You’ve become the “go-to” person in your office for a slew of tasks that nobody else can (or will) do. Good news: You feel indispensable. Bad news: You can basically never take a vacation. Here’s how to get out of this mess—or, better yet, avoid it in the first place.
Dear Human Resource,
How do you avoid being/becoming the go-to-guy (or girl) for every complicated task that no one else wants (or is able) to do?
I started at my current (nonprofit) organization a few years ago as an administrative assistant. Through a process of layoffs, resignations, and reorganizations, I now wear many hats... office manager, tech support, HR department, webmaster, building/facilities liaison, event manager, landlord/coordinator to outside renters and more. Every time my job description is rewritten, more responsibilities are added. After eight months of meetings, reviews, arguments and negotiations, I finally began receiving a fair wage and was allowed to hire an administrative assistant.
Still, the phrase “Dana Can Do It!” has practically become the organization’s motto. (Dana is not my real name, but you get the idea.) It’s nice to be needed; being indispensable is always good for job security. On the other hand, I have not been able to take a vacation in over two years, being the only one on staff who can complete certain tasks, which must be done from week to week.
Lately, as I approached burnout, I have begun to politely refuse tasks that are outside the range of my job description. I ended up having a kind of mini-nervous breakdown. A co-manager and supervisor has reprimanded me for my “bad attitude,” and for supposedly taking too many sick days. (I am still within my allotted number of paid days off for the year).
I am investigating my options, but meanwhile am gradually teaching my assistant the basics of my job so that the office would not grind to a halt without me, and I’m still saying “no” to new tasks when they could be delegated. But I worry about losing my “indispensable” status. Where is the middle ground? What can I do to improve the situation?
I’m also interested in any advice you might have for managers that see this sort of thing happening to their employees, so they might be able to correct the issue before it becomes a great big slobbering problem, as it has in my case.
It’s interesting that you throw in that last bit about advice for managers—yet you say so little about your experience with your manager(s). You mention hard-fought negotiation, then a kind of breaking point, and a “co-manager” berating you. What probably matters most here is the communication that’s happening—or not happening—in between these more dramatic moments.
I suspect that this got complicated for you because of the tension you identify between wanting to feel like the “indispensable” office superhero, and wanting to be able to take time off like a regular mortal. Versions of this problem are actually pretty commonplace. Here’s how to fix it (or avoid it altogether if you move on to someplace new).
You are not a superhero
First off, pretty much nobody is indispensable. And thinking of oneself in those terms is a bad idea. It can lead to an unhealthy overconfidence or, as in your case, can leave one vulnerable to exploitation. Your colleagues my not even realize they’re exploiting you. But it’s basic human nature to say, “Dana can do it!” if in fact Dana not only can do it but has a reputation for and track record of being quite willing to do it. I mean, I’d let you write this column for me if I could get away with it!
But the truth is, if you were suddenly abducted by aliens, your organization would not close its doors. That is not a comment on you. If Drew Brees retired tomorrow, my New Orleans Saints might not have their best season, but the team would not dissolve. Life would go on.
What you should aim for is to be appreciated as a really helpful and positive person to have around—wanted rather than (supposedly) needed. This mindset frees you, even encourages you, to add something really useful to your portfolio of skills: delegation.
While it may be true that a really smart and enlightened manager would have spotted your dilemma and swooped in to save the day, it is definitely true that you can’t always count on that happening. Nobody knows the challenges you face better than you do.
So don’t wait to present these to your boss in the form of exasperated complaints as you near (an understandable) meltdown. Be proactive. One preferred strategy when going to a manager is to get quickly to the part where you float the solutions: “I’ve noticed that there’s a bottleneck with people needing me to do X, Y, and Z, and I can’t be in two places at once. So I think we can solve that by training so-and-so to do X. That should make us all more efficient.”
Be open to other ideas, of course, whether they come from the boss or somebody else. In fact, seek other ideas. Presumably every task “only you” can do was, prior to your arrival, done by someone else. Where is that person now? Can you reach out and maybe get some insights you could deploy to make your life easier? Or at can you at least ask your boss how X, Y, and Z were handled in the past?
Some of this may not be possible. But the broader point is to try to forge open lines of communication with your manager, so that you don’t find yourself waiting for a crisis to emerge to point out a problem.
Stiffen your spine
None of this means rolling over; in fact it means the opposite. And the deeply unfair no-vacation problem offers an opportunity.
Don’t bother framing that as an outrage that needs to be addressed (even though it is). Be matter of fact: “I’m planning to take two weeks off this fall (or whatever), and I want to make sure everything will get done in my absence. Can I get your help in making sure this goes smoothly?”
Note that while this sounds accommodating, it’s presented as a fact. You are taking the vacation, and it’s in everyone’s interest to minimize any resulting problems.
That’s the tone you want to establish in general: You’re competent, you get things done, and you have the organization’s interest in mind. And that’s exactly why your bosses should make sure they don’t let you burn yourself out by trying to be some kind of superhero.
Send your work-world questions to email@example.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.