the kind of hard-line you have to actually make.

  54. PromotionalKittenBasket*

    Oh, OP, I feel your pain! I used to be this person, and then I burned out. And burned out. And burned out. So I learned to embraced my inner Phoebe Bouffet: “Oh, I would, but I don’t want to.” Parties, family circumstances, friendships, and then at work (phrased differently, of course). I had to learn that I have value beyond being a fixer, and paradoxically, the less I do, the more valuable I seem. Every boundary I’ve set has improved my well-being, income, or happiness, and often all three.

    You’re taking a on a huge psychic load, and it takes a toll. Please start putting yourself first and stop doing everything. They’ll figure it out.

    1. Squirrel Nutkin*

      Amen! I notice that when self-confident people say no or set boundaries, other people still like them. I have trouble actually setting boundaries myself sometimes, but I agree with you, PromotionalKitten Basket, that they are definitely worth setting.

      And OP, maybe see if a 12-step group like Codependents Anonymous (or Al-Anon) might help you feel less like you have to save everyone else all the time?

  55. LastAdminStanding*

    I feel like I could have written this letter, since my current situation is very similar. A lot of roles can turn into “slippery slopes” but I feel in particular, administrative roles tend to turn into “go-to” people more often – or maybe it’s more the personality types attracted to those jobs.

    Admins tend to be the ones at the company who have to know a little about a lot – they get pretty familiar with the org chart and each department and how they fit together (especially if they ever have to do any kind of call routing). I personally came in with a background in IT, so a lot of people call ME before they call our IT Helpdesk. And then I got promoted a couple times to the point that now I’m supporting the C-suite, which somehow also results in people thinking you know everything, since you work with the top bosses.

    Once I became an Executive Assistant, I got much better (more confident) about saying no to requests, or directing people to resources versus taking the time to show them or do things for them. My go-to phrase is “Let me check with Boss about whether I can take that on for you” and then when I present it to her, I can frame it as whether I realistically have time or not, and lucky for me, she trusts my assessment.

    I’ve been doing the heavy administrative lifting for my org for the last 2 years since some of our admin roles were cut at the start of the pandemic, which has been challenging, but it has also been a negotiation – I took on a lot of tasks, but was clear about which of my other responsibilities would be sacrificed.

  56. Suzie SW*

    This is SO my personality. I tend to say yes to everything. People started to view me as a renewable resource and didn’t believe I had a limit when I tried to say I’d already reached it. My two biggest weapons for combatting this are, “I’d be happy to take X on, but I would have to give up Y and Z to make time for that,” and “I’m happy to train someone on these tasks.” It helps to reinforce that I’m a limited resource while still providing a solution to the need…sometimes a much easier boundary for those of us who hate saying no.

  57. Just @ me next time*

    “I’m the type of person who goes to my own birthday party and ends up fixing one friend’s phone and cleaning part of a different friend’s house before I go home. ”

    I’m trying to say this as kindly as possible. LW, you do not “end up” doing these things. Either your friends ask you and you say yes, or you volunteer unprompted. You are choosing to do more than you have capacity to do, and now you need to start choosing to set boundaries. You are in control here.

    1. Sunny*

      This is a great mentality to have with boundary issues. It can feel like time or responsibilities are out of control… but really, we do choose how we spend our time.

  58. Another person again*

    I used to get stuck doing all the work because I was really fast and more and more got dumped on me because I could handle it. My colleagues resented me for making them look bad. And it came back to bite me when I took some time off and a ton of things came to a full stop because I was doing the jobs of too many people.

    I started paying attention to normal pacing for the office and slowed my work way down. It was painful. I ended up leaving to take another job, because people do push back when they know from experience you “could” do it and choose not to. But now I actually take the breaks I’m entitled to and do things like read AAM. And I don’t dread coming back from vacation anymore.

    1. Too efficient*

      I relate to this. A lot of commenters are saying how they got more and more tasks and then they got burnt out and overwhelmed. For me, I actually CAN handle it, but I start to feel taken advantage of. I don’t feel stressed, but I do feel like I have the same title and salary as Joe Schmo and doing 4x as much work. This has happened repeatedly to me and I’m not sure how to say, no I don’t want to do 4 people’s jobs for the price of 1, even if I could technically handle it.

  59. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    I ended up being that person at a prior job, overwhelming crushing load. Despite the extra time it took, I ended up keeping my to-do list in a spreadsheet and every week I would send it to my boss with “These 5 things I marked as priority A for the week, these 10 things I marked as priority C (unlikely to even be glanced at for the foreseeable future), everything else is B (if there is time and no new A’s come along). The prior weeks list would be a second tab so it was clear that I was usually completing or making progress on 5-10 A’s and a large pile of B’s each week.

    He rarely changed the priority and within a few weeks started even saying that emergency task would be “A” so bump X to next week and started offloading the C’s to other departments or telling them they were not a priority for us. (yes I managed my manager until he figured out how to start doing it)

    1. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

      Oh also, I found out later he saved the spreadsheets and used them to justify adding a person to our department.

