A young Indian office worker sits at a desk with her laptop, coffee, and papers. She is holding up her hand in a gesture of refusal

5 Tips for Saying No at Work

Most of us are never taught how to say no – at work or in other environments. In fact, we’re often praised most when we take on more and more work or studies, regardless of how exhausted it leaves us. This can lead to stress, anxiety, or depression, burnout, and/or unhealthy thought and behaviour patterns, like people-pleasing or perfectionism.


However, learning to decline requests is a crucial aspect of setting boundaries that protect your time, energy, and mental well-being. Not only does this skill help maintain your personal health (mental and physical), but it also ensures you can meet your existing commitments with quality and on time.


In other words, saying no is an act of self-care and self-preservation. This is particularly true in the current work environment, which has encroached more and more into our personal time and space with the advent of remote working technology.


Creating boundaries at work


Saying no is more than just a refusal; it’s a necessary boundary that guards against work overload and burnout. It fosters a sustainable work environment where you can perform at your best without compromising your mental or physical health.


When you set clear boundaries, you also set expectations for your capacity and availability, which can help manage how others perceive and interact with you professionally. In fact, saying no politely, even to your boss, can actually strengthen working relationships. Far from making enemies or needing to feel guilty, setting a boundary in the office can help everyone work better together.


Why saying no can be difficult


The challenge in saying no to an extra request often stems from a mix of professional and personal anxieties: fear of missing out on opportunities, worry about appearing uncooperative or lazy, and the desire to be seen as a team player.


Many workers also fear potential backlash or negative implications for their career progression. Moreover, workplace cultures that glorify busyness and constant availability can exacerbate these fears, making it even harder to set healthy limits.


Examples of saying ‘no’ at work


Declining a request at work does not have to lead to conflict if handled diplomatically. Here are several common scenarios and responses that maintain professionalism and respect:


Setting boundaries with a coworker: When a colleague asks for help on a project but you have conflicting priorities, you can say, “I understand this project is important, and I’d really like to help, but I’m currently swamped with [specific task]. Can we revisit this once I have cleared my current deadlines?”


Creating boundaries with a manager: If your manager asks you to take on another task that would overload you, try responding with, “I appreciate you considering me for this task. I am currently focused on [current project] which requires my full attention to meet our agreed deadline. Can we discuss the possibility of adjusting the timeline or delegating this new task elsewhere?”


Saying no to your boss: During a performance review, when discussing expectations and workloads, you might say, “I’m committed to delivering high-quality work, which I feel can be compromised if I am spread too thin. Could we explore priorities and what essential projects need my focus for the upcoming quarter?”


5 tips for how to say ‘no’ at work


Since creating a boundary at work can feel intimidating, here are some tips to help you voice your ‘no’ and start protecting yourself, skills, and time.


Communicate clearly and proactively: Don’t wait until you’re overwhelmed to say no. Be upfront about your capacities and ongoing commitments. Clear, proactive communication can preempt many issues before they arise.


Be assertive yet courteous: Assertiveness doesn’t equate to rudeness. Express your boundary firmly but politely, ensuring that you acknowledge the request and explain your reasons clearly.


Offer alternatives: Whenever possible, offer an alternative. If you can’t take on a task, maybe you know someone who can, or perhaps you can address it at a later date. This shows that you’re still a team player, even if you can’t meet the current request.


Stay consistent: Regularly uphold your boundaries. Consistency helps others learn what they can expect from you and reduces the number of times you need to say no in the future.


Seek support if needed: If you find it difficult to maintain boundaries at work, discuss your situation with a mentor, a trusted colleague, or your HR department. They can offer strategies and support to help you manage your workload effectively. Even therapy, whether digital or one-on-one sessions, can help you build communication skills and strategies that can help you set boundaries.


Saying no is an essential life skill that can go a long way to protecting your mental health. By setting and maintaining boundaries, you not only protect your well-being but also build a foundation for sustained professional success and satisfaction. Because saying no allows you to say yes to the things that truly matter.




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Raksha Rajesh (M.Sc., M.Phil.) is a clinical psychologist licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI). She has 6+ years of experience in helping people from diverse backgrounds build skills to understand and manage their emotions.

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