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Swamped! (While Coworker Does Nothing)

illustration by Billiam James ©verbotomy.com

rona maynard Rona Maynard’s career as a pace-setting magazine editor, award-winning journalist, acclaimed author and inspirational speaker owes much to the lessons she has drawn from coping with difficult people, both professionally and personally. Rona edited Chatelaine, Canada’s number one magazine for women, during a decade of innovation in which she attracted a new generation of readers. Rona continues to share her life-tested wisdom on her award-winning interactive website, ronamaynard.com, and at the podium. Her most sought-after speech is “Life-Changing Lessons from Difficult People.” Readers continent-wide have found themselves reflected in her memoir My Mother’s Daughter (Emblem Editions).

Dear Office Politics,

Please can someone help me sort a work situation out?

For the past year I have been covering two full time roles, my own and that of a colleague on maternity leave. This has involved a huge amount of extra hours and unbelievable pressure. To make matters worse, I have now been told that the colleague will not be returning to work and that I will be expected to cover the two roles on a permanent basis.

My boss has agreed that I have been swamped with work and promises to arrange help but it never materializes due to lack of funds. During this time I have sat opposite a co-worker who has a very low workload (she actually boasts that she has nothing to do) and so spends a chunk of every day either surfing the internet, talking or texting. It has driven me to despair and and even though other colleagues have constantly asked how she gets away with this behavior, they do not complain to our boss. My problem is that I resent her attitude so much the only way I can cope is to completely ignore her, I just want to block her out. Another colleague has now told me that she plans to complain to my boss that I blank her, etc. etc. I know this makes me sound awful but it really is the only way I have been able to deal, or not, with her.

Can you please tell me how to deal with the situation if she does complain to my boss? He is aware that she is not fully utilized and has said it will be addressed but that was months ago…



Dear Swamped,

Nobody likes to be a snitch. Not you, even though you’ve been struggling to carry the load for two people. Not the colleagues who grouse behind Ms. Do-Nothing’s back. It seems so mean, so sneaky. It brings back memories of playground spats in which the kid who complained to the teacher was cast as a lowly tattle-tale. Maybe you were once that kid. Many of us have been at some time or other. But the time to start acting like a grownup is long overdue.

The illusion of the powerful boss to solve all problems
You’ve been counting on a powerful person, your boss, to step in and save you from frustration. But your boss has been following the path of least resistance, as bosses tend to do when budgets get tight. It’s easy to smile and nod and make vague promises, not so easy to restructure a department and all but impossible to wangle what’s been deemed an extra position from higher-ups determined to “reduce headcount,” as the corporate mantra goes. By biting your tongue and gamely soldiering on, you’ve encouraged your boss to believe that you can cope–not happily, but capably enough. These days, most bosses don’t expect their staff to be happy. They won’t take action unless a credible person rings the agony alarm bell. And now that person just might be Ms. Do-Nothing. Okay, so she’s not exactly Ms. Credibility. Not in the eyes of the staff, anyway. But the average boss has only the vaguest notion what’s going on in the trenches.

Your own worst enemy?
Do I have to say you’ve been your own worst enemy? It’s pretty clear you already know this. Giving your colleague the silent treatment makes you “sound awful,” you admit. You couldn’t think of anything else to do because, like so many (especially women), you’d rather have root canal surgery than confront someone. Have you ever asked the texting, talking layabout to give you a hand? If you perform related duties, it would be a fair and timely question–maybe even an urgent one. The stronger the collaborative spirit on a team, the faster the work gets done. You and your colleagues aren’t exactly a team, to judge from your letter. You are mired in resentment and distrust. And while you didn’t create this woeful situation single-handed, you do have the power to start turning things around in a frank conversation with your boss.

Follow a plan to turn this around
You need to book a meeting, at the earliest opportunity, to talk about a work-load crunch that is undermining morale and compromising efficiency. Don’t just walk into the boss’s office and exclaim at how exhausted and overworked you are. Follow a plan. Get your most trusted colleagues involved. Document problems that could have been avoided with a fair distribution of effort. Don’t just point the finger at one person who isn’t doing her share and should be given a talking-to (or shown the door). Let Ms. Do-Nothing play the blame game while you wrap yourself in the mantle of cooperation. It will become clear enough in the course of this discussion that someone isn’t pulling her weight. There’s a saying in management circles: “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

I don’t mean to make this sound easy. Fact is, it won’t be. If I were in your boss’s shoes, I would certainly ask why you waited so long to tell the complicated truth. You didn’t have a good reason, did you? Seems to me you gave your colleague the evil eye because you couldn’t find the courage to do something more constructive. There’s a name for this kind of behaviour: passive/aggressive.

