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Learn to say ‘no’ to bosses, family and friends before they wear you down

SINGAPORE — With work-from-home arrangements and virtual meetings becoming commonplace during the Covid-19 pandemic and blurring the lines between professional and personal lives, more Singaporeans are reporting burnout. It would be timely, therefore, to acquire and hone an essential skill to maintain a healthier lifestyle and relationships.

  • Saying “no” tactfully at work and in one’s personal life is essential for healthy boundaries and relationships
  • Low self-assertiveness and an inability to decline requests are risk factors for stress, job burnout and anxiety
  • The Asian culture of conflict avoidance and focus on being compliant to authority may be why most people find it hard to reject others
  • Experts gave tips on how to set boundaries without antagonising others

 

SINGAPORE — With work-from-home arrangements and virtual meetings becoming commonplace during the Covid-19 pandemic and blurring the lines between professional and personal lives, more Singaporeans are reporting burnout.

It would be timely, therefore, to acquire and hone an essential skill to maintain a healthier lifestyle and relationships.

And this would be learning to say “no”.

No to being stuck to your computer screen way beyond working hours. No to attending another “urgent” online meeting during your bedtime. No to yet another invitation to go somewhere you do not want to go.

However, turning down requests does not always come easy. Just ask psychiatrist Lim Boon Leng and clinical psychologist Gregor Lim-Lange, who are in the business of helping people navigate mental health issues including burnout and work-related stress.

Dr Lim-Lange is chief psychologist and co-founder of Forest Wolf, a consultancy firm that works with individuals and businesses to develop future-ready skills.

He said that he sometimes wrestles with his impulse to say “yes” to people in his social circle when they ask him to be their therapist.

“I care deeply about them and want to say ‘yes’, but I also know I ought to have professional boundaries. It’s not ethical to provide therapy to your friends and it could undermine or damage the friendship.”

Dr Lim Boon Leng, who runs a private practice at Gleneagles Medical Centre, said that while it seems easy, declining requests requires a certain level of mastery.

“This is especially in a culture like ours, where ‘giving face’ and not offending others are important priorities when dealing with others, particularly those who have authority over us,” he said.

He recalled his own dilemma over seeing a non-urgent case outside work hours.

“I was quite worn out that day. My own worries for turning down the request would be that the person may think I am being unhelpful or may feel that I am not ‘giving face’ and may not request my service again in the future.”

He eventually declined the request and offered the patient alternative solutions.

“In the end, I am glad I did so, that I respected my own boundaries. Being well-rested helped me to work better the next day for my other patients,” he said.

WHY IT IS SO DIFFICULT TO SAY ‘NO’

One reason why many people are inclined to acquiesce to requests may be due to the Asian culture of conflict-avoidance and focus on being compliant to authority figures.

Dr Lim-Lange said: “Most people in Singapore have grown up in this culture of looking to an authority figure — whether it’s the government, parent, boss or an elder — to tell you what to do.

“There’s also a sense of not wanting to upset the collective ‘we’, like not imposing on your colleagues or family members.”

Having said that, Dr Lim-Lange said that he has also seen clients from a Western culture struggle with establishing boundaries.

“If no one ever taught you (how to say ‘no’) or modelled it for you, how are you supposed to know how to do it? It’s almost like speaking a new language,” he added.

Dr Lim Boon Leng said that having low self-assertiveness and an inability to decline requests are common risk factors for experiencing more stress at work, which in turn results in a higher likelihood of job burnout and anxiety.

In general, he sees it in people working in industries where expectations for employees to be available round-the-clock and meet tight deadlines are a given.

“It is also seen in sectors where there is a shortage of manpower and where altruism is expected, such as in the teaching and healthcare profession,” he added.

Individuals who have been raised to be agreeable and who are avoidant of conflict tend to be vulnerable.

“Singaporeans who are baby boomers and from Generation X have the tendency to have such traits because they were brought up at times when productivity and being sacrificial for the collective greater good were highly held values.”

WHEN IS IT BETTER TO SAY ‘NO’

Besides protecting one’s interest and safeguarding against burnout, Dr Lim Boon Leng said that establishing healthy boundaries is also sometimes necessary for safety reasons, for example, in a situation of potential sexual harassment. 

