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I work in the US. I share some duties with a woman, Jane, who has been out the past few days due to her son having major surgery. Since she has been out, I have been doing all the work of the duties we share plus trying to do tasks I have been assigned we don't share. I am empathetic to what she is going through but I feel I am drowning in work.

On Saturday, Jane sent me a text advising of her son's condition which wasn't good. I empathized. I told her he is in my prayers and that her son who is 24 is a fighter. I asked if she thinks she might be in next week and she said she is not leaving her son's side in the hospital until he is stable which is understandable.

In order to let her know how things are going on the job, I explained how a particular task we both do has increased exponentially and I am trying to do the best I can to get the work done. My intention was just to update her on the state of things, not to tell her to come back to work. I understand where her priorities lie.

Then all of a sudden I receive a text saying to not bother Jane with all this and she can take all the time she needs and if you have a problem, you can talk to me on Monday. I then realized that I was actually in a group chat where Jane was updating her friends on her son's condition. I had thought Jane's text was only directed to me. This was not the case. Our manager was on the text routing list. In my defense, I did not feel I was bothering Jane.

I was just letting her know how things were going in her absence. And to know what was her plan going forward, as a friend and coworker. Now maybe it looks like I am selfish and just thinking of my workload and not her son's condition. I did not respond to my manager's text. Now I have to go in on Monday and possibly be confronted by my Manager who thinks I'm badgering Jane about coming back to work.

My question is, how do I let my manager know that I cannot keep up with my shared duties as well as my own duties and it seems Jane does not plan on coming back to work anytime soon? I also do not want to come across as unsympathetic to Jane's son situation.

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    My boss did similar to us. Increased the work without extra time or people. Gave him a list and said select 2 jobs that you want to be late. Typical manager said “I want all of them”, we said ok we will contact 2… He then asked which 2, so we picked the ones guaranteed to blow up his phone :) - suddenly he picked 2 different ones and started planning. Just have to make it real and not just do 40 hours plus 40 hours overtime.
    – Solar Mike
    Jun 5, 2023 at 1:41
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    "In my defense, I did not feel I was bothering Jane." she's at her stricken son's bedside in hospital and you're asking her about work tasks. This is a spectacularly thoughtless, misguided and rude action. The fact that you still see this as an "in my defense" point after being told otherwise by colleagues is worrying. Please make sure you learn from this and don't do anything like that again.
    – user132562
    Jun 5, 2023 at 15:36
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    When Jane initiated the contact by text, did she actually ask about work? If she did, a better way to respond would have been, "We all miss you, but we're taking care of things here so you can take care of things there."
    – Theodore
    Jun 5, 2023 at 19:47
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    "I asked if she thinks she might be in next week" why would you possibly do that?
    – njzk2
    Jun 5, 2023 at 19:53
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    Believe me. I've been analyzing my actions. Maybe I did want help, but I went about it wrong. I just let everything overflow today. My manager told me what she wanted me to focus on today and that's what I did. Everything else fell by the wayside. I got a handle on my stress level by not trying to control what I can't control. Jun 5, 2023 at 22:12

5 Answers 5

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Someone is on leave with a Medical Emergency. The heavens may be falling, the world could be ending and I would still not say anything other than 'Hope your family gets well soon'.

In that sense, your Manager was 100% correct. You aren't Jane's manager and asking the question about coming back in until she's said so can be considered a pretty AH move.

That all said - here is how you should have handled the situation. Telling your co-worker that you are thinking of her and her family, wishing them well - that's great and that should be the sum total of your communication with her at that time.

Next up should be a phone call/Email/Meeting with your boss:

"Boss, I'm trying to do the work of 2 people here, I'm not familiar with the nuances of Jane's workload and this is resulting in me taking twice as long as she would to complete the same work - I need some help as I'm drowning!"

Then let your Boss dictate your workload from there.

