Feeling Underworked at the Office?

Asking for more to do can certainly help you get ahead. However, an all-work, no-play attitude can have drawbacks, too

Q: I'm a workaholic who recently asked my boss if I could have more work. I'm already one of the first to get to the office and one of the last to leave. My boss told me I was already the top person in her group.

However, I told her I wanted to be challenged more and have even greater opportunities to develop into a more well-rounded team player. I admitted that I was perhaps a little greedy for more work, but said I feel "greed is good."

I'm not after a promotion or raise: I love what I do. I love the people I work for. I just want to keep myself entertained at work. My question is: Do you think I came off as too aggressive? Was this a good career move on my part? --M.R., Boston


Congratulations on being a first for Ask Careers! While we often receive letters from folks wondering how they can work less but earn more, we've never gotten a question from someone looking to pile on the work without any bump in rank or pay. So you're probably in the minority of Americans, or at least of our letter writers. Statistics aside, was this, as you ask, a wise thing to do for your career?

Our experts say the answer is, it depends. If the business culture you belong to adheres to the "greed is good" motto, then asking your boss to crank up the intensity is probably a smart move. Your request might go over well at investment banks and corporate law firms, where an 80-hour workweek can be considered a slacker schedule, especially for new recruits.

If, however, you're employed at a lower-key organization that values team players over lone wolves, your plea might have been a little problematic. "In that environment, where giving the employee more work might mean taking away from somebody else's work, it probably wouldn't come off really well," says Margaretta Noonan, senior vice-president for global human resources at New York's TMP Worldwide, a large recruiter. "It doesn't really enhance the value of cooperation and mutual support."


  There's no doubt that a strong work ethic is a highly desirable professional characteristic. And clearly, your boss has recognized your performance. However, "in some places, politically, you may be marginalized if you are always trying to do things at 150%," says Paul Bernard, a New York-based career coach who counsels mid- to senior-level executives.

Although you may just want to do a better job, there's always the risk co-workers will view your impressive enthusiasm as an attempt to show them up. There's also the danger of taking on so much work that you have little time left to cultivate professional relationships that will help you in your career. "Frequently, workaholics spend so much time working that no one notices them," says Bernard, president of Paul Bernard & Associates.

For starters, our experts suggest that you have another chat with your boss. Only this time, don't ask for more work per se. As Noonan points out, you want to be productive -- but in the right areas. "We all remember the kids who stayed after school to clean the erasers," says Noonan. "They got something out of it, but I'm not sure that it enhanced their education."


  Instead, ask what new skills or projects your boss thinks you should work on to help you get to the "next level," says Sheila Mello, managing partner at consulting firm Product Development Consulting in Boston. It's probably not a good idea to tell your boss you're bored, says Mello, who has held executive positions at several large corporations. But given that you aren't feeling challenged enough, "you can say that some aspects of your job are becoming routine," she says.

In addition to other assignments, Mello says, your boss may be able to suggest books or courses that will assist in developing expertise or skills that can be used to help your job evolve into something more stimulating. Another way of developing new skills is by volunteering on projects that may or may not be in your department. "It can give you additional experience and let you be seen as part as a team," Noonan says.

Rest assured that it's normal at certain stages of your career to feel like you need a new challenge, Noonan says. In fact, your employer may begin to think something is wrong with you if you're perfectly happy parked in the exact same job for decades.


  Time spent outside the office, however, can be nearly as valuable as time spent at your cube. Most people prefer to work with colleagues who have outside interests and can talk more than shop on their lunch hours. "The best employees are those who are as committed to their personal lives as to their professional lives," Mello says. "If you don't do much outside of work, you won't have too much to offer in the very important social relationships that help build work relationships."

For better or worse, going out for drinks with officemates once in awhile or playing on the company's softball team can be critical to being successful at what you do. "You don't just participate in a team by doing work together," says Noonan. "You also participate in a team by doing all that ancillary stuff."

If you're really a bundle of untamed energy, consider getting involved in your community by volunteering at a nonprofit or taking a leadership position at a local charity. You could gain experience and fulfillment that you might not be able to get from your paying job. You could also raise your visibility, which is an important part of getting ahead professionally.


  Although you may not be looking for a pay increase or promotion just yet, the time will inevitably come. And a high profile is particularly important in landing management positions -- the key rungs on the ladder leading to top corporate jobs. "People need to understand that advancement is connected to politics and who knows you," Bernard says.

So although working extra hard will get you noticed -- especially if you recognize the difference between being busy and being productive -- you might benefit nearly as much professionally from joining the company bowling league. And that could end up being a good treatment for workaholism, too.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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