At workplaces, being a “yes man” is definitely not a compliment.

Dr Lim-Lange said: “If you are always saying ‘yes’, it doesn’t lead to new innovations or pushing people outside their comfort zones, which is the requirement for creativity, innovation and leadership.”

He explained that disagreements or healthy debates are an important part of healthy relationships. This applies at work as well, where high-performing teams tend to have such debates.

“It is also important to remember that when you say ‘no’ to something, it means saying ‘yes’ to something else. If you say ‘no’ to a new project, for example, you may be saying ‘yes’ to a project you are already working on, giving it more time and attention.

“It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or not into collaboration.”

WAYS TO DECLINE A REQUEST

Like any new language, learning to say “no” skilfully requires practice.

Dr Lim Boon Leng said it is important for people to first understand the real reasons why they are reluctant to decline a request — instead of feeling like others are taking advantage of them.

Illustration: Ijmaki/Pixabay

Dr Lim-Lange said most people are respectful of boundaries when they are aware of what the other party is going through. However, many people have trouble naming their emotions and sharing how overwhelmed or burned out they are.

“What I encourage my clients to do is to name their emotions and say it as it is. For example, you could say ‘I would love to do what you asked me to do but at the moment, I am totally overwhelmed, feeling burned out, anxious, etc’.

“More often than not, people are respectful of that — and that includes your manager and your boss.”

It takes time to practise assertiveness and one may fail several times before making small headways.

Dr Lim Boon Leng said: “Start gradually with people or issues that are less impactful like peers asking you to do their work. Then gradually move to a more difficult scenario like your boss’ unreasonable expectations.”

It is also good practice to take the time and space to think through the request.

“You may tell them you need to check your schedule or commitment and you will get back to them. It may be easier to decline later with a text or email, which can include good reasons for declining,” he added.

Having said that, he cautioned against saying “no” for the sake of it and being aggressive instead of being assertive.

“Always take into account whether a request is also in your own interest and if it is helpful for you. Being polite and calm, explaining your reasons and rationale and seeking understanding of the requesting party will help you achieve a win-win situation,” Dr Lim Boon Leng said.

The following are more strategies on declining requests tactfully, Dr Lim-Lange suggested.

1. The "alternative" strategy

The situation: A friend, family member or colleague asks to have a meal or coffee with you but you are pressed for time.

Suggest an alternative that works within your means. For example:

“Thank you, but my work schedule is quite full at the moment. I don’t have an hour to meet you but do you have a particular question I can answer by text message or email? Or I can do a 10-minute call with you.”

Illustration: Mohamed Hassan/Pixabay

The situation: Your boss asks you to take on another project or task even though your plate is full.

Instead of telling your boss you cannot do it, it would be helpful to first inform him or her how much work you have on hand. This opens up a conversation for you to work out a solution. For example:

“Boss, thanks for thinking of me for this new task. I want you to be aware that I have five other tasks on hand at the moment. If you want me to do this new one by tomorrow, this is what I am able to do realistically (for example, a one-page report in 24 hours versus a 10-page report in a week).”

2. The "policy" strategy

The situation: A friend or family member asks you to donate to charity or a project.

Instead of a flat “no”, a more diplomatic approach would be to acknowledge the person’s efforts and gently explain the reason behind your decision to decline it. For example:

“Thank you for thinking of me. This is an amazing project. I’m not able to contribute because I have a commitment. My husband and I decided at the start of the year to give to three charities each year and we have already pledged to do so to our charities. But I’ll love to hear from you next year. I wish you all the best.”

3. The "mother or significant other" strategy

The situation: You are invited to an event but do not want to go.

This strategy will work because most people are unlikely to make you feel bad by telling you not to meet your mother or significant other.

“Thanks for thinking of me. I promised myself if I’ve not had lunch with my significant other / mother, I would not take on other social commitments. I’ve been so busy and have not seen my significant other / mother in months. Once I’ve done that, I’ll be able to meet you.”

Related topics

work from home stress burnout mental health boundaries

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