It might be that there are some other important but not critical tasks that can be temporarily suspended from your workload. There may be some other people in the Office/Company that are a little light on work and could be an extra pair of hands. It could be that there's OT available. It may even be that the Boss says 'Yep, I hear you - we are all a bit screwed, just do the best you can to keep everything afloat and we will worry about the mess later'.

That is all your boss' responsibility, managing staff and managing workload etc.

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how do I let my manager know that I cannot keep up with my shared duties as well as my own duties

Call your manager so you are sure you are talking one-to-one.

Something like "I cannot keep up with my shared duties as well as my own duties" should convey your feelings. Then listen for directions from your manager.

Leave the speculation regarding your coworker's return out of the conversation.

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    Ok. Thank you. I will see what direction I get. Jun 5, 2023 at 0:09
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    And don't feel guilty that you suddenly can't perform the work of two people!
    – spuck
    Jun 5, 2023 at 22:27
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    Calling sounds fine on one level, but an email would at least put the problem on the record in case that's needed in the future. Jun 6, 2023 at 23:15
  • @StephenG-HelpUkraine: Yes. The details of how you communicate will depend on conventions and circumstances (office/remote work, availability of supervisor, any company policies etc.). Joe's advice of doing this one-on-one at first still seems good to me.
    – sleske
    Jan 18 at 11:19
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You made an understandable mistake.

For Jane: Send a short message saying best wishes (or prayers) for her son and sorry for mentioning all the work stuff.

For your boss: As soon as possible on Monday, apologise for burdening Jane, say thanks for the reminder about how you should support her as a friend and colleague, and then say you do have a work problem to solve with them around immediate workload.

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    @DiligentWorker25 text your colleague by all means but don't bother her with your excuses. Wait for her to ask how you are coping at work. If she doesn't say anything it means her son is still seriously ill. Be a friend, don't add to her burden, ask how her son is doing and if she needs anything, she can talk to you.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 5, 2023 at 6:07
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    @DiligentWorker25 maybe you're right that an apology to the boss isn't necessary, but an acknowledgement of the direction to give Jane a break seems sensible. I think the boss made the right intervention. Just let Jane focus on her family.
    – Adam Burke
    Jun 5, 2023 at 7:58
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    Receiving prayers is awkward for many non-religious persons. Just wish her (or her son) the best and tell her to take her time.
    – Michael
    Jun 5, 2023 at 15:50
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    Stop talking to your colleague, you've already done the damage and nothing will change it. Texting her again will only bring it back up. Don't give her a reason to think about you until she's back in the office, then apologise when you see her.
    – user132562
    Jun 6, 2023 at 9:00
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    @DiligentWorker25 the apology to the boss is for being unthoughtful with one of her subordinates (i.e., Jane). I've indirectly been in a similar situation before (being with a group of people who interjected work into a situation when someone was in the hospital), and under similarly stressful circumstances, but we were wrong. Acknowledging that is useful for repairing the relationship with Jane. Letting your manager know you understand that you messed up will probably mitigate her presumably negative feeling about you right now. Jun 6, 2023 at 19:49
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I agree with the other answers that your message was quite inappropriate.

However I think there's an underlying cause that needs to be addressed.

In Jane's absence, you've been helping cover her workload, which is understandable and admirable. However, the fact that there is too much work for you to accomplish is not Jane's problem, nor is it your problem. This is fundamentally your manager's problem.

At your earliest possible opportunity you need to sit down with your boss and go over the workload:

Boss, as you know I've been trying to cover Jane's work while she has been out. Unfortunately, it's not possible for me to keep up with two people's work in the long term and it has started piling up beyond my capacity. I want to get ahead of this and discuss my capacity for continued assistance Jane's absence, but also strategies to deprioritize non-essential work or reassign to other personnel as necessary. I'd like to get this sorted out ASAP so that I can continue to deliver high quality work and so we can continue to meet our deadlines.

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    +1 - a number of questions on this site go along the lines of "I have too much work, what can I do?", and always forget it's the manager's job to allocate and prioritise work.
    – komodosp
    Jun 7, 2023 at 15:29
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    @komodosp agreed
    – Blackhawk
    Jun 7, 2023 at 16:21
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+300

My intention was just to update her on the state of things, not to tell her to come back to work.