You’re wise to own up to your mistake and commit to being honest and direct from now on. There’s a name for this kind of behaviour, too: leadership.

In one strategic conversation, you can start to cast yourself as the kind of solution-oriented ally every smart boss needs–courageous enough to tell the truth and to admit when she’s in the wrong.

Good luck. Here’s to the next chapter of your career. I’ve enjoyed meeting you here at officepolitics.com and hope you’ll check in again to let us know you’re progressing.


Rona Maynard, Author

My Mother’s Daughter book cover

Rona Maynard is the author of My Mother’s Daughter a memoir published by McClelland & Stewart in September, 2007.

Rona Maynard’s career as an award-winning journalist, leading magazine editor, acclaimed author and inspirational speaker owes much to the lessons she has drawn from coping with difficult people, both professionally and personally.

Rona edited Chatelaine, Canada’s number one magazine for women, during a decade of growth and innovation in which she attracted a new generation of readers to the franchise. While meeting every benchmark of success, she contended daily with complaints from readers, directives from corporate brass and the strong personalities on her creative staff, who ranged from seasoned baby boomers to Gen Yers with sharply different expectations. The team Rona built was honored internationally for journalism, design and overall editorial excellence. A dedicated mentor, she groomed five people who went on to edit national magazines—among many others who are now viewed as leaders in their industry.

When Rona had fulfilled her vision for Chatelaine, she stepped down to write the memoir her readers had been asking for. In My Mother’s Daughter, she tells the no-holds-barred story of how she became her own woman because of—and in spite of—the enthralling but domineering woman who formed her. From her struggles with a crazy-making boss, an undermining colleague and an alcoholic father, she draws a road map to living with integrity, purpose and joy. Alice Munro has called My Mother’s Daughter “wonderfully honest and enthralling.”

Rona continues to share her hard-won wisdom on her award-winning interactive website, ronamaynard.com, and at the podium. Her most sought-after speech is “Life-Changing Lessons from Difficult People.” Audiences say that Rona’s message brings them energy, hope and pointers they can use to transform their own lives.

Rona’s personal honors include a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, a National Champion of Mental Health Award and a Woman of Action Award from the Israel Cancer Research Fund, as well as numerous writing awards.

  1. 13 Answers to “Swamped! (While Coworker Does Nothing)”

  2. It would be nice if everybody worked in a rational world but this person’s coworker is not rational and neither is their boss. I’ve been there.

    Swamped is about to burn out or blow up. I know because my coworker was not only oblivious to the fact that he was causing the problems, he was oblivious that there was any problem. Asking him to do any of the work he should have been doing was like asking a mirror to show motion images like a TV.

    He did not have the skills to do the work that got shoved onto me and for long periods he was away from his desk. I got questioned constantly about where he was, why he didn’t answer phone calls or emails, or where his files were and I refused to answer. He couldn’t keep files. Not in hardcopy and not on the computer. When he typed something on the computer, he saved it into the same file name every time. I kid you not.

    I blew up one day when my do-nothing coworker got snide with me about something that was on his plate to do. Not long after that, relatively speaking, he retired.

    My boss knew about all of this co-worker’s behavior and so does Swamped’s boss and he has done nothing. He is not going to do anything as the result of a meeting, he thinks he’s doing the company a favor by not asking to hire anybody new. He’s not only taking the path of least resistance, he’s justifying it to himself as not getting in trouble with his boss. He knows the coworker does nothing because he knows he hasn’t assigned her any work to do. Otherwise he would be getting after her for not turning it in.

    This boss thinks he has made a rational decision and he’s either oblivious to the unwanted consequences or he doesn’t care what they are as long as he doesn’t get in any trouble. I’ve worked for a boss like that; he tried to get one of my coworkers to lie about why a mailing didn’t go out the day it was supposed to. To her praise, she refused. He also suggested I use sleeping pills when stress was undermining my health starting with my ability to sleep. If Swamped thinks back she will probably remember similar things her boss has done in the interest of expediency and not getting in trouble. That kind of boss will never solve problems. Swamped knows this on some level or she probably would have had this suggested meeting already.

