Your inbox is piling up, your schedule is packed, and the boss asks if you can get an extra project finished by the end of the day.

Your inner voice might be screaming “hell no!” But your instinct is to say “sure thing”.

You’re not alone — particularly if you’re a woman.

My interview with Grace Jennings-Edquist, journalist at ABC Life. Read the original article in ABC Life 17th November 2020

“From a young age, women are encouraged to be nice; they’re told that saying no usually equates to being rude,” says Hema Kangeson, a Melbourne-based career coach who works with culturally diverse emerging leaders.

People from backgrounds that are underrepresented in their workplace or industry may also fear that if they say no, they’ll be seen as “a troublemaker or disagreeable or uptight”, Ms Kangeson adds.

Yes, you can (and should) say no

While it’s uncomfortable for many of us, learning to say ‘no’ at work is not only OK, it’s important, says Sydney-based career coach Jane Jackson.

“If you’re going to really respect yourself, it’s something you need to really be aware of, even when you’re fresh out of uni,” she says.

“It’s a matter of helping people learn that you’ll respect yourself and your time.”

This holds true even in a recession or other times with high levels of job insecurity, she adds.

Many white-collar or non-freelance employees have found working from home during the pandemic “a huge juggle and their mental health is really suffering”, she says.

“So if you feel that the pressure is too much for you, then you need to have an honest conversation with your manager.”

Choosing when to push back

That’s not to say you should click “decline” on any work request or meeting invite that doesn’t interest you (sorry).

“You need to have a legitimate reason to push back,” says Ms Jackson.

Perhaps you have clashing deadlines; multiple managers delegating work to you simultaneously; or just a heavy workload keeping you working consistently late, with no end in sight, she says.

Or maybe the task is well outside your job description, and sapping your focus away from your core tasks or promotable work.

One sign it’s time to push back at work is if you’re feeling frustrated and taken for granted as a result of your workload, Ms Jackson says.

“If at any time you feel that you’re being put upon, resentment will start to build up,” she says.

For Alisha Taylor-Jones, a 39-year-old diversity and inclusion officer based in Melbourne, saying no is a muscle she’s learned to flex over time.

When deciding what to push back on, one thing Alisha weighs up is whether she’s “pushing it” in terms of her energy levels.

“If I’m feeling I’m pushing up against that barrier, where I’m going to get anxious or frustrated or start telling myself some stories about whether something’s reasonable or not, then it’s time to perhaps have a discussion about reframing what can be done,” she says.

Focus on solutions, not emotions

When saying no at work, Ms Jackson says “you’ve got to be deadline-driven, reasonable, professional”.

It’s perfectly fine to decline work requests on the spot: Ms Jackson suggests saying something like, “As much as I love a challenge and I really appreciate your faith in my ability to get things done, this is what is possible right now.”

Alternatively, you could schedule an appointment with your manager to discuss your workload; write down your current assignments and their deadlines and ask your boss for clarity on which projects are priority. “A bit like triage in a hospital,” Ms Jackson says.

If you don’t want to give a flat-out ‘no’, you could also offer an alternative deadline.

Alisha sometimes uses this tactic. She recently took leave from work on her birthday: “And sure enough, despite having the time booked out in my calendar, the meeting requests came: ‘Could you just review this, or do some extra bits of work?'” she recalls.

“Instead, I pushed back and said, ‘No, I’m not available. I can get this to you Monday, or I’m happy to do what I can before close of business on Wednesday.'”

Ms Jackson suggests keeping any emotion or frustration out of your voice when setting limits at work. The aim is to calmly let your manager you want to “ensure you have the time and capacity to do the very best job” for them, says Ms Jackson.

One tip that works for Alisha: Resist the urge to needlessly apologise — a tendency she sees more in women than men — while remaining empathetic to the other person’s position.

“It’s about acknowledging that people could be disappointed, but really just holding that space of: this is what’s right for you at the time,” Alisha says.

You might be pleasantly surprised

Saying no can be daunting. But our experts say that in many cases, managers just haven’t realised their employees are at capacity, and actually react well to employees putting in boundaries.

“There are some managers who are workaholics and they might assume you are as well,” says Ms Kangeson.

Or if they don’t have out-of-work responsibilities themselves, they may just need to be educated on what’s possible for employees who do, she says.

Digital audio professional Sarah Bol, 31, started pushing back on regularly working overtime in recent years, and hasn’t looked back.

“I used to think I had to work until midnight each night, even though I finished at 10,” says Melbourne-based Sarah.

“If someone asks me to do something at 5pm [in my current job], I say, ‘I prefer to work early and finish early’, and it’s gotten to the point where people know that, so I don’t actually have to say that anymore.”

Sarah now also declines non-crucial meetings that will make it hard to meet her core work responsibilities.

Today, she works fewer hours but feels she contributes more at work than she did when she struggled to say no.

“The thing is, when you’re working these crazy hours and you’re anxious and you feel like everybody’s watching you and you feel like you’re not good enough, you actually don’t do a very good job, because you’re pouring from an empty cup,” she says.

“I think if your colleagues respect you and they know you’re a hard worker, nobody’s going to judge you for it.”

For career management support visit The Careers Academy

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