Skip to main content

How to say no – and do it successfully

Written by: Dean Fido
Published on: 15 Feb 2021

Yes or no

Source: iStock

The question of what it means to be an academic is an interesting one. Beyond the more obvious elements of high-quality teaching provision and an emphasis on conducting and disseminating contemporary research, academics dedicate a considerable amount of time to administration, peer review and public outreach – all of which fall under the loose category of “related academic duties”.

However, with an increase in demand for mental health support for higher education staff over the past five years, coupled with a global pandemic that has required academics and support staff to quickly remaster their content online (often with little technological knowledge or support), there is a growing need for empathy and understanding for this group. Of course, universities will play a vital role in implementing change in the future, but one way academics can begin to protect themselves is by mastering the art of saying “no”.

THE Campus Spotlight: Resources for boosting resilience among staff and students

Why do we say ‘yes’?

Though this is not the space to offer a full psychological examination into our propensity to overburden ourselves with work, recognising warning signs is the first step to protecting ourselves.

Ambition and the (often unconscious) fostering of environments built on competition and peer-to-peer comparison drive us to constantly attend to career opportunities. However, with no clear indication of the effect that each might have on our career progression, we can find ourselves taking on too much to temper our fears of wasted chances. And we might even do it to remove potential career-enhancing opportunities from peers we deem our “competitors”.

Moreover, and from my own experience, the guilt born out of what we expect others will think of us after saying no can be overwhelming – perhaps evoking feelings of us not doing “enough” or not being considered collegial by our team.

But, of course, saying no to such labours is easier said than done.

During my postdoctoral studies, I frequently saw students and academics miss out on valuable social experiences – instead, opting to remain in the lab to further their work – and came to the decision that I would always put myself and family first. Here are three tips that I deem vital to well-being, along with how to say no without hampering your academic career.

Recognise self-worth

As an early-career academic, it is easy to doubt your self-worth and the value that you, as an individual, bring to your role. You surround yourself with distinguished peers and try to reduce the perceived gap in knowledge and experience by plugging it with activities to both get your name noticed in academic spheres and to reduce feelings of imposter syndrome.

Though this might work in the short term, it means you spread your resources thinly across many unrelated fields, and so delay establishing yourself as the go-to person in a specific area. This also maps directly on to recognising our own competencies and thus avoiding taking on projects that could be completed more quickly by someone else. Always be mindful of how opportunities will directly impact your career and success. For me, the story must be clear before I commit to saying yes.

Be realistic about the resources required

We’ve all taken on tasks without thoroughly understanding the time and resources required to complete them successfully. Though this understanding comes with experience, remember to take the necessary time before committing. This allows you to get advice from peers and also reduces the likelihood of you committing out of impulse.

Use this time and understanding to broker discussions with line managers, ensuring that extra tasks are not (easily) omitted from workloads. And when asked to prioritise an activity, do not be afraid to discuss which existing tasks need to be delayed to achieve this. Employers truly do respect such honesty.

THE Campus resource: How to manage your workload to avoid burnout

Be constructive

Just as learning to say no might be a steep learning curve for you personally, a sudden shift may also surprise line managers and peers. Be mindful of this. Being honest and open about your well-being and commitments helps to forge trust and underpins constructive discussions. Accompanying your no with a “but” or “however” both establishes your firm position and helps soothe the workload of the other party as you help them achieve their goals.     

Finally, I am mindful that my advice is informed by my own position as an established early-career researcher at a supportive university that has adapted well to online teaching provision. I hope not to discount the experiences of individuals at different career stages and/or backgrounds and would be eager to learn of the experiences of the reader in saying no and how this has changed the way that you work.

I also recognise the irony of advising academics against taking on more work while simultaneously writing outside of my working schedule. However, the health of my peers is important to me, so I thank Times Higher Education for providing this opportunity, as well as for publishing this article open access for the benefit of all.

I place great importance on the well-being of academics and recognise the efforts we put in to foster the success of our students – but this success can only be achieved if we do not let our own health take a backseat.

Dean Fido is a lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Derby in the UK.