      1. hodie-hi*

        This is GREAT! Full transparency, and the boss engaging with your process. Win for you, win for boss, win for company, win for future employees. So awesome!

  60. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    “If you want me to do X, I would need to stop doing Y.”
    You would be amazed at the faces I get when I use this phrase or similar. People often times don’t know what all I am working on, so I don’t immediately fault them, but when I have to use this language it dawns on them that a) I’m overloaded and b) they now have to figure out who’s going to do Y. And they haven’t. Because I’m the only one that can do Y…the way they want it done.

    I’ve often recommended someone else to do Y when I can’t and they either take me up on that or begrudgingly agree I can’t do it. Either way I protect my work product integrity because I can’t do it all, and be expected to do it well.

    1. OP*

      Do you have suggestions for how to handle that when boss is concerned that you dont have every moment of the day booked? I’m in a variable position where my main job is to be front like triage, so I can go from a manageable schedule to three people having major issues to solve within a half hour. I try to use slower times to stay on top of the other jobs I’m covering but on weeks when I my main job is mostly being on call and not active triage and I’m caught up on my other obligations. Maybe one week out of six, my boss gets very upset that I’m not doing more work. And then another thing will get added to my plate. Only to have the next week be a training drive and I’m going six-eight peoples training and onboarding. Plus my original jobs and the special project that I got assigned because I wasn’t busy. Can I go back that next week and hand it back even though its part done? Boss will not assign to other folks in my division when I can’t something. I’m only presenting female and the admin stuff is not cross trained for.

      1. Karia*

        Do you mean you are being assigned reception / technical support duties because you are the only female presenting member of staff? I don’t know where you are but in some countries that would be considered illegal discrimination on the basis of a protected characteristic.

        Additionally, can you sit your boss down in a private meeting and re-explain that your workload ebbs & flows?

        Do you work in a typically toxic industry? I ask because some industries – advertising, big law, startups – are known for long hours and unreasonable expectations, and this might be less a ‘you’ problem and more a ‘you need to switch industries’ problem.

        1. OP*

          Not on staff. But in my department. The reception pool and other department I’m covering for are completely female led. And none of the men are expected to cover phone receptions stuff.

          Southern US. It’s not illegal. Just the general “known” way things should be done.

          1. Ginger Baker*

            “Just the general “known” [sexist] way things are done.” does not make it NOT illegal btw.

            1. OP*

              I more meant if they put it in all admin rolls that they need to cover reception work. And they only hire female admins. Then its really hard to “prove” something is being done illegally.

              1. Karia*

                Training, onboarding and project management are typically not admin tasks though. I think you need to seriously revisit your job description. And stop doing unpaid overtime.

      2. Rick T*

        OP, you have to start declining overload assignments. If you are training/onboarding 6 people you need to push the schedule for EVERY other task in your queue back a week and tell your boss why.

        That, and start saying No or “I can’t address this task for at least a month, please come back then” and make it stick. You are one person, you need to scale back to doing the work of one person not many.

      3. Not all sunshine and daisies*

        Data. Can you keep track of how long you spend doing things for say 2 months, and then show your boss the figures (including averages etc.)? That way you can back it up when you say, “I’m not busy right now but I will be”.

      4. Jennifer @unchartedworlds*

        Maybe one week out of six, my boss gets very upset that I’m not doing more work.

        I think this bit is pretty strong evidence that your boss is part of your problem. This sounds like they have an unrealistic view of how work works in your department & they’re blaming you for something which isn’t your fault. If there’s a slower week where you’re doing less urgent stuff, there’s nothing wrong with that.

        So yes you should be able to hand back the extra thing when other things get busy – but also I’m doubtful that you should’ve ever been given the extra thing in the first place.

  61. Off My Lawn, You Must Get*

    Oh great googlie-mooglies, yes.

    The part that struck me the most was Alison pointing out what it means to the companies they leave: It creates a horrendously distorted view of what one employee “should” be able to do.

    I recently applied for a job where someone very similar to this had just left. That someone had absorbed their previous team-mates work on top of their own. The title belied the farmer-trucker-chef-maitre d’- sommelier- scullery nature of the job. After the interview, when I sent an email withdrawing my application, I politely and respectfully told the HR person they were looking for a miracle.

  62. Nom*

    from the letter: “Co-workers have suggested just being worse at my job or playing up my failure to do the primary job I was hired for, but I hate that idea — in part because when they talk about not doing parts of their job and how it’s fine, I’m reminded that I’m the reason that it’s generally been fine, as I’ve handled emergencies and cleaned up messes.”

    Oh boy do I relate to this. I’m reminded of a former boss. I complained to him about having too much on my plate and his solution was to stop responding to emails that I don’t want to respond to (even if addressing them is well within my responsibilities). He said he did it and it was fine. It was fine because I was the one handling all the things he was ignoring!

