Friday 4 October 2019 3:41 am

Are you too scared to be yourself at work?

In the run-up to World Mental Health Day on 10 October, one thing is abundantly clear: British workers have never been so stressed out.

And while hostilities generated by heated debates over Brexit or global warming may well be contributing factors, the principle cause is more alarming: we’re simply not happy being ourselves at work.

This is a concern because “psychological safety” – the ability to be yourself and express your views without fear of judgement, recrimination, or ridicule – not only makes us more cheerful, content, and collaborative at work, it also makes us more productive.

That’s because when we’re freed from worrying about what other people really think of us, we’re less afraid to do or say the wrong thing, and have more brain space for creative thinking and problem solving. A major study by Google into what was making some teams more effective than others found that teams with high psychological safety exceeded their targets by 17 per cent on average, while those with low psychological safety missed their targets by 19 per cent on average.

It would be nice to envisage joyful and inclusive workforces driving economic growth, but the 2019 Mental Health at Work report from Mercer Marsh Benefits and Business in the Community reveals that “minority stress” is rampant across the UK.

Certain groups suffer more than others. Young people are disproportionately affected by loneliness, with 48 per cent of 18-29 year olds saying that they feel isolated, compared to one in three workers in general. Meanwhile, 30 per cent of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic employees report having had negative experiences at work due to their ethnicity, and 79 per cent of LGBTQ+ staff have experienced a mental health problem where work was a cause or factor. And we’ve long known that women are more affected by financial worries than men – in no small part due to gender pay gaps.

People are also made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their health. Menopausal employees feel at risk of ridicule and gendered ageism, meaning a quarter of them have considered quitting for fear of experiencing symptoms at work. And the one in four people managing a mental health issue feel more discriminated against due to this than seven other diversity indicators, such as race, gender, and religion.

So it’s no surprise that many workers feel like they have to “hide” who they are, or play down those aspects of themselves that mark them out as “different”, with the inevitable adverse impact on happiness and productivity.

But the tide may be turning. Next week, workplace leaders and employers will gather at the Mad World Summit in London to discuss how to make people feel psychologically safe at work and address the mental health epidemic. A hot topic will be how we can transcend traditional approaches to diversity and inclusion, so that everyone feels safe bringing their “whole self” to work, without feeling forced to hide any part of their identity.

We need to become more open about protecting ourselves. The Mental Health at Work report found that 62 per cent of managers admit to putting their company’s interests above the wellbeing of staff, causing 39 per cent of people to report experiencing poor mental health associated with work.

We wouldn’t willingly put our physical health at risk if our bosses asked us to, so it’s time we stopped risking our mental health. If we don’t, we will become less productive.

Research shows that we can become 11.5 days more productive a year by boosting our overall health – a key part of which must be prioritising our mental wellbeing. 

That in turn will empower us to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves and each other. Because when “you do you”, everyone wins.

Main image credit: Getty

To register for the Mad World Summit in London, click here.

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