Health

Experts Explain Why You Feel You Can't Say No at Work

Saying yes to everything is often seen as the key to success, but no job is worth losing your sense of self over.
September 21, 2021, 8:00am
Illustration of a woman carrying personal belongings in a box and exiting the workplace.  Beige with red-brown accents.
Illustration: AdobeStock/nadia_snopek.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

The Devil Wears Prada, The Social Network, The Wolf of Wall Street – it seems like every movie from the 90s to the 2010s glorified extremely troubled work-life relationships. While taking initiative at work is a key part of growing your career, bosses often abuse the best intentions of people who don’t set clear boundaries, according to Sara Capizzi and Stefano Macchi, both psychotherapists at the Clinical Centre Spazio FormaMentis in Milan.

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That’s why saying no is so important – even if you want to be a team player, you won’t get far by letting superiors walk all over you. So why is it so hard to say no to a boss? You might think they won’t take no for an answer and put your job at risk if you refuse to do something, but many of us actually end up putting too much on our plates because of deeper psychological pressures.

“Saying no is a way to define our boundaries and make them visible to others,” says Capizzi. “But to say no, we need to be in touch with our needs and take responsibility for our internal world. When we do that, we can’t always expect the other person to understand how we feel. That’s why saying no isn’t always easy.” 

Selfish, rude, ungrateful or simply unlikeable – these are all negative traits associated with workplace naysayers. But there’s also something to be envied about our colleagues who know exactly what they can and can’t do and don’t care about what others think. For most people, it’s hard to be that confident. “You might think saying no will make you less popular or trigger a conflict,” Capizzi continues. “You might worry that the other person will be disappointed in you, and as a result you may try to fulfil this need to feel like a good person at all costs.” 

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According to Macchi, this people-pleasing instinct becomes particularly salient at work because we spend so much of our time there – about 25 percent of the week for a full-time employee – and we end up developing deep relationships with our colleagues. “It’s a very human feeling, derived from our need for social inclusion at a psychological level,” Macchi says. Besides, saying yes and then being rewarded for it just feels good. “It is linked to the release of dopamine by our brain,” Capizzi adds.

On top of that, Macchi thinks the instability of the current work environment makes people more prone to saying yes in two ways. Obviously, the threat of being replaceable is looming over anyone with a temp job. But also, in a way, living with the anxiety of having fewer legal protections pushes many of us to try to create more solid bonds at work by pleasing colleagues, “to avoid the risk of being alone without having chosen it”, as Macchi puts it.

But constantly saying yes to extra work can be dangerous. “When there’s an imbalance between the organisation's demands and the resources or personal needs of the worker, the latter experiences a condition of stress,” Capizzi says.

That stress, if accumulated, can lead to burnout, “a feeling of exhaustion, demotivation, disinterest, emotional detachment from one's job and a decline in efficiency.”

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Irritability, difficulty concentrating, a tendency towards isolation, problems sleeping and eating, even physical symptoms like migraines or digestion issues – all of these can be signs that you are experiencing burnout.

Generally speaking, the people who are more at risk of burnout are those that have high expectations of themselves, who are perfectionists and have a tendency to want to do too much,” Capizzi explains. Often, people at higher burnout risk might have a strong work ethic, but also be crippled with doubts and insecurities about their work.

Needless to say, this is not sustainable in the long run. Saying no is important because it allows us to “reactivate our sense of self-determination and self-efficacy in our tasks,” Macchi says. Besides, saying what you can actually do can be helpful for the company, so the team can get organised and find alternative solutions to meet their goals. 

“Saying no can make me look, in the eyes of the boss, like an active collaborator, a person who can protect their own needs and those of the company,” Macchi says. In fact, if you avoid saying no, you might risk not only running yourself into the ground but also stressing out colleagues and disrupting their workflow if you need extra help finishing a task. 

But after years of saying yes, you might not even know where to start. “You can slow down and ask yourself what drives you to say yes in those contexts,” Macchi says. You might start with an honest conversation with yourself, understanding your limits and what is really important to you, finding your “centre of gravity”, as Macchi puts it. Then you should think about and really accept that saying no is an option in your own eyes before thinking of concrete strategies in your workplace.

If you want to say no but are scared of the repercussions or are just not used to setting boundaries, you should “ask yourself what might be the worst consequence you could face by refusing,” Capizzi says, “or whether you’d really benefit from saying yes to the request.” 

Lastly, learning to be frank and sincere with yourself without apologies requires practice and takes time. But as the old saying goes, “a closed mouth never gets fed”. If you don’t speak up for yourself, how can you expect others to understand and respect what you want?