OPINION16 March 2023

The power of no: Tackling high workloads

Opinion People UK Wellbeing

We should all be prepared to say ‘no’ more often in a world of ever-increasing workloads and stress levels, argues Louise McLaren.

Stop sign on a beach

Most weekends recently, I’ve been wrestling with the iron will of one of my children. He’s never exactly been pliable, but his determination has scaled new heights, so as parents we’re working out what do we bend on, what do we let go and where do we try to reach a delicate compromise.

I think I’m probably a people pleaser at work. Well, once I was told I was by someone perceptive. I’m increasingly wondering if I should take some lessons from my son.

Perhaps not the way he says no – that would get HR in a bit of a lather – but in saying no a bit more often.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how intense our industry – like many – has become.  There are myriad reasons for this, and the solutions are not straightforward to identify and implement for any person or team alone.

But one beautifully simple thing that is in our power is to say ‘no’ a little more often. Think of it this way: the more we all bend to near-impossible timelines, erratic requests and crushingly small budgets, the worse we make it not just for ourselves, but for all of us. Because the cumulative effect of lots of contorting to punishing timelines, budgets and remits sets norms we are all then expected to adhere to.

Clients who manage their agency relationships in a partnership spirit won’t want to see their trusted collaborators burning out and leaving their roles or delivering poor quality work because they’re just too exhausted.

But so often, on the agency side we’re jumping to answer that request at break-neck speed, hit that astonishing timeline, deliver more for less, add on that extra bit to the deliverable as a favour and much more. I know that it’s not all starting with commissioning clients – they are doing their best in the circumstances, which can often be difficult these days – with widespread reorganisations and budget reductions creating strain. 

It doesn’t look like things are about to get easier in the working world. So what can we do? What if we all set our boundaries a little firmer and said no to some of those demands? 

Don’t get me wrong, I know that while saying no is apparently simple, it’s not quite so easy in practice. You say ‘no’ and then what? 

On the client-side, does the stakeholder get irritated and give poor feedback in the appraisal process? Does the insight team risk getting cut out in the future? Does that project fail to secure the internal investment and buy-in needed? Whereas on the agency-side – does that brief go elsewhere? Does another agency sneak in and build a stronger relationship?

You can see the pattern – the fear of saying no is often underpinned by an anxiously-framed set of ‘what ifs’ that can escalate. Though if we take that people-pleasing anxiety and turn it another way, you can find challenging chains of consequence that derive from saying yes too often to difficult demands.

For clients and agencies alike, there are a few things to consider before saying ‘yes’ when our instincts are fight or flight, rather than to fling our arms wide open to embrace the task. 

  • What precedent is set by accepting this?  Within this, could saying yes lead to expectation to do more of the same in the future?
  • Within this, what is the opportunity cost of saying yes?
  • Does saying ‘yes’ devalue the effort and skill that goes into doing the work justice?
  • How could saying ‘yes’ affect the quality of the work?
  • How could saying ‘yes’ affect staff/partners’ wellbeing?

Leading us to a simple question:

  • How much scope is there to question whether the deadline or scope of the task is really fixed?
  • And then lastly, what’s the worst that can happen in saying no? Could saying ‘no’ actually lead to a better outcome?

‘No’ is just two letters, but together those letters hold a lot of power – helping us to retain a sense of control over our workload, and our working relationships, which is essential to our wellbeing.

So try it sometime. Just try to avoid slamming the door as you do it, pre-teen style – a polite ‘no’ with a clear explanation should always leave the door open for the future.

Louise McLaren is managing director at Lovebrands