When you have to do unnecessary tasks at work

Have you ever wondered if the work you are doing is, well, er, legitimate? I do not refer to being passed a brown paper envelope of used low denomination banknotes (no consecutive serial numbers). Clearly there is nothing dodgy about that all. I am not even referring to taking your inconveniently large and mysteriously acquired stash of cash to the local poker machine laundrette. Rather I refer to those tasks our leaders ask us to carry out that we think we should not have to do.

I am talking about the phenomenon of illegitimate tasks. Apparently, it is a well-established construct in organisational psychology. A recent paper by Norwegian researchers reviews the evidence for this concept. They define it as employees having to deal with tasks that they perceive are unnecessary or unreasonable. They report that illegitimate tasks add to feelings of strain and lower a sense of well-being.

IllustrationCredit:Dionne Gain

The idea of an “unreasonable” task is likely to be highly subjective in the absence of well-defined position descriptions. An unreasonable task is one that is outside of your work duties. Whereas an “unnecessary” task is one that should not have to be carried out at all because it does not make sense. If you want amusing examples of unnecessary tasks, look no further than the late Keith Waterhouse’s brilliant novel Office Life.

I think one could easily while away a few wet Wednesday afternoons sharing stories with colleagues of the unnecessary tasks that we have all been asked to undertake at one time or another. One of the standard measures of illegitimate tasks asks “Do you have tasks to take care of which keep you wondering if they have to be done at all” followed by “if they make sense at all”.


This is dangerous stuff. If we removed the tasks at work that make no sense and do not need doing, advocates for the four-day week, might have to alter their campaign to a two-day week. There are probably complete jobs, departments, maybe even organisations that would disappear overnight if the illegitimate task folks had their way.

Seriously, illegitimate tasks can take a significant emotional toll. Being asked to undertake these during the day has been associated with evening anger and depressive mood. They can corrode an employee’s sense of organisational justice, reduce job satisfaction and reduce self-esteem.

I suspect organisational structures and cultures will play a part in the propensity to demand illegitimate tasks. The more hierarchical, the less the quality and direction of communication and the less participative or democratic an organisation is, the more likely it may be to be subjected to these tasks.

Of course there are some times where all tasks seem to be illegitimate, like Mondays, Friday afternoons, the day back from leave in fact, for some folks, most days.

Dr Jim Bright, FAPS owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy and is a Director of Ed Tech startup Become Education www.become.education. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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