It’s OK to Say No to More Work

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There Is No ‘Me’ in Team

I am a freelance copy editor and proofreader with a current gig that I like a lot. My problem: This department loves team building. During a biweekly meeting, the senior director paired us off to discuss a “fun” question and reported on it via a chat forum. Because I’m listed as an optional attendee for this meeting, I’ve stopped going. I hate this kind of corporate forced togetherness.

When I don’t attend these meetings, the other person assigned to me will contact me later and ask to do the discussion. I’ve agreed twice. That’s 30 minutes I spend in a nonwork discussion I do not feel I can ethically bill on my invoice.

This company relies heavily on contractors to get their work done and prides itself on treating us “just like employees.” I worry I’m going to be seen as “anti-team.” That’s not inaccurate, of course, but could it hurt my chances to keep going as a contractor on work I enjoy? The editing and proofreading I’m providing is valued; they’ve said so! Why is cuddling up to the team viewed as so important that I wonder whether I’ll be kept around for what I am paid to provide? I’m not sure I feel empowered to draw boundaries based entirely on what I am comfortable invoicing. What should I do?

— Anonymous, Chicago

Work is work whether it’s proofreading or participating in team-building activities. Power through your invoicing discomfort and bill the company accordingly for all time spent doing team-building and other mandatory fun activities. This sort of mandatory fun seems to be central to this company’s culture so you have to decide if you can tolerate it. You’re being compensated fairly. Your work is respected. You like your job. This isn’t so bad a circumstance. That said, your boundaries are important so if you truly want to freelance for companies where there is no mandatory fun, it’s time to find another gig.

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Burn, Baby, Burnout

I started a business 11 years ago that has become quite successful. The demand has been crushing. I have a few good team members but because the whole industry is surging, I can’t hire enough good people to keep up, and I don’t expect this condition to end any time soon. I say “no” to a lot of potential customers and I am already good at erecting boundaries around my weekends and pursuing hobbies but I still find myself resenting every new client request and trying to give fast solutions instead of creative solutions. I really want to step away.

My business coach, lawyer and most-trusted consultant all think there must be a way to do my work in a scaled back form where I charge more and set more limits. I am willing to try this but it will probably take me a year to dig out of the hole I’m in.

Should I quit? Take a sabbatical? How do I adjust my attitude so I’m not miserable and doing poor work over the next year while I wait to see if I can implement some changes that get this demand under control?

— Anonymous, Philadelphia

Congratulations on your success! It’s important to take burnout seriously. You can’t adjust your attitude to find your way out of burnout. You can’t kick the burnout can a year down the road. You’ve been working really hard and you need a break now, so take that break. Respite will allow you to come back to this job refreshed and able to do your best work. Take a sabbatical. Tell yourself, as often as it takes, that the business will be waiting for you when you are ready to return to it. The world will keep on turning while you are away. Throw money at the problem, by which I mean, if you offer a competitive enough salary, you will find people to keep the business afloat while you take some time for yourself.

It is OK to disappoint people. It is OK to say, “No, I am not available for the foreseeable future.” It is OK to come up with alternative plans for your clients that allow you to take the time you need. You built a business. You can figure out how to step away. The harder task is allowing yourself to stop being a people pleaser who sacrifices herself to keep others happy. If you figure that out, please let me know.

Work Wife

My spouse was an executive vice president for a large company for two decades. He has ADHD and in those years I assisted behind the scenes — writing reports, job descriptions to hire people who balanced his ADHD symptoms well and helped him and the team excel, preparing speeches — so much that the private owners invited me to staff retreats.

Fast forward to his new position; he works for a company with much less compensation but better quality of life. I don’t have to help him succeed. He is able to work from home and have the tools in place to accommodate his ADHD. This has given me the chance to develop my own profession, which always took a back seat to the needs of his job. The position I’ve chosen requires years of building a portfolio and if I stop and start I lose my chances of really thriving.

When his symptoms aren’t supported in the work culture of this company, it results in anger and frustration connected to issues with his main team. Because he’s not in as senior a position, he has less say. As I’m no longer part of the work family, I have no say either. I worry for his mental health and the spiraling of his symptoms.

Recently a headhunter approached my husband about a position similar to his first VP job. My spouse doesn’t think he could handle that again considering the issues he’s having with his current position. My argument is that he can start fresh. Although he’ll be managing a much larger satellite team, he’ll have more power to do so his way. The thing is, it will require me to be an executive spouse again and it will likely be at the expense of my own profession.

I can either see him miserable in his current job while I plug along at my zero-paying profession I love, or encourage him to take this new position and accept in order to do so it will come at the expense of being inconsistent in my career path.

— Anonymous

There is a lot going on here. Your husband is a very lucky man to have such a supportive spouse both personally and professionally. But I have to ask — where do you draw the line? You seem more invested in your husband’s career than he is. One of the key challenges in relationships where one partner has ADHD and the other doesn’t is overhelping and excessive caretaking. You, my friend, are doing both of these things. In marriage, we support our partners as best we can but boundaries are important. You need some! Your husband is a grown man. It is not your job to solve his professional challenges. You are in dangerously codependent territory when you are considering leaving a job you love so you can be a supportive vice president’s wife at a job your husband isn’t even sure he wants. ADHD is a complex condition but mental health professionals can provide your husband with the treatment he needs. There are also ADHD coaches who can provide your husband with the necessary professional support. I’d also suggest couple’s therapy so you can both learn how to have separate professional lives and relearn how to be married without his job being your marriage’s central concern. I wish both you and your husband the best of luck as you try to address these issues in emotionally healthy and sustainable ways.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at [email protected].

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