  63. Dinwar*

    I’m in the same boat, LW. I was raised to get the job done, in large part because I grew up in a fairly poor area and we were all raised from a young age that not working means not eating. Dad took pride in the fact that he didn’t request a day off–sick or vacation–for 18 years, and while he went longer than most, the sentiment wasn’t abnormal. (I did not follow that trend; my industry is feast-and-famine, so by necessity I usually take a few weeks off a year whether I want to or not.)

    One exercise I found useful was to get a notebook and track everything you do for a week. EVERYTHING. This does a few things.
    1) It gives you a real picture of what you are actually doing. The last time I did this (and I do it periodically) I was leading 8 field efforts. For context, 2 is considered a heavy workload in my industry. It’s boiling a frog; as these projects were added it didn’t seem like a huge thing, just a few more hours a week. And suddenly I’m working 12+ hours a day, totally exhausted, and wondering what happened. Until you really sit down and work out what exactly you are doing with your days you don’t see just what you’re doing to yourself. And remember, transitioning from one task to another is mentally draining–it’s worse to work a 10 hour day on 15 different individual tasks than it is to work a 12 hour day on one task. This has been known since Henry Ford’s time.
    2) It documents this for discussions with management. When you start setting boundaries there will be pushback, and one common tactic for this is to simply not believe you when you say you’re working too hard. It’s cliche to say that you’re overworked and underpaid, after all. When you can show them “This is my average week”, you prevent that. If they’re a good manager they’ll be aghast at what you show them–the good ones generally are boiling frogs in the same pot you are. If they’re not a good manager, there are ways to work around them. Most companies have specific policies about things like workload and the number of roles one can take on. For example, certain roles in my company require you to not have roles of similar levels of responsibility–a site safety officer can’t be a Field Quality Manager as well, for example. If your boss tries to push back you can cite company policy, or email your boss’s boss, HR, or whoever will listen.
    3) It’s the start of documentation for new people to take on some of the load. If you’re like me you have developed policies and procedures internally for how to manage this workload–ie, you have developed a series of coping mechanisms. If you just offload the work it’ll be done worse and more slowly, because no one else has these coping mechanisms. If you document what you do with your day, especially multiple days in a row, however, you find that the process document is already written, you just need to format it. I think half the field instructions I’ve drafted were written this way. At the very least, it provides a framework for thinking about the necessary process to do the job, which facilitates teaching someone else how to do it.

    I don’t have much sympathy for the idea of “So no and let others fail.” First, someone like us isn’t going to let the project fail; it’s not in our nature. Even if you force yourself to do it, you’ll be even more overwhelmed when the failure occurs. Plus, when the guano hits the turbines guess who’s going to catch the grief. Either we take the blame for it–“Well Dinwar always took care of this, he should have known better!”–or we end up doing it anyway with 1/10th the time and 1% the resources we’d have otherwise. Let’s be realistic; even if they’re boiling frogs, a manager who is inept enough to overwhelm a star employee because that’s the easy path isn’t going turn around and take full responsibility when their mismanagement comes to light. The only realistic way to offload work and to keep your sanity, at least as far as I have found, is to pass it off to someone who you are confident can do it. And the best way to do that is to provide a breakdown of how to get the work done.

    I used the term “mismanagement” deliberately in the previous paragraph. Your manager–like mine–is taking the easy way out. A manager that allows their team to become entirely reliant upon one person is just as much a bad manager as one who allows one toxic person to fester. I learned early on that having a single point of failure that could shut down a project is just begging for disaster to strike. Don’t get me wrong, you and I are partially to blame for where we are. But I STRONGLY disagree with the attitude that this is your fault. It’s not. Your manager is taking the easy way out and setting you up for failure, pretty much the opposite of what a good manager is supposed to do.

  64. JK*

    I have been this person twice, both times at charities where saying “no” felt like turning your back on the mission, and asking for more compensation felt like taking resources from patients. In the first instance, I believed very strongly in the mission, but I just could not do everything that they asked of me. I tried to go part time, but they didn’t actually move any of my responsibilities, and in the end it was easier to quit. Magically, after I quit they managed to find funds to replace me with a full time person AND another part time person.

    The second time it happened, I had more experience and also wasn’t as invested in the mission. I tried to push back and ask for some responsibilities to be moved and to hire an assistant. They made me jump through hoops before telling me I could hire an intern. I pointed out that an intern is actually *more* work, and I wanted someone who either came with some experience, or at least would be there for more than a couple months to justify training them. They wouldn’t budge, so I amped up my job search and left. It’s been 2.5 years, and they still email me for help. They also replaced me with 3 people, which makes me extremely bitter. (I do not help them when they email, in case it needs to be said)

    I don’t think I will ever work at a charity again. I completely shifted my career and am so much happier without being pressured to work more because we are “saving lives.”

