The myth of bringing your whole self to work

While the concept is moving workplace culture in the right direction, it can usher in real complications.

Mike Robbins coined the phrase “bring your whole self to work” in a 2015 TEDx Talk.

“Instead of trying to hide who we are,” he suggested, “we should show up fully, vulnerably, and authentically” at work. The concept has been said to drive engagement, increase productivity and improve well-being. 

But while the idea is moving workplace culture in the right direction, it can usher in real complications — especially after a year of exacerbated mental health struggles.

“Bringing your whole self to work” puts the onus on the individual. Really, it should be on the company to create an environment that allows our people to be themselves at work. 

The phrase has been co-opted to mean bringing your fun and positive self to work — your  passions, side hustles, entrepreneurial spirit, even birthday celebrations — while sweeping the difficult stuff, such as mental health and diversity, under the rug. 

The problem with “hustle culture”

Corporate America equates employee value with how much time they devote to work. Constantly working is celebrated in many offices. The more time one spends at the office, the more they will be praised and, potentially, promoted. 

“Hustle culture is a mental health crisis, especially in our tech-driven, work-from-home era,” says Lauren O’Shaughnessy, co-founder of Made Of Millions, a nonprofit working to change the perception of mental health. “Being passionate about your work is good. Going above and beyond on certain projects can be rewarding and lead to career growth. But prioritizing work and job success above all else has become a norm in American society, especially in fast-paced cities like New York.”

To address the mental health toll of nonstop work, some companies have implemented mental health days. But if the company culture continues to celebrate overwork, employees feel guilty asking for the day off — even when encouraged to do so. 

If we want employees to show up authentically, and we say that we value side hustles and passions, we must give them the space to nurture those passions outside of work. 

When being your “whole self” is a privilege

The concept of bringing your “whole self” comes with an assumption that everyone’s “whole selves” are homogenous. 

“Companies have historically marginalized BIPOC employees simply for who they are,” says Darien LaBeach, director of diversity, equity and inclusion strategy at Huge. “Too often BIPOC don’t have the luxury of bringing our full selves to work, because our full selves have historically not been accepted in the workplace. And when we try to, we are still measured up against the ‘norm,’ which is Whiteness.”

With company diversity efforts falling short, bringing your “whole self” is far from achievable for many. 

If we want all employees to show up fully, ignoring diversity, equity and inclusion is a moot point. To start, Darien says, “companies need to train employees – especially managers – how to mitigate bias in feedback. Take a close look at how previous biased feedback may have negatively impacted someone’s career trajectory. Listen to BIPOC employees when they describe microaggressions they’ve been subjected to in the workplace. Anything else is racial gaslighting.”

Blurred boundaries

Millions of white-collar workers are now working from home, blurring the lines between personal and work lives. Just think of how much you’ve seen into your coworkers’ lives on Zoom. 

“COVID is exacerbating stressors for everyone, and forcing people to eat, sleep, exercise, work, teach and relax all in the same place: our homes,” says O’Shaughnessy. “It’s forcing us to humanize one another and embrace our own complexities.”

However, “It’s crucial that people structure their schedules very strictly, incorporate time for unplugging, and ask their peers and managers to respect these boundaries,” she continues. “Companies that fail to do so are going to see high levels of burnout and work fatigue, as well as more serious mental health issues.”

“Bringing your whole self to work” sounds great, but in practice is nuanced and complex. 

Instead of putting the onus on employees, do the work to create a place that encourages them to fully show up. It’s leadership’s responsibility to create an equitable work environment that allows employees to be comfortable, interact with respect, and feel like they belong.

Tina Yip is director of marketing and culture at Berlin Cameron

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