Letting People Down In The Workplace Is Just Fine, Actually

Allow us to paint you a picture. It's Monday at 4am and you can't sleep because you've got a high fever and your throat is on fire. You eventually roll out of bed, pick up your laptop and log on for the day — camera off — because you'd rather work through your sickness than, heaven forbid, be a burden to your colleagues. But while we all know about burnout and that 'work won't love us back', the drive to work ourselves to the bone really hits us is in our desire to keep the peace.
Author Alexa Shoen (@alexashoen) went viral recently for a TikTok with a simple message: “Your health is more important than your job," she says, "even if you have to unexpectedly let someone down today.”
Advertisement
@alexashoen

Call in sick. It’s okay.

♬ original sound - Alexa Shoen
It sounds like a no-brainer, but when asked what pushes them to work overtime, the resounding response from friends and colleagues was just that: the idea of letting those around them down.
In 2022, we're dealing with a lot of understaffed workplaces. After the pandemic forced many companies to cut costs, and in many cases, let go of heaps of staff, resource scarcity was not just a myth imposed onto junior workers, but a reverberation of what we could clearly see happening around the world. Over 114 million jobs were lost in 2020, according to the International Labour Organisation — and those were just the ones reported. So anyone that had a job was really just focused on keeping it. But even now, as we learn to live with the coronavirus, we're still seeing burnout skyrocket due to insurmountable workloads, inflexibility and excessive hours.
A situation we see consistently play out is when colleagues resign or staff are let go due to declining profits, and instead of adjusting workloads or hiring replacements, working overtime to keep the business afloat becomes the norm, inadvertently convincing higher management that the job really can get done with fewer resources. Cue the burnout. Because that's what we do when we don't speak up and take on excess work out of fear of letting people down. We set a precedent for our colleagues and our bosses, telling them that the work is not only manageable, but that it’s what can be expected of us going forward when, really, it’s the result of us pushing ourselves past healthy limits. 
Advertisement
While this can be fine during temporary busy periods, it’s not sustainable. If we’re burning ourselves out to meet the impossible goals others impose on us, we risk letting them down anyway.

The business is not going to shut down if you don’t work overtime. And if it does, then there’s something wrong with their operational model, not with you.

We’re aware that a lot of this is easier said than done, particularly when starting at a new job or position, we feel the need to overextend ourselves to 'prove our worth'. But it’s not about being completely unwilling to help anyone with anything, just about setting boundaries so that you can actually do your own job well — and still have a life after punching out. And in our experience, this is the critical time to establish these limits.
As fluffy as it might sound, boundary-setting can be pretty simple to keep up once you get started. You don’t have to explain why you can’t cover someone or take on extra work, all you need to do is communicate that you don’t have the capacity to take on whatever it is right now. And if it is an urgent task, then explain what else you have on your plate and ask your management for advice on how they would prefer you to prioritise these tasks. 
Remember, workplaces will always be fraught with social politics, and some might even utilise this to their advantage. You’re not 'not a team player’ or 'not hungry enough' when you genuinely can’t take on extra work — and you’re not a hero for working outside your paid hours. Shit happens, targets sometimes aren’t met, and life goes on. Unless your job is literally saving lives, the business is not going to shut down if you don’t work overtime. And if it does, then there’s something wrong with their operational model, not with you.
Advertisement

You’re going to let people down — all the time and for the rest of your life. And people will let you down, in turn, too.

It's also good to consider is that most of the guilt we feel, the kind that ties knots in our stomachs and keeps us up at night, is mostly self-imposed. Women especially can have guilt ingrained into them from an early age, since we are traditionally expected to be more considerate of others. We also tend to facilitate non-promotable tasks at work such as organising birthdays or coworker bonding activities. So the idea of letting people down can feel particularly triggering.
But trust us when we say that as much as it might be frustrating for a colleague or boss when you can’t ‘help out’, it’s just temporary. Your health and time are finite, so there’s no use stewing in all of that guilt. And besides, the act of saying ‘no’, especially when you realise that people won’t actually hate you for doing so, is pretty damn liberating.
At the end of the day, stability at work will always be a fleeting state. There will be ups and downs, and not everyone will be realistic in their expectations of you. No matter what you do, you’re going to let people down, all the time and for the rest of your life, and people will let you down in turn. Accept it!
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here

More from Work & Money