Sam Radford

May 24, 2021

Opening up about our struggles in a workplace environment

My cousin, Peter Radford, wrote a heartfelt post recently that touched a nerve. 

He addresses the reality that all our online meetings and working from home make it easier than ever to fake it when it comes to expressing how we are feeling:

Faking has got easier this year. Remote team meetings are easier to fake than in-person meetings. You don’t even need to get fully dressed. And you can see your own face throughout the meeting so you can check and double check what your face is ‘saying’ throughout the meeting. I wonder how much time in each meeting you actually spend looking at your own face. (More than 50% according to some articles out there!) And of course, once the meeting ends you can switch the face off. Not like in an office environment… where you have to keep the face on all day long! When people may catch your demeanour in the in-between-moments when you think no one is looking.

It’s not just this though. We are not great at dealing with people who do open up and share about something tough they’re going through. As Peter adds:

We’re all products of an emotionally illiterate culture. And because of that we don’t actually know how to handle it when a colleague says, ‘I’m struggling’. For some of us it throws us into a panic: ‘Shit! He’s struggling. Oh no… how can we lighten this up a bit?!’ So either we make a joke to change the subject or we offer some trite attempt to ‘fix it’. 

And this is, as Peter points out, something men are worse at than women:

As a bloke I feel like I can speak for most men when I say we often feel less comfortable with offering this empathy than many women do. Less comfortable with just listening. I’m hesitant to gender-stereotype but on this occasion the statistics bear it out. As men we are slower to go to the GP when we’re ill than women, we’re three times more likely to commit suicide than women. We’re products of a culture that told us that being manly means hiding your emotions.

The truth is that most of us are part of working cultures that, whether implicitly or explicitly, don’t encourage being real. There’s a macho vibe that leaves no space for weakness. We’re expected to be strong. All the time. We’re expected to be consistent. All the time. We’re expected to be, dare I say it, robotic. Though no employer would admit it, that would be the ideal! None of this emotional rollercoaster of real people living real lives. 

And then we wonder why mental health issues are affecting more and more of us. We can’t expect to thrive if we’re having to fake it. But things will only change if we choose to open up more. Peter’s counsel here is good:

So next time you are asked how you are, how about telling the truth. Appropriate to the context and the people you’re talking to. It doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. It doesn’t mean you should be treated with kid gloves. It’s just a statement of fact: you’re NOT fine. And that’s Okay. 

And the next time someone tells you that they are struggling. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t change the subject. Ask them why… and listen. And when they’ve finished say, ‘I hear you’ and thank them for sharing.

I know this is about health and wellbeing and not ‘productivity’, but I would hedge a decent bet that encouraging greater emotional sharing and literacy in the workplace will lead to greater engagement and stronger contributions. 

–Sam

Got some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – do hit reply or drop me a note.

@samradford | samradford.com