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Learning to say No

Are we addicted to meetings? We need to address employee burnout.

Posted February 25, 2021 by Helen Kupp

Reading time 9 min


People are reaching a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, also known as burnout, in record numbers across the globe. They feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and mentally exhausted. In the workplace, this translates to less productivity and employees quitting their jobs. That’s bad for business and bad for our well-being. 

The solution can be found by taking two simple initial steps:

  • Saying No. In a world that feels out of control, people need to be empowered to focus on the things they can and do control: their priorities, energy, and attention. More than just setting work priorities, saying No means setting realistic expectations and saying No (or at least “not now”) to work altogether when demands become overwhelming. 
  • Killing More Meetings. Our ongoing surveys of 9,000 workers unveil a major problem: people are expected to participate in far too many unnecessary meetings. Improve meeting hygiene and be clear about why you’re bringing people together.

We are burning out

Burnout is on the rise: Q4 of our Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index (REEI) research shows our ability to manage work-related stress levels has gotten worse in Q4 compared to Q3. Respondents reported a 36% decrease in work-life balance and a 33% drop in the ability to manage stress at work quarter over quarter.

Source: Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index, Q3 and Q4 2020 comparisons

What’s contributing to these alarming stats? Close to half of remote workers say they’re being brought into too many needless meetings, versus only 37% of those working in the office. It’s a waste of precious time, energy, and attention. Remote workers (39%) also report working more hours every day than they did pre-pandemic, versus 31% of office-based workers.

Source: Stress comparisons across remote and office-based workers. Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index, January 2021

In addition to being “over-meetinged” and overworked, people are feeling the crunch in their personal lives. Many are caring for young children who are learning remotely or for aging parents. In the US today, more than 1 in every 5 Americans (21.3%) are caregivers, defined as having provided care to an adult or child with special needs in the last 12 months according to the AARP study. And this doesn’t include parents who are caretaking for their kids! Everyone is facing COVID uncertainties and fears: new virus strains, difficulties with obtaining vaccines, the loss of loved ones, and world events surrounding inequality and injustice. All of this is pushing us to extremes and causing fluctuations in human and team capacity.

Managers are not equipped to support their teams

With all of this disruption, middle managers are also struggling, and in particular front line managers with smaller direct teams are struggling the most with overall lower scores across every REEI factor. They are scheduling too many weekly status meetings because they are not sure where projects stand and who is responsible for what in the world of remote work. They also lack the leadership skills and practical knowledge of how to help individuals feel safe enough to say when they are overloaded. What’s more, they are faltering when it comes to escalating the most important tasks and issues and clearly communicating priorities to their teams—without overloading everyone with constant meetings.

Source: Front-line managers are struggling the most; Future Forum Remote Employee Experience Index, January 2021

Leaders and organizations have an imperative to stop this cycle of burnout — it starts with learning how to effectively say “No”, or at least, “Not Now” at every level across the organization.

Getting to a clear Yes or No

Having clear priorities and goals as a company are essential. But it’s critical that everyone, from management and teams to individuals, can be free to say No to new ideas and projects. Saying No makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but it needs to be woven into the fabric of every organization, and supported by habits and norms that make saying No a consistent priority.

Two important words: Yes and No. (The leadership team) meets weekly, and we don’t leave the room until we say Yes or No clearly to something. Everyone fidgets and wants to get out, but we don’t leave without clarity. Before this, I saw orphaned projects, going nowhere slowly; it was time to say No to a lot of these things and say Yes to more selectively to the top 3. Getting a Yes means something across the organization..getting 100k people to execute.”

Brian Nicol
CEO, Chipotle

No starts from the top

Steve Jobs famously stated: “People think focus means saying Yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying No to the hundred other good ideas.” 

Saying No is tough for everyone. People may feel guilty that they are not meeting expectations. Many typically feel compelled to do everything they are asked at once, leaving people scattered or overwhelmed at the end of the day with a long list of to-do’s. Saying No is especially hard if leaders mark every idea or project as Priority #1.  Instead of just saying “these are all important”, leaders can be more effective if they’re able to stack rank priorities or projects, and communicate where to draw the cut-off line. What priorities or projects we need to collectively say No to, or at minimum, Not Now, and why.

“The oldest, shortest words – ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ – are those which require the most thought.”


It’s up to leaders to make these  tough decisions, and then communicate the tradeoffs to the rest of the organization. 

Making No (or “not now”) a regular routine

Direction from the top is a first step, but saying No needs to be built into the cadence of how a team operates.

