It's hard to say no.

Sometimes that's because of who's asking. You may not want to turn down a request from your boss or from a coworker. In other cases, you don't want to say no because the opportunity excites you (even if you don't have time for it). And, of course, sometimes you just can't say no even if you really want to.

That leads to problems. If you don't say no, you can end up with more work on your plate than you can handle. That's happening to a lot of workers, according to a new survey from VitalSmarts, a leadership training company.

A woman sits behind a desk piled wirh papers.

Taking on too much work can be bad for your health. Image source: Getty Images.

How big is the problem?

Out of 1,353 workers surveyed, three out of five (60%) said they have already committed to more work than they can handle. Another 20% said they're at capacity and have no room to take on any new tasks. Of those who are currently overcommitted, one-third said they always have more work than they can handle, while two-thirds said they're usually like that. 

Why is this happening? Survey respondents generally had the best of intentions, even if some of the reasons they listed contributed to their own problems:

  • Want to be helpful, accommodating, and polite (73%)
  • Like to fix problems, even when they aren't theirs (56%)
  • Unsure about workplace rules and when they can say no (39%)
  • Stuck with bosses who make unreasonable demands (38%)
  • Not able to say no (32%)

In some cases -- such as having a bad boss -- there's not much you can do other than taking the issue to human resources. The top two reasons, however, are factors within your control, and the ability to say no can be learned.

"Without a system designed to capture and organize incoming tasks and the skills to negotiate commitments, you're bound to find yourself victim of an impossible to-do list," David Maxfield, co-creator of Getting Things Done Training at VitalSmarts, said in a press release. "Unless and until you take control of this system, you'll continue to frantically spin your wheels and still only make a dent in that ever-growing list of commitments."

You need to take charge

Being overcommitted can impact more than your job. It can take a toll on your physical heath and mental well-being. Over half of those who said they were overcommitted reported that they are moderately stressed, while 35% said they're highly stressed, and 9% said they're very highly stressed. In addition, 52% worried about letting people down, while 46% felt overwhelmed. 

Improving your work situation involves being proactive. You have to both correct your own habits and work with your boss or bosses to dig out from the situation.

The first step is truly getting organized and understanding what's on your plate and how long it will take to finish it. If your own agreeableness or inability to say no caused the problem, you might want to work a marathon week to get as much done as you can (or dig out completely if that's possible) -- and then start being more disciplined about saying no.

If you can't catch up by putting in extra hours or your problems are largely due to management, then you have to speak up. You need to have all of your supporting materials -- a list of what's in your workload and how long each task will take -- to lay out to your manager that you simply can't catch up.

Ideally, your boss will work with you to parcel out tasks elsewhere or to knock things off your list. If that happens, you need to work actively to make sure the same situation does not happen again. That means being willing to say no and actively communicating to your boss when you see the situation recurring.

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