  65. Serin*

    A failed project in a company is like pain in a body — it’s the way that the nervous system learns that there’s something wrong. It’s very hard for conscientious people to let a project fail, but that’s the only way a big company learns that it’s understaffed. “Employee is complaining” is not a signal that makes itself heard far enough up for someone to take action, but “We missed the deadline” is.

    1. Dinwar*

      I mean, you’re not wrong. But the issue is, how does the company handle the pain? Most of the time it’s amputation.

      Maybe it’s a quirk of my industry, but one of the things I was told early on (and this was by two people in separate companies, neither of which work for the one I work for, and corroborated by folks internally and in subsequent conversations–I was VERY concerned so wanted to be absolutely certain this was normal) was that in some roles, part of the responsibility is being the one to get fired should problems occur. For certain kinds of failure the company needs to show that they’re doing something to resolve the issue, and the easiest thing to do is say “We found the employee that screwed up. They are no longer with us.” To be fair, A) you know this going into these positions, and B) you get paid fairly well for taking on that responsibility. But it does provide incentive to make sure the project succeeds.

      1. Karia*

        “how does the company handle the pain? Most of the time it’s amputation.”

        Precisely. I worked in a job with absurd workload expectations, when my partner was unemployed. Boundaries are a lovely concept but they’re not really an option if you *cannot afford* to get fired.

  66. GreenDoor*

    Some of the people I most admire professionally are people who guard their time well and people who aren’t afraid to say “no” or “now now.” You will NOT look unprofessional or unreliable if you start putting limits on your time – quite the opposite! And if you are truly this reliable then that gives you clout – you’re someone they can’t live without. Start using that to your advantage by asserting your boundary like “My plan is to do A, B and C and backburner D. I’d like Intern to work on E. And frankly, I don’t see F happening until next quarter.”

    Also, you laid out your past few months here for us….have you laid it all out like that for your boss? I would and then say, “I”m afraid this level of workload is not sustainable for the long term. What is the plan for bringing someone in to take over A, B and C?” Sometimes bosses get so used to things just “magically” getting done that they don’t even realize how much one person is doing until it’s all spelled out in a laundry list.

  67. Mrs. D*

    OP, you could be my past self from about 2 years ago. I also take great pride in my work, I enjoy being helpful, and was willing to take on a lot more at work than my position required. I was also the go-to person for SO MUCH. This carried over into my personal life, and I became the child my parents always relied on for EVERYTHING because I couldn’t say no (I am one of four kids). “No” was not in my lexicon. I knew I wasn’t happy, I was not in a good place mentally, and thoroughly exhausted. The pandemic–while a dumpster fire in so many ways–became the impetus I needed that SOMETHING HAD TO CHANGE. My mental health was suffering so much that boundaries became critical for my own physical/emotional well-being. I connected with a therapist I really like and she helped me to start setting boundaries in both my personal and professional lives. It has made a world of difference.

    I know from personal experience how difficult some of Allison’s advice can be to follow. Some of it will feel like going against your nature. There’s that part of you that will always want to say yes. If this is something you struggle to do on your own, consider getting professional help like I did to help you navigate this. It will very likely be hard at first to set those boundaries, but you WILL get better at it over time. If I can do it, so can you. You got this.

  68. Lizianna*

    In a previous job, a predecessor had this personality. She was doing so much beyond her official duties, and working so many hours. I remember ending days in tears because I felt like such a failure – I was putting in the hours my boss said he expected, and maybe accomplishing 60-75% of the work that people were asking me to do.

    Now that I’m a manager, I have team members that have this attitude. Honestly, it’s not as helpful as they think it is. It’s a short term solution, but I can’t demonstrate to my management that we don’t have enough resources to get everything done if we’re managing to get everything done.

    If my leadership gave me half a tank of gas and told me to drive 1,000 miles, I would tell them that’s physically impossible, and we’d either need to figure out a different destination or find a way to get more gas. I feel strongly the same is true for hours in the day.

    One of my first jobs, I had a boss who told me there was always going to be more work than time, and if I wanted the overtime, she’d pay as much overtime as I was willing to work. But it was my responsibility to say “enough is enough” and tell her I was done. As long as I worked the hours we’d agreed to, she wouldn’t hold it against me for turning down extra hours, even if that meant leaving work to be done next week. We talked every day about what my hours were, what projects were the priority, and if we had to shift priorities, what that meant for other projects getting done or getting delayed. It was so stressful for me, being right out of school and wanting to impress her, but it was such a great learning environment, because I really did learn to set my own boundaries. And if I had the time, and needed some extra money, I could work 10+ hours of overtime in a week.

    In my current job, there are times when I need to work extra hours, but having that experience has really allowed me to set boundaries and work with my boss about what is really time sensitive and warrants the extra hours, and what just feels urgent because no one has really thought about it.

  69. Budgie Buddy*

    I related to how OP brought up the difference in expectations between them and coworkers. It’s easy for coworkers to say “Eh just drop a few things” when the whole reason they have that freedom is because OP is there to pick up the slack. GAAH.

