These days, most of us have more work to do in less time. But if your in-tray is overflowing, what should you do if your employer or manager asks you to take on more tasks, commitments or responsibilities?

It can be tempting to say ‘yes’ to every new work request that comes your way. Most of us want to appear eager and to prove we’re a team player. We want to please the people we work for because it might help us get ahead in our careers – and of course it’s only human nature to want to be liked. Some of us even say ‘yes’ to everything we’re asked to do because we simply want a quiet life.

On the other hand, you may not have any choice in the matter. If you haven’t been in your current job very long, for instance, you may not feel you have the right to say ‘no’ because you’re still trying to make a positive impression on your new colleagues (the last thing you want them to think is that you’re difficult or lazy).

But saying ‘no’ at work is sometimes necessary, especially if you’re already overstretched and feeling overwhelmed. Being overloaded with work can increase your stress levels and make you feel you’re no longer in control. It can also make you resent your employers, managers and even co-workers, especially if you’re working harder and for longer hours than them.

So the next time your employer or manager asks you to take on something new, take your time to consider your reply carefully. First, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I have the time?   

Is this new task going to be quick and easy to complete, or will it be a new long-term commitment? If it’s going to take a lot of time on an ongoing basis, it could mean more stress for weeks, months or even years to come.

Do I have the time to do it well?

If you’re already overstretched, you may be able to squeeze enough time out of your working day to get something else done – but would you have the time to do it to your best ability? If the answer is no, accepting another task, commitment or project could harm – rather than boost – your career prospects.

Will this stop me completing my other work?

Most people in the workplace have deadlines, and deadlines should be respected. Would taking on more work mean your current tasks couldn’t be finished on schedule?

How urgent and/or important is it?

If you don’t know the answer, this may be a question for the person who’s making the request. You may have far more important or urgent tasks to complete before you take on anything else. Try to remember that the person making the request may not have any understanding of what your existing workload might be, or how long it will take for you to complete the extra task they’re asking you to do.

Am I the right person?

Is there a good reason you’ve been asked to take on the job? One of your co-workers may be more suited to the task because they have different skills – or they may simply have time in their schedule to take on more work.

What’s in it for me?

Will taking on this task help further your career? Is it something you enjoy doing or feel strongly about? If it’s a new opportunity, how interesting or exciting will it be? Even if you have a full schedule, you may be able to negotiate ways of making extra time for something that will benefit you – such as passing other assignments over to a colleague or taking on an assistant to reduce your workload

Will I feel guilty if I say no?

Taking on extra tasks or responsibilities that you’d prefer to decline out of feelings of guilt or obligation will only make you feel resentful and add to your stress levels.

How to say ‘no’ graciously

Once you’ve considered things carefully, if you’ve decided to say ‘no’, there are several things you could do to avoid being seen as unreasonable.

1. Be honest and upfront when saying why you have to say ‘no’ – don’t make up reasons to get out of taking on work. Also be brief and stick to the point when stating your reasons for refusing the request, and try to avoid any unnecessary detail or elaborate justifications, or being over-apologetic. What you don’t want to do is sound as if you’re making lots of excuses why you can’t take on extra work – so just be clear and concise.

2. Be firm. A simple ‘no’ is better than saying something vague, such as, ‘I don’t think I can help’, ‘I’m not sure’, or ‘I don’t know’. Unless you’re clear about your position, the person making the request may think they can win you over and change your mind.

3. Make sure your tone of voice and body language is positive and confident. Don’t fidget or shuffle your feet, and keep good eye contact with the person making the request.

4. Show some empathy with the person you’re refusing. You could say something like, ‘I realise you’re really up against it with this, but I don’t have the time to take on any more responsibilities at the moment’. This isn’t going to help the other person in a practical sense, but it may make your refusal more tolerable.

5. Whenever possible, try to suggest an alternative way the other person could get their request met. For instance, you could offer to be helpful in another, smaller way, or to take on the extra work at a later date. Perhaps you know another colleague who could take it on. Suggesting an alternative shows that you’re willing to help – but in a different way.

If you need any support with career development, there are lots of ways we can help. Our career development services include career coaching, life coaching, personal and professional development courses and back to the workplace events. You can also visit our careers microsite to find all the resources you need to support you at every stage of your career

For advice and information call +44 (0) 1788 556 366 or chat to an advisor online 24 hours a day.

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