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Coping with "Ghost Work"

The good news is that after the last round of layoffs, you were left standing. The bad news is that now you're responsible for doing your own job plus your coworkers' jobs.  To make things even more difficult, when they left, they took with them their unique skills and knowledge.

Like many employees these days, you may be burdened with ghost work—the extra work employees have to take on after their coworkers have departed. You now have more work to do in less time. Perhaps you even lack the skills to accomplish former co-workers' tasks.

Here are six strategies to keep ghost work from haunting you and having a negative impact on your performance.

  • Show your boss you want to master new responsibilities. Ask your boss or supervisor to provide you with detailed job descriptions of laid-off co-workers whose responsibilities you are now expected to shoulder.

  • Prioritize and integrate new tasks. Rate each newly acquired task according to its frequency or urgency—daily, weekly, or monthly. Reorganize the tasks into subgroups by frequency, and again into categories such as client relations, sales, administration, and so forth.
  • Seek constructive feedback from those above you. Set up a meeting with your boss or supervisor to review your new tasks chart, and to go over possible redundancies, wasteful practices, and unnecessary tasks.

  • Share accountability with your manager. Actively bring your manager into the loop, which enables him or her to be aware of and accountable for the excess workload and ghost work to which you are now subject.

  • Commit to working regular—not extra long—hours.  The goal isn’t to burn yourself out but to manage your new workload. If you allow longer hours and workplace stress to take a toll on your mental and physical health, you'll be no good to your company and you might even jeopardize your career.

  • Demonstrate your indispensability. Identify three to five specific areas where former employees' tasks were inefficient or redundant, and show your employer how processes can be streamlined. Identify some areas where the employer can save money and submit these cost-cutting proposals in an unsolicited report.

Editor’s Note:  According to two recent surveys by the International Association of Administrative Professionals, today’s admins may be particularly affected by the “ghost work” phenomenon.  IAAP’s April 2009 survey found that 40% of respondents have seen support staff in their companies decrease over the last three years. At the same time, nearly half of those surveyed said that their workload has increased.  Additionally, IAAP found that the office professional’s role continues to expand during the economic downturn, with admins taking on more work and shouldering more complex duties and responsibilities.

“There’s a tendency not to cut job duties when companies are downsizing, but rather to transfer these functions over to workers who are multi-talented,” said Susan Fenner, Ph.D, education manager at IAAP. “Those people are administrative professionals.”

Additionally, a February 2009 IAAP Benchmarking Survey with 3,177 respondents identified a trend toward having admins support more managers. Most IAAP member respondents (45%) reported they support one to two managers, with 28% supporting three or four managers. Eighteen percent support five to 10 managers and 5% support 11 or more.

(For more information about the International Association of Administrative Professionals’ studies, visit www.iaap-hq.org)