    As much as I hope Allison’s view is correct – that OP stepping back won’t hurt their career – I’m also skeptical. The higher ups have been trained that flaking on the part of OP’s coworkers is no biggie because tasks will still get done once they’ve been shuffled to OP. But if OP refuses a task, that’s a big freakin deal because no one will automatically step. Much bigger potential consequences. So in a weird way it’s almost logical for the higher ups to cut everyone else slack while coming down hard on OP for any minor failure.

    For all the reasons Allison outlined it’s a terrible mindset that will ultimately be to the whole company’s detriment, but the submissions are full of similar maladaptive thought processes.

    1. Anonymous Hippo*

      What we saw in a letter earlier this week (yesterday?) is that sometimes once expectations are set it is hard to walk them back.

    2. Dinwar*

      This emphasizes my point above that this is a failure of management. And it’s not just that they’ve been trained that the OP will pick up the slack. Management has allowed people to fail to fulfill their responsibilities without consequences, and has failed to adequately define roles (and enforce those definitions). That is pretty much the opposite of building a resilient and productive team. Ideally everyone can step up to help everyone; realistically you at least need multiple fallback positions. The OP’s manager has one. And has set up a situation where the system is designed (that it was unintentional is not an excuse) to break the keystone.

      The manager’s job is to address these issues within the team. That the OP is handling it now isn’t the issue; the issue is that the team is not functioning properly. The manager needs to step up and fix this.

    3. JP*

      Yeah, I see a lot of rather flippant comments on here about how she should just be saying no. It’s not always that simple.

      1. Sunny*

        But really what else is OP supposed to do? She needs to start saying no and talking to her boss about how this is not working. And then continue to say no as much as she can in the future. It would be great if the boss were better but the problem at its core would still be there. Based on the personal context she included, this sounds like a bigger than work issue and ultimately it boils down to the fact she needs to say no more often.

        Obviously it’s harder than it sounds…. but she’s already considering leaving. If management doesn’t like that she says no and she leaves the job, isn’t that already where she would have ended up anyways?

        1. Dinwar*

          The problem with “Just say no” is that it places 100% of the blame on the OP. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the OP needs to work on boundaries (no one knows this better than someone who has the same problem…). However, it’s important to recognize that this is a managerial failure as well.

          For one thing, it helps the OP say no. Remember, we’re dealing with someone with a habit of taking on extra responsibility. By definition they are not able to “Just say no” easily. Having something in place reminding themselves that–and why–this is a problem helps. Being able to remember that this is ultimately due to someone else’s failure helps more–it shifts the internal conversation from “Do I physically have the capacity?” to “Do I want to take on extra work so that someone else can slack off/doesn’t have to face the consequences of their actions?” Which do you think is going to be easier to say no to?

          For another, it helps tactically. If we were dealing with a great manager yes, saying “I’m over capacity and need to offload some of the tasks outside my core job description so I can work effectively” would be reasonable. By definition a manager who allows the team to become over-reliant on one person to the point where that person is burned out is not a good manager. So you have to approach it in other ways. For me, I’ve found that delegating as much as possible helps–with the added bonus that I can honestly claim to be mentoring junior staff and delegating more effectively to this year’s annual review. In other situations, you may have to go to your manager’s supervisor, or to HR. Regardless, knowing the manager is key to knowing how to approach them.

          It also helps interpret the manager’s other actions. I think once the OP starts to see that their manager is mismanaging them, they will see other errors in management. It’s like an optical illusion–once you switch perspectives it becomes obvious, but until you do those “obvious” things are invisible.

          It also takes some of what someone called the psychic burden off the OP. By saying “This is all my fault” the OP would be continuing to make the same error–taking on more responsibility than they should. Understanding that the system is broken will allow the OP to see their situation in a more objective way. To put this another way: By removing the stigma of failure, or at least shifting it (fairly, to where it properly belongs), the OP will give themselves room to be kind to themselves.

          Finally, speaking as someone in a similar situation, stress levels are HIGH. One way to manage this is the stories we tell ourselves about what we’re doing. In a very real sense humans don’t live in reality; we live in the stories we tell ourselves. This is basically what the Stoics were grasping at when they said it’s not the things that happen to us, but our reactions, that cause us harm. Under tremendous stress telling someone “Just say no!” is going to tell the story of “I’m an idiot who can’t even get this right!!” Telling someone “Your manager has fallen down on the job, in clear and objectively definable ways” is going to tell the story “I’m a hard worker, and some people are exploiting that.” The first feeds the inevitable negative emotions that come with stress saturation; the latter allows you to view yourself with dignity, as something worth preserving. Again, which do you think is going to make saying no easier?

      2. Karia*

        I hate when people give that advice, because it never accounts for personal / financial circumstances, unreasonable bosses or the possibility that OP has said “no” a dozen times in a dozen different ways and been ignored.

