Why Saying No is So Important

how to say no more as a nurse

Nurses are usually the kind of people that put others before themselves. Of course, we nurses know that there are some exceptions to the rule. But for the most part, we are guilty of putting ourselves last in our long list of priorities especially at work. I’ve learnt a lot over the years as a nurse and after multiple bouts of burnout and break downs I finally realised how important saying no really is for our mental health as nurses! 

Before I go on I just want to say that by saying no I do not mean turning into a lazy ass nurse who declines to do an extra task because it’s way above your pay grade. What I’m talking about here is saying no to anything that puts our own health or happiness at risk. 

I’m talking about: 

  • Staying on an extra three hours because the next nurse is late for the following shift 
  • Not going to the bathroom because one more person needs your help with something that could literally wait 2 minutes while you go pee (nurses are quick)!
  • Swapping a shift with a colleague after feeling guilt-tripped into it 
  • Picking up extra shifts on your unit because you feel guilty if you don’t 
  • Going back into work after a sickness bout earlier than you should have because you feel guilty 

Can you see the repetitive pattern here? 

I don’t know about you but I used to be an all-round people pleaser. As a brand new nurse fresh out of university 4 years ago I wanted to please everyone. I wanted to please management and my colleagues because as a brand new baby nurse I wanted everyone to like me. So of course, I said yes anytime management wanted to change my shifts and picked up extra to help out the units I worked on. 

This was all well and good but this carried on for the next four years of my career. I never wanted to let anyone down which in turn left to me feeling frustrated and exhausted mentally and physically. Even in Australia where I worked casually for an agency I would give in to their streams of texts or calls begging for me to go in. 

Put your hand up if you’ve ever said yes to any of these things begrudgingly because you’ve felt like you had to, I know I have! Well, guess what sister, you really don’t have to and this is where the importance of saying no comes in. 

The truth is though by not letting anyone else down I was constantly letting myself down. 

How You’re Letting Yourself Down by Saying Yes to Everything! 

By saying yes to taking on more work and swapping shifts which in turn would take my roster awful at times I was putting myself last. I was letting my physical health down by not getting enough rest in-between shifts. I often ate crappy meals because I hadn’t had enough time off in-between shifts to actually go to the shops and prepare some meals for my shifts ahead and there was definitely no time to get to the gym or yoga studio!

It’s not just our physical health that gets put on the back burner so often it’s our mental health too. To be a good nurse at work I now know that I need to take plenty of time for myself and other things that bring me joy in my life in-between my shifts. This is a huge reason why I no longer work full time as a nurse but that’s for a whole other post! 

What I’m saying here is that by trying to please everyone else we so often let ourselves down in one way or another. AND if you’re one of those badass humans who can keep their-self in check whilst picking up all the extra slack then please tell me your secret – or don’t actually because I am so much happier and feel so much more empowered as nurse now I’ve realised I can speak up and say no to things that aren’t right for me that is okay.

I think learning to say no to things that I don’t want to do has empowered me the most this year which is why I’m starting off with this post. And, if you’re not a nurse and still find yourself reading this post then don’t worry you can apply I’m about to share to just about any workplace!

How to Say Start Saying No and Setting Boundaries at Work 

For a people pleaser and highly anxious nurse at times it was so difficult for me to start saying no to things I didn’t want to do but I knew deep down I had to start setting some boundaries in my career. Below are my top three situations which I now say no to more times than I don’t that have changed my life as a nurse.

  1. Extra Shifts 
  2. Swapping Shifts 
  3. Staying Late 

Saying No to Extra Shifts 

All over the world, we are under the immense pressures that come with working in healthcare. The front-liners like doctors and nurses are busier than ever, whilst the waiting times for services like clinics and GP appointments soar. I’ve worked in the NHS in England which, as we all know, is massively under-budgeted and understaffed. But I’ve also worked in Australia and New Zealand and guess what? They suffer from the same problems.

Being understaffed and underfunded health care is a worldwide phenomenon. 

With budget cuts stronger than ever it’s often left to the nurses and doctors already in jobs to pick up the slack. AKA do the job that about five nurses should be doing! Cue the need for extra shifts. The thing with extra shifts is that they can be a blessing. Perhaps you’re saving up for that big holiday or wedding? Picking up an extra shift at work can be worth it when your paycheck arrives that month. BUT extra shifts can also be dangerous physically and mentally. 

As I mentioned, and will probably continue to, I spent most of my career thus far as a people pleaser. Management only had to look at me with wide eyes and I found myself agreeing to yet again another extra shift on top of my already 4 12-hour shifts I was doing that week. As great as the extra money was, it started to take a toll on my physical and mental health. My body was literally exhausted and because I was exhausted cooking when I got home turned into a chore and it was beans on toast for tea for often than not. 

