Person in a purple shirt at work holding up a chalkboard sign with the word 'no!' written on it.
Image: © Sergey Nivens/

How to say ‘no’ in the workplace

12 Jun 2023

Accepting too many tasks can be counterintuitive and leads to burnout and difficulty focusing. It’s okay to say no at work sometimes.

The cultural trope of the ‘Yes man’ or ‘Yes woman’ has probably done a lot of harm down through the years. It has wormed its way into the workplace to the extent that some people feel like they are inferior for saying no.

You can feel like you are inadequate, not a team player, lazy and ungrateful for refusing something or someone, especially your boss.

But what is the alternative? You take on a task that you either have no capacity to do or no great professional interest in doing and your productivity slides and your morale nosedives. Then both you and your employer have bigger problems.

Ways of saying no

It’s okay to say a polite thanks but no thanks sometimes, and that is often the best course of action. If, for example, a colleague asks you to do something outside of your immediate work duties with them or for them and you would rather not, just turn them down gently. They will get over it. You don’t have to be a member of the party planning committee.

When it comes to professional duties, saying no can be a lot more difficult. Nobody is saying that you should kick up a fuss every time you encounter a boring task or you have a long work meeting or the coffee machine is broken or it’s a Monday…

But in cases where accepting a project is detrimental to your wellbeing and your productivity, you need to say so. It’s important to avoid getting overwhelmed.

If you’re a developer being asked to do customer support tasks that you hate, for example, it is within your rights to tell your employer that you would prefer to focus on development as that is what you were hired to do.

The case for health, wellbeing and avoiding burnout

Your boss may be annoyed in the short term but you can make your case wisely and carefully for your longterm wellbeing and productivity. With so many workers saying they value health and wellbeing at work, employers are having to sit up and take notice for the sake of staff retention.

Perhaps the best way to reframe saying no at work as a positive thing rather than a negative thing, is to look at it as a way of avoiding burnout.

Burnout is bad for employers and employees alike. Hays’ group head of people and culture Sandra Henke previously wrote a piece published by about how to deal with feeling burned out at work for those interested.

Last year, research by Gallup and Workhuman found that Irish employees were some of the most burned out in Europe, with three in 10 reporting that they felt severely impacted.

It is worth remembering, too, that you are the person who knows your capabilities best and your role best. If you know that implementing something will harm a project or mess up a product then argue your point politely and firmly – whether you have to convince a junior colleague or a senior manager. If you’re correct, they will come to respect your judgement. It shows that you care about your work and take pride in doing what is best. Sometimes that can mean differing in opinion.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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