  70. Not all sunshine and daisies*

    Don’t assume that pushing back will be seen negatively. I had a very similar problem but found that when I started to push back (with the encouragement of my manager) other people started to be way more appreciative of the things I did do and treated my time with more respect (“she’s very busy so we can’t waste her time with [basic questions]. Would she possibly have time to help with this [higher level problem] that we can’t solve on our own?”)
    Actually saying no to the lower level tasks was a really key part in shifting other teams’ perceptions to me being more senior and taken more seriously. It also means I can do the things I do still deal with quicker and I get bonus points for being more responsive on those more important tasks.
    Reframing it in my head as not saying no to x, but instead saying “I need to focus on abc instead of x because those are most important things to the business” really helped me. Good luck!

  71. Sunny*

    OP this is very relatable! I’ve definitely been in your position before and found myself wondering why I was constantly so burned out. Here is what I did and while I’m still working on setting boundaries more, I hope this helps :)

    What helped me was reaching the rock bottom of stress which is sounds like you’re already at. Remember this feeling. Remember how frustrated and tired you feel. Please always keep this feeling in mind and go back to it before you volunteer to do anything else in the future. Always ask yourself “do I actually WANT to do X” before agreeing to it. Do you want to train new hires? Do you want to cover for the receptionist? Do you want to be a project manager? If the answer is no, don’t volunteer for it when it comes up. If it doesn’t benefit your career, just let the company or your boss figure it out. Do this even in your personal life too! Do you want to fix your friend’s phone for an hour? Do you want to drive people around or clean their houses? Not just can you do it but do you actually want to. If the answer is no, just say “sorry, I can’t!” with no explanation.

    Keep in mind as well you can only say “yes” to so many things. You cannot do everything. So if a new opportunity comes up and you say yes, it will mean something else has to turn into a “no” or a “not right now”. If nothing on your list can be changed to that, then you have to pass on the new opportunity. There is no option where you do everything when there simply isn’t enough time.

    The last time this happened at work I sat down with my boss. I said I wanted a raise immediately due to all the work on my plate (which he was very familiar with). He wouldn’t meet me at what I wanted so I said fine but I’m doing four jobs and I need to be doing one — if there isn’t help in the next month I’m out of here. I had suggestions on who could take some of the work and because I was valuable, he agreed. Could you maybe start with a situation like this, and then once the work is off your plate practice saying “no”? It sounds like you are really valuable to your company and like you have some room to negotiate the work you’re doing. If they won’t take away responsibilities, then you can at least say “starting this week, I can no longer do any OT. That means I can’t do X, Y, and Z, so let me know who is best to hand that off to”. And then follow up on that every day until someone else is doing that work.

    You can do it!

  72. Karia*

    Also, regardless of fault or reason or anything else, can I make a recommendation for Captain Awkward? She’s collaborated with Ask a Manager before and in one amazing letter, (which I wish I could find) she talks about how she was Jennifer, who would take on all the projects even though she had no time, for a variety of reasons. I’ve personally found her blog incredibly helpful.

  73. drpuma*

    If you can’t be replaced you can’t be promoted. OP may be damaging their long-term career prospects more than they realize.

    Lots of commenters are recommending boundaries, and I agree, but OP I’d also pay attention to what you actually like doing and how you want to spend your days longer-term. Filling in for tasks that you mastered two jobs ago? Those need to be returned to sender yesterday. Giving support that builds a relationship with someone higher up the ladder, or working on an area you want to grow your career into? Stay involved in those things if you can’t pull them entirely onto your plate (and finagle it into a path for upward growth).

  74. Taxidermybobcat*

    This is also a great example of “what got you here, won’t get you there.” If you want to advance in your career, setting boundaries to guard your time so you can take care of the top 3 most important responsibilities as part of a role with defined goals will mean saying “no” to a lot of other less important things that take time and attention away from those priorities. If you’re hired to be a Llama groomer full-time, and your KPIs are all based on Llama grooming (number of Llamas groomed per week, turnover of groomed Llamas per quarter, quality of Llama grooming), but you keep getting pulled in to groom rabbits…well, it’s important work, to be sure, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your Llama grooming KPIs, which should be more important to YOU, and that’s what a good employer should measure your work by — end results that can be clearly measured. I have a coworker who got to be in his position by being super helpful to everyone all the time, but now he has to say no to a lot of things that he used to say yes to because his focus needs to be on X, Y, Z, not A, B, C. I’ve had to help him with this by explaining to coworkers that they have to go through me to get him to work on stuff (and I’m in a position where I have the authority to do that). So one way you can find out if a future company would be focused on using your “can do” attitude in the right ways is asking in interviews “How is success in this job measured? What kinds of results do you look for? What are the KPIs for this job?” etc etc. If it’s not clearly defined, that’s not a good sign.

  75. Not Your Choo-Choo Train*

    OP, just last week a man at my toxic workplace keeled over and died. He was a supervisor who was also doing the work of three employees–after those people left, their duties became his, and no one was ever hired to replace them. Because Mr. Dead Guy was doing it all already, so why bother spending money on more people?

