Worse than being too busy: not being busy enough

Estimated reading time: 2 mins

Lots of stuff gets written about heavy workloads, and the stress that can accompany it. Much less gets written about the stress from being under-utilized.

If you’ve never been in this situation, I can completely understand it when you say “Jeez… if only! What a great place to be!”, but it really isn’t like that.

Being under-utilized creates a feeling of vulnerability and damages self-esteem. An old buddy of mine (and for obvious reasons, remains nameless) finds himself in this situation. “I am constantly looking for things to do. I can do my job in half the time I have to do it in. The problem isn’t the boredom, it is the sense of feeling worthless and also standing on thin ice – my employer is going through a merger and my worry is about how I justify my position. I try to look busy, when really I am just killing time.”

What can cause under-utilization?

  1. Your manager doesn’t know you’re not busy – you’re not being given enough work to do by your manager because he or she doesn’t know that you are not busy
  2. The workload on your department has reduced – there is no more work to do. Work has dried up
  3. You’re very efficient – you can do more work than is allocated to you. Your productivity beats what is expected of you, which means you complete your workload faster than the time you are given

Cause 1 is something you can resolve. It might be a simple matter of talking to your boss and explaining that you could do more. Although question yourself why you haven’t already done this first… are you cautious about reversing the situation and taking on too much work? Are you nervous about opening a can of worms about your role and its value? Your manager should understand these things… but if your manager has other agendas (e.g. if you suspect your boss is constructing an exit for you) then I understand this leaves you in a bit of a pickle – however, constructive dismissal (as it’s caused) is actually illegal in most countries. So perhaps a facilitated conversation with HR is needed, but only once you have actually tried to resolve this with your manager.

Cause 2 is a situation completely out of your control. In this case, there isn’t much you can do other than to offer your time to co-workers. Involve your manager when you do.

Cause 3 is something you have created. Nice work. Perhaps you’re ready to take on a bigger role or be open that you can do more and want to do more? Your manager can delegate more responsibility, if they choose to. Perhaps you could use your Performance Review to agree a path to promotion?

Whatever the cause…

A conversation with your manager is due. If you can do more – then do more. If you’re reading this then it’s clear that you are not happy with the situation, so go fix it. Openness and honesty will be rewarded with more interesting, progressive work. Don’t sit back and twiddle your thumbs as you’re de-valuing your time and career!

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