    Now, I’ve been on the receiving end to with the same boss and the issue was that this boss was a micromanager and I spent a lot of my time waiting around while he letter by letter reviewed documentation for the sixtieth (small exaggeration) edit cycle. It was impossible to go forward until he approved the exact wording and punctuation. He refused to maintain editorial standards because that would have taken power away from him. He too was often missing in action doing non-work related things and I refused to keep track of him for his boss. Finally I was moved to a different section and given a project of my own to run and gave great satisfaction while he was shunted to a project where it didn’t matter if he was three weeks late completing something.

    Just because Swamped feels awful doesn’t mean she is responsible for the situation and I suspect part of her behavior is because she knows already that her boss won’t respond to rational suggestions. She may even suspect her boss will never give her the power to exhibit leadership. That’s why I say she needs to look at her options and seriously consider getting out.

    By not always rational on Jul 14, 2010

  3. I feel for Swamped and was disappointed when I read the original advice she was given. I’ve been in the position of being over worked while my co-workers sit around surfing the net and blabbing to each other for hours, taking long lunches, while they kiss a– and shuffle papers whenever the boss walks by. Meanwhile I’m workng consistently and becoming more and more resentful as a human being would. The original advice assumes that Swamped is working with a boss who cares and has a good sense of judgment and perception – ha! I’ve tried reasoning with management and bosses before only to find that they are beyond caring or completely clueless. As long as the work gets done they don’t care who is doing it. Just because someone schedules a meeting instead of walking in the bosses office exasperated and un-announced does not make a difference. I’ve heard that advice before and it’s ridiculous. What matters is how much your boss likes you and believes in you and how much the boss likes and believes the lazy co-workers or whomever is playing the game. “Not Always Rational” gave the better and more realistic advice, in my opinion.

    By Michelle on Jul 29, 2010

  4. What do you do when two managers are at each others throats and both expect you to take their side?

    By Tori on Aug 1, 2010

  5. I’m not an expert, but I have an opinion here. You don’t necessarily need to admit to being wrong in your behavior and change your personality. I would take it one step at a time and start with a friendly but short request to offload a _specific_ block of work from yourself to your less-busy colleague. It is a friendy request, not an order, and both your boss and the colleague are in the line of communication, so you are not overstepping your authority to _tentatively_ step in and help your boss for a moment. Just say, “I am getting swamped this week and I would like to know if colleague X can work on task Y to help me catch up.” It’s a simple yes or no, and if either of them say no, then haven’t solved anything, but it shouldn’t make your situation any worse either. If either of them say yes, then the hard part is done. I think approaching it more formally as a “general” problem could be seen by either your boss or your colleague as an attack against them.

    By Solomon on Aug 30, 2010

  6. I have to agree with Rona – Ms. Do-Nothing could be a victim of our economy’s inability to provide on-the-job training for new employees, a situation that could leave highly capable co-workers with an inability to just jump in and get to work. For anyone who’s ever suffered an internship of envelope stuffing, “nothing to do,” sounds like a cry for help, not gloating. If Swamp steps in and offers some how-to’s, her problem could be rectified a lot quicker than if she continued to stew about it.

    By Megan on Dec 23, 2010

  7. I’m in a similar situation as Swamped.

    There are a number of co-workers (about half the company of 10) who are highly incompetent, lazy, and unwilling to learn even if there was competency. These ‘free loaders’ unfortunately have more seniority and therefore higher salaries than the rest of us (the other co-workers, myself included), which is beyond me: Are we the government? We have voiced our concerns to the boss regarding the issue, but like Rona has said, my boss has made vague promises and no attempt to provide a remedy because of the perceived difficulty of change. He claims he understands the situation, but he does nothing but provide excuses on behalf of the bunch. Clearly, he either doesn’t understand the situation (unlikely), or favors them (likely).

    I have decided that the only way out of a situation like mine is to find a way ‘out’, this is of course taking into account the fact that the boss will not do anything to better the situation, effectively turning the company into a ‘charity’ for those unable. I have been considering my options, and fortunately for me my current place of employment is not all that great, so it only makes it easier to leave.

    By Freeman on Dec 28, 2010

  8. Put on your sweetest face and explain to your boss that you are swamped, doing two jobs (who could possibly expect you to do two jobs perfectly? Some people cant even manage one!). Ask if there is anyone else in the office that could help you out. If your boss says no, say “well, on more than one occasion, so and so has complained to me that they are lacking work to do, I was just wondering if she might be able to help me out. That way I get the help I need and she doesn’t have to be bored at work” or something to that effect. Reiterate the benefits!

    By Lindsay on Feb 9, 2011

  9. i ‘ve been in the exact same situation, not too long ago. I was horribly busy and this other coworker was just sitting around and playing chess. Plus she openly boasted about it.

