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Mastering the art of saying ‘no’ at work

Saying no at work
It’s not rude to say ‘no’ and it can even make you more productive. Photo: Getty Images
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Saying ‘no’ seems simple enough, but so many of us struggle to use this word when setting boundaries at work.  

Half of Australia’s workers have difficulty saying ‘no’ to taking on more work even when they are busy, SEEK research shows.

And a further 53 per cent of candidates feel pressured to answer messages, calls and emails out of work hours because they think their workplace expects them to respond. 

Doing tasks they don’t want to instead of saying ‘no’ leads to many workers feeling stressed and resentful.

Yet only 50 per cent set boundaries with their colleagues, responses to a SEEK survey reveals. 

Pushing back 

Learning how to say ‘no’ is key to establishing a healthy work-life balance, said career coach  Leah Lambart of RelaunchMe. 

“Maintaining a work-life balance is so important in order for individuals to continue to be effective at work, to maintain work satisfaction and to avoid burnout,” she said. 

“However, a good work-life balance can easily be compromised when we start to put others needs before our own.  

“This is a very common trait in individuals who are very service oriented and enjoy helping or serving others.” 

Saying no at work
Saying ‘no’ at work can ease stress. Photo: Getty

How to actually say it 

For many, the major hang-up with saying ‘no’ is how to do it politely. They fear it may offend, while some may worry they could be denied further career opportunities or earn a false reputation as being lazy.  

But it’s quite the opposite – saying ‘no’ makes us more productive and efficient, said Lambart.  

“Individuals can feel empowered to say ‘no’ and set boundaries in their workplace if they have spent the time really thinking about, and writing down, what they need in their life and work to stay happy, healthy and productive,” she said. 

“Saying ‘no’ is not about being rude or inconsiderate if it is done in the correct way. To feel empowered about saying ‘no’ it is important for an individual to find a way to say ‘no’ that feels authentic to them.   

“It may help to use the ‘sandwich’ effect, where you cushion the ‘no’ by a positive statement either side.

“An example of this would be, ‘Thanks for the opportunity to work on this task. I am really looking forward to getting stuck into it but unfortunately, I have other work due today that needs to be prioritised. I can get started on this first thing tomorrow morning and can get it completed by close of business tomorrow. Will this work for you?’.” 

Feeling empowered 

Another approach is saying ‘no’ to the small stuff, particularly jobs that are not time sensitive.

Pushing back on these requests helps people build confidence to say ‘no’ to the bigger demands and ultimately enjoy more me-time. 

Knowing when to say ‘no’ is an important part of setting boundaries. Getting the timing right can help with a clear and effective delivery. 

Those who are new to a role should set expectations early and be clear, yet polite, advised Lambart.  

But a more formal discussion is needed for those who are already in an established role and suddenly need to push back. 

“If you have been the ‘yes person’ or the ‘go-to person’ in the office, then it can be difficult to suddenly put your foot down and start saying ‘no’,” she said.   

“However, if you are feeling burnt out in your current role or feel that you are being taken advantage of, then it might be time to sit down with people and explain that things need to change if you are to continue on in your role.   

“Often managers or colleagues may have no idea how much you are taking on and/or how much time you are working outside of normal business hours to get through your workload.” 

For more tips on how to set work boundaries, head to SEEK Career Advice.