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posted: 7/6/2014 7:01 AM

Work Advice: When colleagues are expected to carry a co-worker who is suffering

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Q: I work in a small government office. Over the last few months, one co-worker, "Steve," has lost both his parents, and his adult child was permanently disabled in an accident. I am sympathetic, but he has spent every day at his desk calling funeral homes, insurance companies, doctors, etc., and then going home without having done any work. We're in an open office, so we all have to listen to him make these very personal calls while we work.

Meanwhile, I have been assigned the bulk of his work. I haven't said anything, but after several months, I am starting to get resentful. After receiving yet another of Steve's tasks, I asked my supervisor if Steve could do it. I was told that Steve doesn't need to be doing any work right now, and the rest of us need to just cover for him since we're not dealing with anything like what Steve is going through.

I may not be going through everything Steve is, but I'm in grad school, buying a house, going through the break-up of a serious relationship. . . . I have problems, too! If I need to deal with those problems, I take a day off.

Should I just shut up and do the work? Ask my supervisor if he can force Steve to take time off? Let the inspector general know a government worker is claiming eight hours of work a day while doing nothing?

A: I rarely hear complaints about bosses erring on the side of kindness -- but letting this arrangement go on indefinitely at others' expense is not actually a kindness to Steve. My thoughts on more compassionate solutions for all involved:

• If headphones or a desk fan can't block out Steve's calls, you might suggest to the boss that a phone room with a door would better protect Steve's privacy.

• You can't tell your boss how to ensure work gets done, but you can certainly let him know if you're struggling with your doubled workload.

• According to the Office of Personnel Management (, federal employees may use up to 12 weeks of sick leave per year to care for an ill family member, including 13 days for "general family care or bereavement purposes." Steve also could request up to 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to tend to his disabled child. But he may not have sick leave left, and FMLA leave is unpaid, so he may not be able to afford to use it. In that case, leave donation might give Steve (and his co-workers) badly needed respite. OPM operates a Voluntary Leave Transfer Program; some agencies also have voluntary leave banks.

Two of your personal stressors have finite durations and promise happier times. None of Steve's does. That doesn't ease your current stress, but the long view may help you channel sympathetic thoughts as you urge your boss to find a less burdensome way to support Steve.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter, @KarlaAtWork.

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