    And this happened in a dept. in which every employee’s performance is being tracked in terms of number of jobs performed each day. My supervisor and manager knew it but never ever took any action about it.

    But, what I find sad is that – lots of things she boasted about – were simple plain lies. She was almost equally busy, but pretended to be ‘slow’, just to annoy me. And silly me, fell for it.

    Also, another factor that made it look like hell, was, that I am always stressed until the job is actually completely done. But aforesaid coworker is happy as long as she can estimate how long it will take (as in, if she can finish the work before 5.00 pm; then she is totally relaxed and try to poke others). She was just playing smarter.

    now, she befriended the supervisor and moved to the next level (not a promotion, but definitely ahead). This is when I was truly upset and it inspired me to start looking for other jobs. And I did get a much better one shortly.

    One good thing was that I was being paid by the hour, so even if I had to stay late, I was being paid accordingly.

    anyways, from this new job onwards, I stopped worrying about co-workers being busy or swamped. I finish as much as I can in a day and go home. I am happy. I remind myself to stay happy.

    By newbornintheblock on Mar 20, 2011

  10. I feel and look like the person in the illustration – “Swamped”. You like your job, but the position is 2.5 times the normal work load than any other position in the office, and you’re probably paid a fraction less of everyone else. You are doing three tasks at one time, only to find the everyone else capable of helping you out doing nothing, or standing around talking. What is wrong wth this picture? Why do Boss’s allow it? Why can’t I find that dream job, I am a very hard worker.

    By Karen on Jun 2, 2011

  11. I worked for a temping agency and under one assignment I was working for the National Health Service. Another lady started the same time as me. At that time I was a timid and soft spoken person who just got on with work but did things properly hence it took time. For the other she was bolshy, overconfident and gossipy-perfect office material for the clique we were in. Others could see I was working like a dog whereas this lady would complain she had nothing to do and went out frequently for fag breaks. Hence she got converted from temp to perm and my services were not required anymore.

    I think that as a supervior it is more easy to work with people who tell you what you want to hear be it true or false (aka agreeable), shows off the limited skills they have (ie demonstrative of what they can do), blags work outload be it their own or thru somewhere else (ie proving results), slags off other coworkers (ie, adjusting to their work environment and office peers) as it makes the job easier. The one who doesn’t prove themselves by doing the abovesaid because they’re too busy contributing to work is the one to lose out.

    Such is the nature of office politics-I’ve worked in an office for ten years with co workers and managers and know the talk-i just don’t walk it entirely because I prefer to have some humanity left. Hence I am still dirt poor, earning nearly half of what I should earn.

    By Notgettinganyyounger on Oct 19, 2011

  12. Favoritism is what drives the unfair work overloasds of the scapegoats while the favorites don’t know what to do with their fully paid company time. Shoe shopping, web browsing, chit chatting on the phone and text messaging are the most popular activities. The favorites are micro-managers’ office pets that gladly accept free time and pissibility of getting away with anything while completely disrespecting their highly unprofessional and selfish boss.

    By Anthony Gazer on Jun 12, 2012

  13. Since you have taken this issue to your boss who has yet to do anything I would then take the concern to his or her boss. Make sure you are documenting your concerns and who you have already talked to. When addressing the issue with your bosses boss I would also include your human resources in on the issue.

    By ready and willing on Nov 30, 2014

  14. I feel sorry for the OP because I am in the same situation. I agree with what others have said, the suggestions do not work if your boss and/or your bosses’ boss is not rational. I am in this same situation. A person in my company was demoted because she did very poorly at her job and was demoted to the same position as myself, which paid about $2 less per hour than her higher, previous position. She is resentful of this demotion and refuses to do a lot of the work that she is supposed to. I found out the company did not decrease her pay and is letting her constantly not do part of her job..it just get shoved onto me. I’ve spoken a few times with my boss on the issue of her not doing her job and my boss just tells me ‘oh I (meaning me) can just do it.’ I’ve told them that she has the same job as me and should be doing her job, not me do my job and part of hers when she is perfectly capable. My boss just says, well if I go to her boss, he will just tell you (meaning me) that you can take care of it also. My bosses’ boss also knows of this person slacking off all the time and he has said that well it’s best to just let it go so she doesn’t start an office problem. So ya, here I am one of the workers that is constantly the go to person, i get paid a lot less than this other person, the boss said i can just deal with it and do part of her job too because its just too much of a hassle to make her do her job. (basically) It’s not right…another reason why I hate office politics.

    By Icy on Sep 8, 2015

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