It took me a while to figure out but money really isn’t everything. Sure, it helps but what’s that extra $100 compared to feeling happy, healthy and doing more of the things I love with those days out of work? To me that’s priceless. So now, in a bid for my own happiness, I only ever take an extra shift IF I want too! Maybe I’m on annual leave and want some extra cash? I might pick up something extra then but it will always be on my terms.

It is NOT your responsibility to staff the hospital or your workplace

It is so important for us as healthcare professionals to understand that it is not our responsibility to staff the hospital! 

For so long I didn’t want to let my units down and I didn’t want my colleagues to suffer because trust me I know how hard it is! But unfortunately the lack of staff in the hospital is not my responsibility and it isn’t yours either! I show up and give 110% to all of my rostered shifts and if I want to take on extra work it will be on my terms and that is okay!  

If you struggle with saying no then I’m laving some scripts at the end of this post that you can take a look at if you need a little guidance! 

Staying Late (when you don’t have to)!

This one’s a biggie! Sometimes in healthcare staying late seems unavoidable. It’s ten to seven and you’re in a full-blown crash call situation. Now I am not saying to drop your airway responsibilities and run when it’s time to clock off time because those situations really are unavoidable. We all know that shit usually hits the fan just before hand over time. 

What I’m saying here is not staying late when it’s avoidable which is usually 99% of the time. Now some of you may roll your eyes and be thinking ‘where the hell does she work’ (a very busy neonatal intensive care unit) but it really is true. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given as a nurse is this: 

‘It’s a 24-hour service’ 

Now seriously just take a moment and really think about that phrase. It’s a 24-hour service. This honestly changed my whole perspective on my nursing career. We can all guarantee that on those shifts when you’ve literally not stopped giving IV after IV or admitting patient after patient, that will be the shift that you hand over to everyone’s favourite pain in the ass. You know the one who complains that you haven’t changed a pillowcase or replaced the nasogastric tube. It really is a 24-hour service so seriously if you know you’ve given that shift your all and there are a few minor things you haven’t got round to, don’t sweat it. 

I’ll be no longer missing out on precious time with my family to do something that can be done by someone else who is actually getting paid at that time! It’s time to work on your time management so you can get all of the tasks you must do done for home time and anything else can wait. 

Another is staying on for hours if someone on the next shift is going to be late. If you’re in at 7 am the next day do you really think it’s a good idea? Just think about what you’re agreeing to before doing it out of the goodness of your heart!

Swapping Shifts 

Here’s another one that luckily for my colleagues I would’ve to give into so easily previously! People in life, even our beloved nursing colleagues, can be very persuasive or good at pulling the guilt trip card. 

It’s the usual story, right? Someone needs a shift swap and has hunted you down on the roaster as the only viable person that could possibly swap. Before you know it you’re agreeing to swap your Sunday day shift for a miserable Monday or swapping a day for a night even though you HATE working nights! 

Now, I love helping my fellow nursing clang out but only if it’s beneficial for ME. You do not have to swap shifts if you don’t want to and no-one is going to hate you if you say no! Before agreeing to make swaps make sure that swap fits well into your life before saying yes! Take a look at your schedule maybe your partners of whoever you’d maybe spend time with on that particular day. Think about what you’ll be sacrificing by swapping the shift, if nothing then great go for it, but if not then don’t agree! 

How to Say No – a Few Prompts 

I know I make it sound so easy in this blog post but I know how hard it really can be to say no so here are the two sentences I always use!

“I’m not sure, I’ll have to check my schedule and get back to you” – This one is really easy so you literally can go check what you need to and get back the person. 

“I’m afraid I’ve already got plans that day” I often come straight out with this one unless I really want to check my schedule. The first sentence can be a great starting point to use so you start to feel more empowered in your quest to say no more often! You can throw a ‘sorry’ into the mix if you’d like but I’m also trying not to say sorry as much too because really there is nothing to apologise for here – again this is another topic which will be getting a whole post of its own! 

I hope after reading this post you feel a little more empowered to start saying no at work! Saying no to all of the above ties in with what I was talking about in my previous post. We have to take some responsibility as nurses. It’s no good saying yes to two extra shifts every week and then complaining you’re tired or that the government is overworking you. Yes they are and staffing levels around the world are at an all-time low but it’s up to us to stand up for ourselves too. 

I hope you enjoyed this post and even if you’re not a nurse and have read thus far then you can apply all of these tips to any workplace. If employees know they can take us for granted and take advantage then they will. It’s also really important to start learning how to say out of work too but I think I’ll write a different post on that too so stick around! If you did enjoy this post or know someone who could find it useful then please share it 🙂

Thanks so much for reading,



Alicia is a travel obsessed Registered Nurse who is on a mission to help other unfulfilled nurses reconnect with their purpose, passion and joy for life. Alicia has suffered from countless bouts of burnout in her nursing career and now wants to help other nurses too. Alicia is a huge advocate for travel and travel makes up a huge part of her life and this blog! Join her on her adventures nursing around the world and helping others to live a happier more positive life.

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