Is there a "work" you?
When you log on, on a Monday morning, does anything about you drastically change? Pre-pandemic, the signifiers of this may have been easier to spot; a particular wardrobe or a manner of speaking (how often do we tell our friends we will "circle back by EOD" after all?).
But now that working from home has exploded the boundaries between our work and private lives, it may have unearthed an overlooked reality. Maybe who we are at work is not so different from who we really are at all.
A new book, All That We Are, by Gabriella Braun, the director of workplace consultancy firm Working Well argues that the old marketing spiel of "bringing your whole self to work" is actually unavoidable.
"We may think we have a work self and a 'true' self but we neglect that fact that we bring so much of our own psychology into who we are at work," she says. "We can't actually leave that at home – especially now that those physical distinctions have blurred."
If our "work" mask is slipping, this may, in fact, be a good thing. Braun's book concerns itself with humanising the office (virtual or not) and approaching the myriad anxieties and concerns we have in our workplaces, like a psychoanalyst would.
"Our workplaces are made up of humans, all with different psychologies," she explains. "Take how we react to managers. Most of us do something called unconscious projection, where we view our boss the way we view our most formative authority figure." So, a parent? "Exactly," Braun grins – and then laughs when I ask if we should all be reading Freud at work.
"Honestly – it could be helpful. When people are nervous about using psychology, they tend to tell me 'but that's my private life; it's nothing to do with my work' when in actual fact, it has everything to do with it. You bring your own hang-ups and triggers to work whether you like it or not."
If we always felt a parent ignored us and never praised us, for example, we may struggle when we feel a manager is behaving in the same way, or – quite the opposite – we may be unconsciously dominating group meetings, trying to replicate the attention we were used to from the familial setup.
Many of us may see our colleagues more often than actual relatives, and so it is unsurprising we may begin to mirror the same behaviour. Braun teaches this, she says, not to be alarmist or pass judgment on our unconscious reactions, but merely to point out how present these unconscious reactions are – the traits of our "true"
self – in our work environment, and how accepting and understanding this is key to unlocking our wellbeing.
It is a rather necessary move, after all, when workplace anxiety has spiked since 2020 (with 822,000 record cases by March 2021) and people resigning at the highest rate since 2009 – the so-called "Great Resignation".
"Because of how embedded work is with who we are, it's much harder to rebound from knocks, as we take it personally," says Braun. "We no longer think 'I had a bad day at work'; we think 'I'm bad.'"
While it is tempting to place this on toxic colleagues or micromanaging bosses, an important first step is self-awareness. What is it about us and the way we think and relate to things that makes this boss or situation problematic?
"When we grasp our own patterns of relating, our idiosyncrasies and foibles and areas of strength and vulnerability, we can navigate the workplace from an anchored perspective," agrees psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber, who works extensively within workplaces. "I think we underestimate the ways we project our own issues onto work and how that affects rivalries in the office, or patterns of behaviour."
Understanding how much of our true selves we bring to work will, both women argue, make us happier and more productive employees, but that doesn't mean we have to trade in our professionalism.
"I am a big fan of cultivating emotional boundaries for ourselves, for our own benefit as well as for our colleagues," says Fox Weber. "Try something called emotional headlining. If you have a major personal issue that's distracting you, 'headline' or flag it to your colleagues. That doesn't mean you need to go through it all in great detail with everyone you work with, but it's helpful to be clear at moments that your skin is thinner than usual. If you don't tell colleagues anything that's going on, you can't expect them to mind-read, and that's when interpersonal dynamics get especially fraught."
Many companies' reactive measures to mental health issues in the office – offering yoga at lunchtime or even a four-day week – are described by Braun as akin to putting a sticking plaster on a wound instead of not letting you get injured in the first place. Better would be embedding this psychological awareness of who we are and how we work into how workplaces operate. So, therapy for all?
"That may be really useful for many people, and more workplaces should offer it, but for the most part, we just need to be working flexibly," she says. "That means more than just where we work and what hours; it means how we work. Some people may get nervous about video calls and prefer to email their boss. Others may like to be given space to work and not be constantly micro-managed or need constant feedback. We need to be creating workplaces that are flexible and responsive to the needs of our workers – their whole selves."