The pandemic has blurred the boundaries between work and personal life. While there are clear benefits to working remotely, people also struggle at the individual level to set new boundaries and not let work bleed into every corner of the day or week. Managers and leaders can do more to make No (or “not now”) a more consistent habit across their teams. This can be accomplished using a simple process:

  1. Proactively prioritize. Make sure to trickle down priorities and tradeoffs from the top. Do this by asking every single person on your team whether their workload is manageable. Do this today. Tell your managers to do it next week. Canvas the company with this. Make it safe, make it OK, for everyone to raise their hands for help if their workloads are unmanageable. 

Pro tip: Consider using a framework like the Eisenhower prioritization matrix to help make decisions about what to do and what to say no to

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Reinforce those priorities by saying what matters and why. Share it publicly. Explain what doesn’t matter and why and celebrate focus, and do this often.
  1. Decide or Escalate. If you manage a team, then you are the decider. Tell your team that you expect escalations from them when things are going off track. Escalate the things you cannot decide. If you don’t know whether you can make the decision, escalate that further upwards as well. Do this without delay, so that projects can move forward and employees can accomplish their work with less stress and confusion, and without getting mired in management indecisiveness.

Kill extraneous meetings 

Prune meetings like you prune weeds from your garden. Build a regular habit of assessing the meetings that you have organized or attend, and err on the side of canceling more meetings. Managers may revolt, but consider this: excessive meetings are draining on employees and a waste of company time. 

9-to-5 doesn’t work for most people, and the reality is being scheduled in back to back meetings means you don’t really have flexibility!

And, there’s another fact that many leaders fail to consider: meetings are extremely expensive. During your next meeting, do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the hourly cost of each person there, and ask yourself if you would like to be paying for the meeting out of your own pocket. Then think of what those people could be achieving instead. Any meeting that doesn’t result in a key decision or a solid plan of action is a waste of time and money. There are better ways to get most things done without endless meetings.

Key meeting tips

  • Instead of weekly meetings, proactively move status checks to digital channels and tools

Let people know how to provide clear updates. Provide guidance: define where to deliver & share updates (e.g. Jira, Asana, spreadsheet, Slack channel, or email alias); what are key deadlines (e.g. Monday by 10am); and who is responsible for the update.

  • Make it clear how and where to escalate issues

Help people communicate when they need help. Let them know how and where to escalate. Create other avenues for escalations — a project channel, a one on one agenda or note with a manager, or a project tracker. Set clear guidelines on what context needs to be shared to make a decision: What is the issue? (project off track, resource conflict, and so on). When does it need to be resolved?

  • Meetings: only for major priorities or key discussions and decisions

Reserve “live” time to discuss and resolve blocked issues. Set deadlines for resolution. If your product marketing lead needs management decisions to fix a product issue within 48-hours to meet SLAs, then Yes, it’s time for a meeting, but only for the small set of people directly responsible. 

  • Cancel the meeting if there is no agenda

Every morning, review meeting agendas and purposes. Meetings should be reserved for key decisions or discussions, so if there isn’t an agenda, then you probably don’t need the meeting or you need to reschedule after there’s more clarity defined about the action or decision needed from the group.

  • Make meetings meaningful and productive—the smaller the better

Always ask yourself if you really need to be in a meeting. In general, limit attendance and get comfortable with telling people they do not need to attend. As a rule of thumb, a maximum of eight people need to be in meetings to make a decision. Keep meetings to a maximum of two people from cross-functional teams and two layers in the chain of command. 

  • Share notes and action Items as broadly as possible

To avoid FOMO and build trust, designate a note-taker and record the session for later viewing. Having a record of the meeting that people can revisit also makes it easier to review goals and priorities to make sure everyone is on the right track. 

Always present a written brief to review in advance, make it clear what decisions need to be made and have the right decision-makers in the room. Be sure everyone walks away with clarity on next steps, and share everything back into a digital channel to keep those involved on track.

  • End the meeting

Be courteous and thoughtful of work and personal demands by giving people time back if meeting topics get covered quickly. Don’t linger just because there’s still time left that was allotted to the meeting.

Meetings don’t have to control your or your team’s work days. Proactively assess your meeting habits to take back time for focused work.

Focus is the antidote to burnout

Even before the pandemic, we were burning out and experiencing prolonged periods of stress. But as the world demands more from us than ever before, it is  even more critical to clarify what really matters. Getting to Yes, or saying No is about prioritizing and focusing, helping create clearer boundaries between work and life, and ending meeting addiction. It’s up to leaders to help make it happen.