    He’d had a heart attack a few years ago. His doctor told him to stop taking on so much stress at his job because it negatively affected his health, but he never backed down from the piles of work and kept taking on more. What killed him was an aneurysm that was likely connected to his already weakened state brought on by overwork and the previous heart attack. He was only in his 50s. Now his wife, children, grandkids, extended family, and friends all have to spend the rest of their lives mourning him.

    Do you want that to be you? Do you want the people you care about to spend the rest of their lives sad over your entirely preventable death? I know I’m sounding dramatic and hard here, but this was a real person with a real life and real connections to loved ones, who worked himself to death when he didn’t have to.

    You’re still alive, which means there’s still time for you to save yourself! Seconding the comments that say you need to learn how to set and stick to boundaries, for your own sake. And if you don’t think you can do it alone, also seconding the recommendations to shop around till you find a good therapist to help you! (It sometimes takes more than one try to find someone you mesh with.)

    You’ve got this!

  76. Elizabeth West*

    Remind yourself that if they really care about keeping things running smoothly, they can redirect resources accordingly (i.e., hire more help).


    You have to be very clear about speaking up with “I can do X but I would need to let Y go until next week,” and you have to set that expectation as soon as possible. In my case, the job where I experienced a similar situation was full of bees and I was the lowest-level employee and no one ever listened to me. But moving past it, I have done and will continue to do that.

    If you’re in a new job and someone gives you stuff that doesn’t seem to fit, I think it’s okay to ask about it. Like, “I see Fergus expected Harriet to take care of the sheep washing when she worked here in Spinning, but it seems like the yarn reports don’t get out in a timely manner. Is this something we could delegate to the Herd Care department?”

  77. Toxic sayings*

    This is why the idea that saying “it’s not my job” is an attitude problem – is a problem.

  78. raida7*

    List out your role’s responsibilities.
    Then list out, as accurately as you can, where each of the other responsibilities has come from.

    Have a meeting with your boss to define your role, what is and isn’t included, what are reasonable hours, and what your *new* title and pay is going to be if there’s any higher duties or extended duties from your current role’s definition.
    And also suggest back-pay for the higher/extended duties you’ve been working – you mentioned project management that’s your boss’s job, that’s higher duties.

    Clearly define your limits – hours per week, for example, and when you are given work that exceeds it you TELL YOUR MANAGER AND LET THEM HANDLE TELLING THE OTHER PERSON ‘NO’. Make them do their job, in partnership with you.

    remind them that you have left more than one job due to overwork, and that part of the reason you accepted this job was their assurances of that not happening here.
    Also – take some responsibility for your habit of taking on work, so that you can ask your boss to help you in managing this oh-so-helpful-but-ultimately-not-a-good-thing behaviour in regards to this workplace.

  79. Kel’s Bells*

    I have a situation that is definitely related to this topic, but from a different angle. I have a coworker who very much thinks he’s OP, in terms of thinking he’s being asked to take on a lot of extra work (to the point where I wouldn’t be shocked if he read this blog, because a lot of his emails pushing back read almost directly like Allison’s suggested responses), but he’s actually working significantly less than most other people in the same role at the company. His go-to suggestion is always that someone else should take over portions of his projects, and because he complains, it often just easier for management just to give in and make it someone else’s problem (ironically, often dumping it on the people who really are overworked, similar to OP’s status, because they have a hard time setting boundaries). It’s incredibly frustrating to watch this happen repeatedly (I used to be one of the people with problems setting boundaries, but have gotten mostly better at protecting my own time). We’ve tried multiple strategies of coaching him to be more efficient, analyze tasks better, and set priorities, but nothing seems to stick for more than a week. Anyone have thoughts on how to resolve a situation like this?

  80. tracey*

    I haven’t read all the comments (and this one is all the way at the bottom so might not get read) but I’ve found great utility in sometimes just letting things fail.

    Like, I’ll heads people up – tell the people who need to know that X isn’t going to happen this month because I can’t catch that falling plate. The temptation is there to still catch the plate, but sometimes letting someone see the dropped plate is a whole lot more effective than pointing out repeatedly how precariously balanced it is.

    As long as I’ve sufficiently covered my arse, it’s super effective at getting people higher up to pay attention to it and decide what resources get allocated to that plate. Or if we even need that plate. If I keep catching it, nobody higher up who has to deal with the big picture will notice it.

    This metaphor may have gotten away from me

  81. Two Cents*

    Your bosses don’t like you because they can rely on you, they like you because they can take advantage of you! I’m reliable too but I don’t agree to every single potential task that hits my desk (nor should you.) You can’t rely on others to set your boundaries for you, especially not ones who benefit from you having virtually no boundaries.

  82. LittleMarshmallow*

    This may have been covered already, but I’d recommend some therapy with someone that specializes in career stuff if possible. To be clear, I could’ve written this letter too and haven’t fixed it in myself but I know the feeling and I really think it’s something that probably needs professional help to actually resolve. Good luck!!

