Why saying no may help prevent burnout | Inquirer News

Why saying no may help prevent burnout

By: - Content Researcher Writer / @inquirerdotnet
/ 04:32 PM September 02, 2022


ART Daniella Marie Agacer

MANILA, Philippines—Over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the academic scientific workforce have reported experiencing a state of chronic exhaustion—also known as burnout.

Amid the COVID-19 situation across the globe, paired with lockdowns and home quarantines, piling work-related tasks during work away from work—work from home—setup has caused burnout among many scientists.


To counter—and prevent—burnout, a group of American mid-career environmental social scientists decided to conduct a unique experiment: Saying “no” to work-related requests for an entire year.


“We are members of a group of mid-career environmental social scientists who have met weekly for a decade to give each other feedback on our research, which we wrote about in a previous column,” social scientists Amanda Cravens, Rebecca Nelson, A. R. Siders and Nicola Ulibarri wrote.

“Increasingly, we were bringing our work invitations and opportunities to the group, hoping that the members would serve as a ‘no committee’ that would help us decide which opportunities to reject,” they added.

“This led one of us to throw down the gauntlet: last May, facing pandemic and career burnout, this member whimsically suggested we make a game out of saying no by challenging ourselves to collectively decline 100 work-related requests,” the group continued.

Citing the book “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman, the social scientists noted that saying no is an essential practice to create space and energy, suggesting saying yes only to things that matter.

However, many scientists, including Cravens and her colleagues, admitted that they have not developed this important and fundamental practice of saying no wisely. This realization, according to the group, further inspired them to spend a year tracking and reflecting on their decisions to say no.

In this article, INQUIRER.net will detail the social scientists’ insights on what they learned from spending a year saying no to work-related requests—which concluded as they logged their 100th “no” last March.


Tracking ‘no’s helps

In a 2016 research review, social psychologist Vanessa Bohns found that “many people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying no.”

For those who are like Cravens and her colleagues—whether you are social scientists like them or not—who often say yes to work-related requests and tasks by default and find it hard to say no, the group recommended tracking decisions to say no.

Tracking their decisions, according to the social scientists, allowed us to pause and make a conscious choice. To motivate themselves to say no, they applied different methods that can help them realize the good side of refusing to take work requests.

GRAPHIC Daniella Marie Agacer

GRAPHIC Daniella Marie Agacer

“Two of us found the gamification motivating: saying no earned a point in our quest to reach 100. We also found ways to consistently combat our ‘yes’ reflex,” they said.

“One of us has a cartoon illustrating the concept of ‘JOMO’ (joy of missing out) taped above her desk. Another thinks of colleagues who more often say no, with care, as role models and consciously emulates them,” they added.

Tracking their “no”s also encouraged them to record other things such as their accomplished tasks, active projects, and limits in the number of projects they take—which, in return, helped them counteract feeling overworked and the impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome, according to Harvard Business Review, is “loosely” defined as “doubting [one’s] abilities and feeling like a fraud.”

“It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many questions whether they’re deserving of accolades.”

Learning to say ‘no’ to large tasks

“During our ‘year of no’, we said no far more often than ever before. For example, between us, we declined 31 invited talks — but that still wasn’t enough to prevent burnout,” the social scientists wrote.

“In total, our members delivered 43 talks and guest lectures. We declined too many little things — such as reviewing journal articles — and not enough big tasks,” they added.

However, the idea of saying no to big tasks, as it turns out, is easier said than done.

Declining huge tasks could also lead to untenable loss of benefits—including health insurance, sick leave, and family leave—the experiment found.

“Early in our careers, saying yes helped us to make connections and explore promising research directions. But as opportunities multiplied in our mid-careers, we needed a mindset shift, from gathering to pruning,” Cravens and her colleagues said.

In order to balance their overall commitments and help them strategically evaluate which opportunities they would say yes to, they developed criteria that they followed within a span of a year.

The criteria included questions, such as:

  • Does this opportunity fit my research agenda and identity?
  • Does it ‘spark joy’ (with a nod to Marie Kondo, doyenne of organization)?
  • Do I have time to do a good job without sacrificing existing commitments?
  • Does the opportunity leave space for my personal life?
  • Am I uniquely qualified to fill this need?

