How to cover for a work colleague the right way

When your colleague asks if you can cover for them while they are out of the office, think carefully before saying yes. In a recent OnePoll survey of 2,000 Americans for Nugg, more than half of participants said that covering for a coworker was a “significantly stressful event.”

Why do we do it at all then? Sometimes, out of the goodness of our hearts, but more likely, because we see the favor as transactional. We hope that the favor will be returned one day when we find ourselves scrambling for coverage. Covering for someone’s work does not need to be a nightmare, though. There is a happy medium that can be achieved once you recognize that coverage does not mean doing two people’s full jobs at maximum productivity. Here’s how to take on someone else’s workload without losing your mind:

Know your limits

Forty percent of the survey respondents admitted that when they covered for a colleague, they phoned in their work and did not care if the job was done well.  Poorly done work reflects poorly on you, and looks bad for the team. If you know the work is going to be done badly, you should be respectful of your colleague and ask them to pick someone else. But if you think you can handle the extra work, do it while accepting the reality of your situation. You are one employee with human limitations. Acknowledging that it is okay to not get deadlines done at the same level as two people working on it can is part of what will make the experience less stressful for you.

Get clarity from your colleague about expectations

Is your colleague’s away message directing clients your way? Do you know where important documents needed for projects are located? You need to know what your colleague is telling other people by asking them about what responsibilities they want you to take on. How do they produce and organize work? Your workflow may look entirely different than your coworker’s.

Before the colleague becomes unreachable out of the office, sit down with them and have a frank conversation about priorities. Your colleagues are usually not monsters who want to ruin your day. They know that you are doing them a favor. More than half — 56 percent of respondents — said they felt guilty that workloads had to fall on a coworker when they were out of office. In other words, your colleague is likely to be on your side about making the transition smooth and less cumbersome for you.


When you are covering for a colleague, you are in survival mode. You do not want to be in the office too late every night. You need to be practical about what you will be able to accomplish in a day. To avoid resentment and burnout, talk to your colleague about the critical tasks that must get done while they are gone.


Don’t be afraid to ask for more help

If the temporary absence turns into an unexpectedly long one, you may need to call in reinforcements. You do not want to burn yourself out doing two jobs at once indefinitely.

If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your higher-ups about getting help. As time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders advises, “See if a boss can cover a few responsibilities, if a coworker can take notes for you at meetings so that you don’t need to attend, if direct reports can take on more of the day-to-day tasks, or if you can get some contract or temp help.”

Sit down with your boss if you notice your work is suffering. Ask another colleague if they can take on some of the higher priorities too. Covering for a colleague means letting other people know about your increased workload so that they know when your limit is being reached.