My manager is standing in front of me, asking me to take on an urgent task that has just come in. It will take a couple of hours to finish, and it’s currently 4.30pm.

I finish at 5pm, and she knows this.

I can stay back a few minutes, but not long. Leaving at 5.20pm will result in me driving across town with my hands gripping the steering wheel while I pray for green lights.

I will arrive to collect my children right before day care closes. I will be grumpy and frustrated. I will snap at the kids.

I do not want to do this, to them, or to me, but how do I say no at work?

I know my husband is too busy to pick up the girls today, and everyone else in my team is overloaded. In fact, we’re all getting fractious because we’ve been under too much pressure for too long.

I am the only person in the team who has children, and I know that other people work back more often than I do. I do not want to whine about family obligations in an open office, but nor am I able to take on two hours’ work this evening.

All of this flashes through my mind while my manager looks at me, waiting for an answer.

I look at my watch. I’m aware of the time, but I’m making a point, and buying some time.

What to do?

I look my manager in the eye and say, “This looks like a couple of hours work. I can stay until just after five this evening, but then I will have to collect my kids. I start early so I can have a draft on your desk when you arrive. That will mean that this report I’m working on will wait until later tomorrow. Does that work?”

My manager thinks for a moment and then agrees. She wants to review the urgent task at 10am tomorrow morning, and the report can wait.

Whew! I’ve negotiated my way out of this mess. Would you like some pointers so you can do this too?

Here’s how to say no at work:

  • Use positive language. Instead of saying “I can’t …”, focus on what you can do
  • Clarify the deadline. My manager wanted the task done that day, but really needed it by 10am the next morning.
  • Re-negotiate other tasks so that you don’t overload yourself
  • Consider the options. Consider other team members, and their workload, and what flexibility you have
  • Balance your needs, and the needs of the people relying on you, with the work requirements
  • Ensure the task is urgent, and make sure you understand the impact of not meeting the deadline. We can work to frantic deadlines because one person made a promise to another. Sometimes expectations just need redefining.
  • Manage your feelings. I wanted to help but I refuse to feel guilty for saying no, and I refuse to be stressed and late
  • Communicate as an equal, and do not behave as though you are doing anything wrong

I used to say ‘yes’ to almost everything, and be seen as the go-to person to get things done. That gave me some satisfaction but I became exhausted, and resentful of people who were better at managing their time.

It was difficult to change this situation, but eventually I decided I had to do something. I made a fresh start when I returned from leave, and I changed my manager’s expectations.

Here’s how I made it easier to say no at work:

  • I made it clear that I have obligations outside work
  • I gave regular, gentle reminders that I need to leave on time most days.
  • I did not fall into the trap of working back regularly. Working extended hours on a regular basis makes your colleagues believe these are your regular hours. It then becomes difficult to leave work on time.

Don’t let yourself become a slave to saying yes all the time. You can take back your control, and gain respect, by learning how to say no at work.

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  • I agree you need to say no as some people do bully you into working when it doesn’t suit you.


  • I find it a little hard to say no to those who pay my bills. Good read though


  • I used to be a slave to staying back – I didn’t mind until it was just expected. It was then hard to get out of work even close to on time – I eventually burnt out


  • I was always the person loaded to the brink. I was one of 2 people who didn’t have kids at the time so they just expected me to say yes. I did say yes a bit too often but I was saving for our wedding and paying off a house and car and the money was good. After I got married, I learned to say no. It just got way too much. Resulted in me eventually quitting but man it felt good to say shove it haha


  • yeah cheers Cate for this article


  • Really good knowledge to know! Thanks for sharing this!


  • I used to say yes to my bully of a boss all the time. If I didn’t she would be in a foul mood and take it out on everyone. Thankfully I don’t work for her anymore and I will never allow myself to be treated like that again


  • I was bullied badly at one of the biggest hospitals In Melbourne. And my boss got away with it. I wish I took it to current affair!!


  • One of the girls where I worked would say that it wasn’t in her job description and sometimes quite rude when doing so. When that dept. was downsized she was the one that was retrenched. Apparently she had done it more than once when the head office managers from interstate were present. One of the jobs she was asked to do would have taken only about 5 minutes. She was asked to do it for the manager standing there and she literally abused him, not just refused to do it. As usual she was sitting talking – not about work in company time – and was on a huge salary.


  • Thanks again for sharing this article; have been using a lot of the ‘can do’ and it is working well!


  • I really enjoyed your blog. I was that go to girl & it can be exhausting. love the way you negotiated instead of declining to help. I will try to use that technique. thankyou.


  • Thanks for this interesting and thoughtful article. Definitely food for thought!


  • if you don’t learn to say no, then you end up burnt out and everyones patsy to get the work done


  • Excellent suggestions, but gee it is hard to think of all that quickly when you are put on the spot.

    • I totally agree! What I tend to do is get curious – just ask more questions about the job requirement, and think about how I can meet that need – rather than jumping in and saying ‘no’ outright. Hope that helps.

      • I agree with mum, feel the same to. Thanks for the suggestions changemylife.


  • You need an understanding supervisor for this to work.

    • Well yes, and no. The situation I described above actually happened to me – with a boss who was not very supportive at all. In fact the opposite of supportive. But I managed to negotiate successfully because I was meeting both our needs.


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