These guide questions helped them learn when to say no. As a result, they were able to preserve energy and creative capacity—and pour them into projects, mentoring, and services they choose to devote their time to.

“The pandemic especially drove home the need to say no. We often booked ourselves to the limit: we took on as many projects and roles as we thought we could handle,” the social scientists said.

“Inevitably, when one of us or a colleague got sick or had a family or student crisis, they had no bandwidth or slack in their schedule. Building in this slack is crucial to being able to handle life events.”

Emotional burden

Saying no, however, sometimes comes with negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

“Over our year of no, we routinely noted feelings of guilt,” the social scientists shared.

GRAPHIC Daniella Marie Agacer

GRAPHIC Daniella Marie Agacer

“We worried that we were letting down colleagues, not doing our ‘fair share’ or failing to live up to the privilege we hold as fully employed researchers and mentors. We wanted to be kind, helpful and available, even if doing so left us personally overwhelmed.”

According to Danielle Grossman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the US, guilt and resentment often reflect anxiety from saying no—which could be a result of feeling responsible for other people’s reactions.

“When you feel guilt and resentment, you have an opportunity to reflect on whether you are fulfilling your responsibilities in saying ‘no’,” Grossman explained.

Cravens and her colleagues opened up on their struggles to say no and turn down certain requests and invitations due to guilt, even though they have already made substantial contributions to their work.

Not being able to say no, however, resulted in more tasks for some of them—on top of other responsibilities they have such as other work commitments and affected the time they spent with family.

“In myriad ways, we saw how our cultural conditioning as women, academics, and public servants contributed to our difficulty with setting boundaries. Tracking not just how often we said yes or no, but also our emotional responses, made the emotional labour of saying no visible,” they said.

Saying no firmly and practicing it

“Advice on the logistics of how to say no is readily available. But we found that we needed less logistical advice and more emotional advice: how to overcome the idea that we ‘should’ say yes, that we owe the asker something more than a polite refusal,” Cravens and the rest of the group said.

When it comes to saying no, some suggest using a “little no,” which simply means agreeing only to do a portion of the task “to lessen the blow.”

However, Cravens and her colleagues found that this method could just result in people asking for a greater commitment later on, adding that “it sometimes left us completing the whole task if the others involved did not contribute equally.”

Instead of following such logistical advice, the social scientists learned to say no early, firmly, and completely.

“To soften the blow, we suggested others who could complete the task, and tried to lift others’ voices by recommending colleagues and students whose views might otherwise be overlooked,” they said.

“Providing an authentic but succinct explanation for turning down tasks also preserved relationships with the people making the requests.”

What they, we can learn from the experiment

After a year of saying no, Cravens and her colleagues said they also learned the importance of relationships.

“We now choose collaborators who respect our boundaries, personal lives and mental health, and who honour our decision to say no as an act of self-care,” they said.

“In return, we recognize the need to treat ‘no’s from our colleagues with grace and to make our requests of others (especially those who are junior to us) in ways that include an easy way out,” they added.

Just like in learning how to do other things, their experiment also proved that practice makes saying no easier. Throughout the span of a year, repeatedly saying no has made the emotional labor of justifying “no” among themselves and saying “no” to others gradually became easier.

“And when we reflect on our past year, we don’t regret our ‘no’s. When presented with opportunity, it is easy to worry about missing out or social consequences — but it turns out, at least for us, that the saying ’you only regret the things you don’t do’ doesn’t hold true,” they said.

“We will continue to say no more often and to bigger tasks and to build spaces in which others are empowered to set boundaries. This is the only way to make room for intentional ‘yes’ in our finite research lives,” they added.

Saying no, according to a separate study, has been found to be one of the best forms of self-care people can practice, no matter how hard it may be at the start and supports individuals to:

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  • create space in schedules to rest and recharge;
  • focus on activities that align with their current goals; and
  • set boundaries with loved ones and colleagues.


TAGS: burnout, INQFocus, Psychology, saying no, unwind

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