Ask a Boss: I’m a Bad Employee, But I Can’t Do Anything About It!

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Dear Boss,

I work for a government agency, as the executive assistant to the head of a division. My boss is not a problem *I’m* the problem, but I don’t really know what to do about it.

I am the single mom to a teen son with severe anxiety/depression. He was diagnosed about eight years ago, but in the last three things have gotten bad enough to require hospitalization twice. Dealing with my son’s anxiety means that I end up having a really erratic schedule. I never know when I might have to sit with him through a panic attack, restrain him during a fit of self-harming behavior, find him utterly unwilling to get ready to go to school, on top of weekly appointments and school meetings.

His father isn’t involved at all, and my family all live in another state, so it falls to me entirely to care for him. I do have super-supportive friends, but they all have their own jobs. I do sometimes get a sitter for him, but insurance doesn’t cover any kind of care for him, and I don’t make enough money to cover that out of pocket.

This means that I am late, often very late, on many days. There are days when I have been trying to get him to calm down enough to go to school and after three hours am clearly not getting anywhere and end up calling in because he’s not in a state to be left alone. There are many days I get calls from his school to come pick him up when he’s had a really bad day and I have to leave work abruptly.

I do have FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) in place, and his school social worker and therapists provide documentation to pass on to HR about days he’s had issues. I also don’t have problems keeping up with my workload. I do check in to email from home and deal with scheduling, documents, etc. to my fullest ability when I can.

My boss is hugely sympathetic and flexible (our agency happens to work with families so there is good understanding of parenting issues), but I run into trouble following the call-in protocol calling or emailing if we’ll be late or gone a half-hour before standard arrival. I do my best to do this, but sometimes I’m restraining a kid and can’t leave the room to get my phone. Sometimes I just don’t know what’s going to happen until 8:59 I think I’m just going to be late because my kid alllllmost is ready for school, then at 9:02 he loses it again.

These things haven’t prevented my co-workers from being really frustrated with my frequent, unpredictable absences. Usually they’re pretty nice about it, but sometimes it shows.

My question is, basically, how do I handle being the co-worker that people resent? If I could change this situation, I would in half a heartbeat. I’ve bought small gifts of gratitude for the staff who cover for me, and tried to keep them apprised of when I have something coming up they might be called on to cover, copy them on emails when I’m gone (we also have a specific list of tasks we cover for each other that helps). I understand that from their end, this is a burden more work that appears erratically and with little notice. I don’t know how to make this easier on my co-workers, and I certainly can’t just leave my child to fend for himself. What should the employee with the crappy life situation that makes her also a crappy employee do?

Oh, I’m sorry. This really sucks.

For what it’s worth, I strongly suspect you’re not a crappy employee, despite your erratic and unpredictable schedule. You sound highly conscientious, you’re staying on top of your work, and you’re clearly concerned about the impact this is having on your co-workers. You may be a frustrating co-worker at times, but you don’t sound like a crappy employee.

But it’s hard when you can’t be the employee you want to be. Sometimes that feeling can be a useful impetus to make changes (like resolving to focus better if you’re easily distracted or, I don’t know, improving your coding skills if they’re dragging down your work). But in cases like yours, where you can’t make changes that will improve things, the best thing for your mental health might be to acknowledge that this is how things are for now. Not forever — but for right now.

It also might help to remember that you’re exercising rights that are protected by federal law — that’s where the FMLA leave that you mentioned comes in. The Family and Medical Leave Act specifically grants you the right to take this sort of intermittent leave when you have a family medical situation that requires it. Part of the point of that law was to make it possible for you to do what you’re doing.

Beyond that, though, I’d make a point of showing your co-workers that you’re truly trying to mitigate the impact on them. It sounds like you’ve done a nice job of that already with the expressions of gratitude and keeping them in the loop about your work and schedule. In addition, you’ll probably build up more goodwill if you help other people out as much as you can when your schedule allows for it — cover for them, assist on projects, respond to their requests quickly and competently. Basically, be an awesome co-worker when you’re there and do stellar work, and that should go a long way toward bulking up people’s tolerance for the times when life intervenes.

Also, to the extent that you’re comfortable doing it, acknowledge to your co-workers what’s going on. Let them know that you’ve exhausted all your other options, and that you’re grateful for them cutting you some slack when you need it. Tell them that you’re committed to ensuring that they won’t need to cut you any slack the rest of the time, because you’re going to be On It. And ask them, too, if there’s anything else that you can do to make their lives easier when they need to cover for you.

If you do this stuff, you’re going to be so markedly different from the profile of Slacker Who Doesn’t Pull Her Weight that most of us are familiar with that it’s likely that your co-workers will categorize you entirely differently. Typically people who lean on their co-workers in a burdensome way don’t appear to feel too guilty about it at all. In fact, they’re sort of notorious for being brazen about their slacking off. You are the opposite of that, and I have to think that your co-workers pick up on that.

Plus, you have a boss who’s “hugely sympathetic and flexible”! That’s enormous! If you haven’t already brainstormed with your boss about whether there might be additional ways to minimize the impact on your office, that might be worth doing too. Maybe it’s possible to formally alter your hours or get permission to work from home more often or otherwise change things that might build in more flexibility that could make this easier on everyone. (That might not be easy with an executive assistant role, where you might truly need to be there in person during certain hours, but in some cases it could be feasible, depending on what your workflow is like.)

Of course, even with all this, there may still be times that your co-workers are frustrated with the situation. But, you know, occasionally frustrated co-workers are not the worst thing in the world. If you know that you’re doing everything that you can to minimize the impact on them and going out of your way to be an excellent colleague the rest of the time … well, right now that’s the best that you can do.

Needing people’s help doesn’t make you a terrible employee, and it sounds like you’re working at an agency that’s comfortable extending that help to you. As long as you’re being conscientious (you are) and acting with thoughtfulness, grace, and appreciation (you are), it’s all right for you to let yourself be more okay with the situation. You’re doing the best you can in tough circumstances.

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Ask a Boss: I’m a Bad Employee, But It’s Not My Fault!