I said no this week. A big no. A serious, this-can’t-go-on no. I was terrified of saying it. I still don’t know what the outcome will be in the long term. In the short term I know it’s made people angry. In the medium term I expect I’ll be treated with kid gloves because, by my saying no to one thing, people will expect me to say no to other things. They won’t get it. They’ll think I’m being precious. It’ll take them a while to realise that I’m saying no to only one thing. But I mean it.
I was taught to say yes. I was brought up to always be helpful, to always do the right thing. I’ve learned in middle age that you have to be careful about always being helpful because you can end up burned out. I’ve beaten myself up for not always being helpful when I should have been, but sometimes it would have been to my detriment and hindsight showed that I did the right thing by not helping.
I was taught not to make a fuss. I was taught to respect and slightly fear authority. In my working life this has meant that I’ve always been seen as reliable and hardworking, someone who will keep going and do whatever is asked of them even when it’s too much. I spent the past two years doing that and it really was too much. It almost broke me. So when I started a new job I was ecstatic because I was looking forward to leading a more normal life. Silly me.
My new job turned out to be two jobs in one, working for two different bosses in two different buildings, doing two different things. Still I was optimistic. “They’ll have a plan,” I thought. “They wouldn’t have created the job if it wasn’t going to work.” Then I realised that not only was it two different jobs in two different buildings but they both had to happen at the same time.
I don’t know about you, but I usually credit people with having a certain amount of awareness, of being able to see a situation for what it is. In this case I was being too generous because the lack of awareness that each party had about the requirements of the other was stunning. People were concerned only about their own patch. Bugger everybody else. Plus, I discovered I’d walked into a minefield of office politics.
I pointed to the elephant in the room, but everyone pretended it wasn’t there. “Give it some time,” they said. “It’s early days.” So I buzzed like a blue-arsed fly between jobs, lying awake at night wondering how I could get everything done, and because I was doing that people thought it was working okay. A few months on, I went to one of my bosses to talk about it. She could see how run ragged I was, so we came up with a plan and we took it to the other boss.
He said no. He had the authority to do that. It was partly to do with office politics. He wanted a quiet life. My mental health was expendable. So we modified the plan and I limped on until 2.30 am last Friday when I knew I couldn’t go to work that day. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Monday morning found me dressed for work, standing in my kitchen with my lunchtime sandwich in my hand, weeping. Again I’d been awake since the small hours, trying to figure out what to do.
So I said no. I wrote a calm, clear and reasonable email to my workplace. I offered a solution, but I was firm in saying no to any version of the current situation. Then I took the week off. It cost me a lot emotionally to do that. Perhaps it cost me a lot professionally too. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, even if you’ve been brought up to be helpful, reliable and nice to others, it should never be at the cost of your own mental health. Although it might make you feel sick to do it, and although it might change everything, sometimes you just have to stand your ground and say one small word. No.