How to say "no" at work without getting fired or demoted

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If you feel as though one more project added to your slate will make you implode, you aren't alone: Heavy workloads get to everyone. Approximately eight in 10 workers said they experience workplace stress in a 2013 survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Everest College.

In fact, of respondents who said they consider themselves to be "workaholics" a whopping 42% said they don't take paid vacation days because there are not enough people to cover their work in a 2016 poll led by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Why can't workers say when enough is enough? 

"We hate saying no because we want to give our boss and co-workers the appearance we can do it all," Shannon Miles, CEO of BELAY, a virtual services organization, said in a phone interview.  

While we know our mental and physical health would benefit from a break, many employees fear that saying "no" to extra work suggests you aren't a team player. "You don't want to be seen as 'no person,'" Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life?, said to the Harvard Business Review. "You want to be viewed as a 'yes person,' a 'go-to person' — a team player."

But the truth is if you aren't happy at work, you won't be as productive. Plus, a stressful work environment causes burnout, depression and physical conditions like heart disease. So it's worth saying "no" sometimes.

How can you communicate when you've had enough at work — without risking being demoted or fired? Here are some smart moves to make.

Make sure you really want to say "no"

If you're being offered the project of a lifetime or new responsibilities that would position you for a promotion, take some time to think before saying no. "In general, before you say yes, you want to think strategically about what advantage doing something has for you," Susan Newman, a social psychologist, told Forbes.

Even if the extra work doesn't fit your specific job, saying "yes" could set you up for growth. "For example, being asked to help create a sales deck for a company meeting is a great opportunity to get your work in front of senior management," Melody J. Wilding wrote for The Muse.

In short, don't say no unless you are sure it's necessary, and if you do say yes, consider discussing with your boss how you could delegate out other responsibilities or tasks. 

Have a solution to your "no"

Will more work or responsibilities put you over the top? Offer an alternative solution to your boss rather than just saying "no" to the request.

"One way to bring value to your answer is by expressing appreciation to your boss for being considered for the project and then suggest another co-worker to tackle the project," Miles said. "You could say, 'Based on what this project needs, I think Jack would be a perfect match for this initiative. Should I reach out to him?'"

Source: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/Giphy
Source: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/Giphy

But ask your boss first about that other co-worker — before you mention the idea to the colleague — in case your superior isn't actually on board with the swap or would rather have another employee manage the task, Miles said. 

Finally, lend your support in small ways such as attending meetings or reading drafts, Dillon suggests. But remember — if you aren't willing to offer any additional help, be aware of your office demeanor. "If you're saying you're too busy to help, don't cut out early and don't be seen taking long, chatty breaks at the water cooler," Dillon said.

Be clear but appreciative when saying "no"

The way you deliver your message makes a difference. Being flustered and stammering your "no" response isn't going go over well with the boss, so be clear, confident but also positive during your delivery. 

Begin your response by thanking your boss for thinking of you, The Muse advises. Follow your "thank you" with a reason why you would love be part of this new committee, project or take on the additional work, but cannot. For instance, "Thank you for thinking of me for this new initiative, but I want to give the [name of projects] my full attention and ensure they are a success." 

Also, body language is just as important as how you deliver your message. Avoid fidgeting and keep your voice steady during your conversation, the Harvard Business Review says, as this will only make you look uncomfortable. 

Say "no" in person, not by email or text

Last but not least, be respectful enough to deliver your "no" in person, but also privately to your boss. If you work remotely, a call is much better than a text.

"There are a number of ways to speak up while minimizing the risk of causing damage," Ira Chaleff, an executive coach, told Forbes. "A key element is to find a time to speak without publicly embarrassing the authority and by being clear that you are not rejecting their authority, just the problematic order. If at all possible do this face-to-face where you can see and respond to reactions, which you cannot do in an email or text message."

Communicating your response by email or text also leaves room for misinterpretation of tone, as Business Insider points out. While it might feel easier to you to just shoot over an email, you'll garner more respect from your superior if you are meeting face-to-face — plus none of your delivery will get lost in translation.

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