Keeping up to date with the work situation is part of someone's work duties. You were asking Jane to focus on work at a time where she was clearly not available to work.

I am empathetic to what she is going through but I feel I am drowning in work.

Be really careful about mentioning two things in the same breath.

Individually, both statements are harmless. By connecting them in a single sentence, especially with a "but", you are making a very strong implication that one is affecting the other. In this case, it's very easily inferred that your empathy towards Jane's situation is lessened due to it causing you to "drown in work", which is an inherently selfish consideration.

Honestly, if I were Jane I'd be more inclined to take offence to the above statement than to the alleged update you sent in a group chat.

Now maybe it looks like I am selfish and just thinking of my workload and not her son's condition.

This isn't "maybe it looks like" territory. This is "I totally did this" territory.

You were selfish. You were just thinking of your workload. You weren't thinking of Jane's son's condition and what state Jane might have been in because of it.

Your question is written from the perspective of the caused offense being a mistaken perception by others. It's not. They saw what you did and correctly identified it for what it was.
Any continuation on how to "dispel the misconception" is a rejection of reality and does a disservice both to Jane and your coworkers' opinion of you.

In the interest of genuinely making amends, you first have to genuinely own up to what you did instead of trying to reframe it as if others misunderstood what you were really trying to achieve. Avoiding the responsibility for your mistake will impact you more negatively than having made the mistake (but openly owning up to it).

Then all of a sudden I receive a text saying to not bother Jane with all this and she can take all the time she needs and if you have a problem, you can talk to me on Monday.

This does not sound like "we will discuss your behavior on Monday". It sounds more like "I'm available on Monday to discuss the difficulties with your workload". In other words, the "problem" referred to in your manager's comms seems (to me) to refer to your problem with the increased workload, not your "problem" with Jane's absence from work.

My question is, how do I let my manager know that I cannot keep up with my shared duties as well as my own duties

I'm pretty sure that your manager, based on the text they sent you, is already aware of this and intending to talk to you about it on Monday. If not, you can bring this up on Monday, pretty much in the same manner that you phrased it here, ...

and it seems Jane does not plan on coming back to work anytime soon?

... but keep Jane out of it, even indirectly.

You've already put your foot in your mouth once, there's no need to shove it back in. Jane's absence is not the core of your problem and due to your prior mistake it is better to steer clear of any further reference to it, because you will eventually come across as having a problem with Jane being absent.

Even if I completely believe you that there was no shred of selfishness in your intention, you're still naively using phrasings such as "I am empathetic to what she is going through but [..]", which very much contradicts your claim that your workload is not affecting your empathy for Jane.

My advice is that you steer clear from referencing Jane in any way, simply to avoid making any more statements that, while maybe naïve and unintentional, imply a problematic attitude towards Jane's absence.

Stick to the simpler argument of "there is X workload, I have Y time, and X is bigger than Y". The solution here should not involve Jane in any way, shape or form. It is the company's responsibility to tackle its workload based on the capacity they have at the time.

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    I realize now I was not tactful. I thought I was talking only to Jane and we always text each other about work stuff. I have since explained to her that I was in no way telling her to come back to work. I told her I understood her priorities are with her family. We texted today with her in the hospital in the room with her son while he slept. She asked me about work and even how much had accumulated. I told her. I did not say we need you back here. I was just being informative. I think alking about work is healthy in that the conversation can briefly take her mind off her son. Jun 7, 2023 at 1:17
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    @DiligentWorker25 "I have since explained to her that I was in no way telling her to come back to work." This is not the core point. Even if had been clear that you weren't, your message still crossed a line. "I think talking about work is healthy in that the conversation can briefly take her mind off her son." Do not make decisions about what someone else might or might not find helpful to think about, especially with it's about a job that they're absent from for an emotionally charged reason. If she asks about it, all fine, but you do not get to make that call.
    – Flater
    Jun 7, 2023 at 1:44

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