The year it was OK not to be OK at work

No need to put on a happy face.
No need to put on a happy face.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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One of my favorite things about work used to be that it gave me a chance to compartmentalize. If I was having a bad morning at home, I’d feel my mood lighten as I walked into the office. My worries over the future of a romantic relationship or the size of my checking account would fade as I turned my focus to work, which while potentially stressful itself seemed less existentially overwhelming by comparison.

But as the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing shift to remote work in 2020 eroded the physical barriers between our personal and professional lives, many of us also experienced the erosion of our workplace-appropriate positive attitudes and stiff upper lips. During this uniquely horrible year, I’ve opened up to my manager and colleagues as never before. Together we’ve shared worries over medical issues and our families’ health, teared up over loneliness during lockdown, commiserated over the stress and pain of layoffs and broader uncertainties about the future.

I hope that in 2021, we’ll have less sadness and anxiety in common. But I am grateful for the fact that our collective troubles this year gave rise to more emotional honesty in the virtual office, and hopeful that it may usher in a broader understanding of professionalism that makes room for workers’ complicated lives and psychological realities.

Ninety percent of employers say that the pandemic has impacted on their workforce in terms of either mental health, substance abuse, or productivity, according to a McKinsey survey of roughly 1,000 companies published in June. The fact that the pandemic has affected so many people—albeit to varying degrees—has lessened the stigma around admitting to our struggles at work, according to Mollie West Duffy, co-author of No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work and head of organizational development at consulting firm Rally.

“As a society, we’re all experiencing isolation, loneliness, and grief,” she says. “Whereas previously, everyone does experience those things, but we’re not all in it together at the same moment.”

“I definitely think people have been more open,” concurs Liz Fosslien, co-author of No Hard Feelings and head of content at management software company Humu.

Fosslien says her own natural tendency is not to share much of her feelings at work: “I’m an under-emoter,” she says. But this year, while working remotely because of Covid-19, she was spending a lot of time with her fiancé’s father, who was sick with cancer.

Because she had flexibility at work, “I hadn’t really told anyone what was going on,” Fosslien says. “I kept saying, It’s fine, I’ll just be here and take my work calls and I can handle it.”

But during the last few days before his death this autumn, she recalls, she found herself alone in a room to have a one-on-one meeting with her manager. “I turned on Google Meet and just burst into tears,” she says. It was, she adds, “a moment I didn’t really want, of extreme vulnerability.” But her manager rose to the occasion, telling her to take a week off and quickly organizing a way for her to hand off her work. Now, Fosslien says, she feels closer to her manager, and grateful that her employer was so supportive.

A culture of emotional honesty

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have understanding bosses and an empathetic workplace culture. Employees who lack those benefits “feel a lot of resentment” in the Covid-19 era, says Duffy.  “They’re like, Everything has changed but you all haven’t changed, and you’re acting like it’s really normal and I find that problematic.”

Examples of this lack of compassion run the gamut. Some employers installed software to monitor the time employees spend at their desks while working from home, rather than extending more flexibility to workers struggling to juggle childcare with other responsibilities. Others neglected to create supportive environments for Black employees during this year’s highly publicized cases of police brutality and racism. Writing for Refinery29 earlier this year, Danielle Cadet explained how many Black Americans were suppressing their pain at work even as they grappled with the trauma of these events and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on their communities, reminding white people, “your Black colleagues may seem okay right now, but chances are they’re not.”

But while not all companies’ practices have shifted, the expectation that work ought to be a place where people can be open when they’re struggling, and receive help and accommodations as needed, certainly seem to be taking root. Companies this year have devoted a lot of time this year to discussing the best ways to support the mental health of employees, investing in more resources in it, and recalibrating expectations regarding performance and productivity during a time of unusual stress.

Liane Davey, an organizational consultant and author of The Good Fight, says she’s spoken with a small number of people this year who prefer a buttoned-up environment. But the majority, she says, have welcomed this year’s shift to more vulnerability at work. They “feel that they know their colleagues better and feel relieved to not have to pretend they’re having a good day if they’re not.” Indeed, research shows that there are significant costs to putting on a happy face when we’re feeling anything but.

“Emotions are always present in decision-making,” Davey says. “The question is, are you aware of them and deliberate about what role you let them play, because you’re explicit about them? Or are you trying to pretend that emotions are not playing a role in a decision, therefore being susceptible to them and biasing the decision?”

Creating a workplace culture where people speak up about how their personal lives are affecting them can also go a long way toward clearing up miscommunications, Davey says. She offers the example of a recent phone call she had with a CEO, along with three of his direct reports. The CEO let them know that he was feeling frustrated and distracted because his children’s tutor had just tested positive for Covid-19.

Without this context, Davey says she and the others on the call would have likely worried that the CEO was frustrated with them. “Most of us have a negativity bias where we interpret the issue as about us,” she says. “If someone’s being quiet, we’re like, Oh, they must not like this or they’re mad at me. We jump to these ridiculous conclusions, which then cause us to treat them differently.”

Davey compares the way the pandemic has prompted people to discard their inhibitions around vulnerability to the way so many of us have also cast off rigid clothes we once wore to the office—“the false eyelashes and the high heels.” Just as she hopes we’ll keep prioritizing comfort when the world opens up again, she says, “I hope that we don’t have to go back to the same emotional costume that we’ve been wearing.”

A new professionalism?

To be sure, there’s a point at which openness may tip into oversharing. “Colleagues aren’t therapists and work is not a support group,” says executive coach Brad Stulberg, co-founder of The Growth Equation.

But Stulberg does say the pandemic has served as a reminder of how important it is to give people the benefit of the doubt at work—that there may be very understandable reasons why a project has fallen behind schedule or a colleague’s productivity has dipped. For managers, he says, it’s “really important to pause and let people share what they want to share and to listen.”

The fact is that we all have bad days, weeks, and months. It’s nearly impossible and generally undesirable to try to pretend otherwise to our bosses and coworkers. With any luck, the lessons of this year will accelerate the trend that was already underway in our reassessing standards of professionalism, making room for more of our humanity at work.