Help! I’m Drowning in Admin and Can’t Get My Actual Job Done

Dear OOO,

For years now, companies I’ve worked for have cut budgets by (first) cutting support staff. But that means senior staff are doing more and more administrative work. I’m not saying this is beneath us; admin work is crucial. It’s just that doing the tasks we were hired for, which can help the company’s bottom line, gets sidelined or pushed to evening and weekend hours. Is there any way to combat this trend?

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—Anonymous

My first thought when I read your question, Anonymous, was that you must be a fellow journalist—support staff barely exist in most companies I’ve worked for, and few industries have cut as much from annual budgets as ours. But then I lost two hours of my day down a rabbit hole of depressing articles about the death of administrative jobs—turns out 40 percent of administrative assistant roles disappeared between 2000 and 2020, a number comparable to manufacturing job losses. And that was before the pandemic, which caused massive cost cuts at a huge number of companies, but whose lasting effects aren’t yet visible in federal data.

So you’re not alone, and this is absolutely a worrisome trend. Administrative staff are often the only people keeping companies from utter chaos. What’s more, 95 percent of those jobs are held by women, one of many factors causing them to suffer disproportionate unemployment rates during this recession. Some of these positions are occupied by long-serving employees with invaluable institutional knowledge, others by young whippersnappers who are destined for senior leadership jobs. Too many people take these roles for granted, but they certainly miss them when they’re gone. And of course, it makes no economic sense for companies to lay off lower-paid support staff and thus make higher-paid senior staff do administrative work, but I long ago stopped trying to rationalize most companies’ decisions.

 

I wonder, though: How have you tried to deal with this at your own workplace? If you’re not doing the job you were hired for, something needs to change. Or if you’re working nights and weekends to get everything done, you’re at risk of burnout and leaving the company. Have you said that to anyone?

Easier said than done, I realize. Most of us, especially members of one or more historically marginalized groups, have been socialized to avoid making waves at all costs, silently doing whatever it takes to keep the place running and the boss happy. But I’d also argue we have a responsibility to model behaviors—like standing up for ourselves—to our colleagues, especially more junior and more vulnerable ones. A colleague recently did something in front of me that seemed straightforward but stunned me slightly in the moment. While discussing his job with a superior on a meeting among the three of us, he said something like, “I’d recommend that we move X and Y tasks to someone more junior. That will free me up to do A and B, which are things only I can do.” He also pointed out that he knew there was currently no obvious person to assume those responsibilities, but he offered some creative ideas about people who are ready to grow and try new things.

What I like about this framing is that it was constructive but didn’t bury the point in a flurry of apologies or “I just thought” statements or equivocations. Give it a try, Anonymous. Maybe your boss will brush you off or say there’s no one else who can do these tasks, in which case you may consider looking for a new job. But maybe they just haven’t realized how much extra work you’re taking on—because they’re oblivious, or because you’ve been shooting yourself in the foot by covering it up—and once you bring it to their attention they’ll want to fix the problem. (It’s possible you won’t get more support staff, but there might be other ways to be sure disproportionate burdens aren’t falling on one person.)

Finally, remember that losing senior staff and having to hire new ones is a gigantic headache your boss would very much like to avoid, and that this gives you leverage when you explain what you need to do your job effectively and feel fulfilled in your work. So give them a call.


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