  83. Userper Cranberries*

    If you find it difficult to say “no” when asked to do something, would it feel more feasible to reply “let me check my calendar and get back to you” in the moment? Then you can actually check your calendar and send a message saying “I don’t have the time to take that on, sorry,” “I can only do [task] if you’re okay waiting until after [date],” “I can do [new task] or [old task], but not both at the same time – which one do you want me to prioritize?” or whatever else fits the situation, knowing that you’ve considered their request and are responding accurately. You’ll still have to say no to things, but not having to make a snap decision about each individual request might make choosing what to say no to easier.

  84. WS*

    I think COVID has put a lot more people into this position, too – not necessarily covering someone else’s entire workload, but, say, Peter has to be home this week due to a COVID exposure so everyone’s doing a part of his job, but then the next week he’s back but Susan is out so some of Peter’s stuff stayed with Edmund while Peter covered for Susan, and normally there’s extra staff to deal with this overflow but Lucy just quit and we can’t find a replacement…and so on. And then you end up carrying parts of everyone’s loads and there’s no slack so you don’t have time to stop and re-distribute things and whoever is the most reliable gets the most stuff that has to be done right now. But nobody can live in continual crisis without burning out.

  85. Gabrielle*

    OP, while I agree with AAM’s advice, I wonder specifically: are you teaching people how to do the things you do?

    One way this pattern happens is if you find it easier to do something *for* someone than to walk them through it and help them understand their mistakes, because you can do it 3 times faster. If this is coming up for you, consider that the investment of teaching others is worth it.

    Specifically when someone needs my help with the same task a second time, I may point them at a how-to, or even ask them to write down a how-to “because it would really help out other people with a similar problem.”

    1. OP*

      I have tries to train people yes. But as the lowest ranked person in my department if my boss doesn’t want to okay the extra training time for my other techs then there isn’t much I can do when I ask them to train during slow times and they say no.

      This was the same issue two jobs ago. Though in that case I wasn’t lowest person on the totem pole so much as 16 supervisors across 3 divisions and getting training time okayed for any of our part time staff still required sign off since I wasn’t a supervisor. Last job there just wasn’t anyone to train. My location had three people in it before I started. Then I replaced two. Then I was only full time location employee for 8 months. And then I trained new second full time employee. And people across other locations. But we never got back to having more full time staff and requisitioning other locations staff to fill in gaps required owners okay. Which we rarely got.

  86. katkat*

    I dont know if this aplies to you, but I know a lot of people who actively volunteer without even realising that. Just because you can do something and it doesnt get done if you dont do it, doesnt mean you should do it.

    1. katkat*

      I clarify, I know people who can say “no”, but they also say “yes” a bunch of times, when nobody is even asking. They are kind of overly responsive to situations where there is a thing that needs to be done, but nobody has (yet) taken upon that. These things add up, and at some point they have too much on their plates.

  87. Macapito*

    Leverage the work for a higher title and much more pay, or leverage the work for a higher title and much more pay at a different company. Work on being competent without being helpful. There are many scripts on this site that help with “I can do X and Y or A and B but I can’t do X, Y, A, and B.”

    There are many things I know how to do but will not do. Avoid the path of least resistance; saying “no” is usually less confrontational than it may seem, and, if reasonably saying “can’t do it all” becomes confrontational, then your boss/coworkers have shown you who they are.

  88. RGB*

    Boundaries can be really tough to put in place, and often simplified into something you just DO, a simple decision you make to implement some. But I would hazard a guess that you have tied your self worth or identity in some way to being helpful or knowledgeable or good. And that motivation needs to be explored before you can easily implement meaningful boundaries.

    If you are driven by providing excellent service, and it’s this that is prompting you to say yes, remember you have needs too, and when they’re met you will do your best work.

  89. CoffeeFirst*

    It sounds like this issue has been around a long time and affects both your personal life and professional life. This is the kind of thing that therapy can really help with. We get rewards for doing some behaviors, and so they get reinforced (being the go to person), but over time a lot of imbalance can get created. It can even take a wake up call like this to realize how out of balance things are, and how much a “good” quality may not be so good for us if it’s unchecked. Good luck!

  90. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    OP you are clearly very efficient and competent. Why are you still covering for entry-level people? Why haven’t you been put in charge? Very efficient, competent managers are great, they can pick up the slack when necessary in the short-term, while planning another, longer-term solution.
    I guess the answer to both my questions is that you’re a woman, and maybe not white either. Ask to have some management training and get yourself promoted to where getting everything done is at least compensated by some extra zeros on your payslip!

    (There was a case in France recently of a woman who was actually made redundant rather than her colleagues because she worked too hard and made them look bad. I said the same thing for her: management should have promoted her instead of simply giving her more work)

  91. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    Another suggestion: any time you’re asked to pick up more work, ask how much the pay rise will be.

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