There’s this thing that happens at work that I find to be unnatural and unhealthy. We experience it as the pressure to be OK all the time. That no matter what’s going on, when we come to work, we should have our happy face on. We should leave the rest of our lives and our inner struggles at the door. After all, there is work to do. We’ve got to make a good impression. The boss is watching.
“Don’t let your personal life affect your work.”
We’ve all heard those words at one time or another.
But we aren’t OK. At least not all the time. Sometimes we are REALLY NOT OK. There are days we are barely hanging on. Whether it’s our health or relationships or finances or just some stuff that has come up, we are hurting, struggling, aching. The thought of the next meeting is enough to push us over the edge, yet, there is no room for our pain. Not here. Not in the office. We learn to compartmentalize our lives and hide our suffering. The pressure to perform forces us to bottle up our emotions and puts an even greater strain on an already difficult situation.
It’s as if somehow because we are bartering the brief hours of our lives in exchange for financial compensation, we must automate our thinking and stuff our pain neatly away in a filing cabinet until we return to a place where we can be ourselves. Dealing with the difficulties of being human isn’t permitted on company time.
Wait, is it really that bad?
It’s unlikely that all organizations dehumanize work completely or don’t offer resources to help employees who are struggling with personal difficulties. Many are caring enough to offer a 1-800 number and an EAP program. One could debate whether these resources are offered out of genuine concern or simply out of a desire to keep people working, but they do provide some acknowledgment that these difficulties matter.
And there are no doubt companies, teams, divisions, etc. that have evolved their thinking about work to include the whole person. They have embraced the idea that the workplace can also serve as a supportive or even healing community. A place where we don’t have to pretend everything is OK and the work will still get done. These examples, in my experience, are rare.
This is not a suggestion that everyone bring their problems to work and dump them on the team or that leaders become therapists.
The point is that we who are leaders have the opportunity to create a workplace that is both highly functional and deeply caring. We can give people permission to deal with their suffering and offer time and space for them to recover and process their pain. We can listen and be compassionate while maintaining appropriate boundaries. We can share our own stories and let people know us and that we struggle too. The environment we create at work can be a sanctuary of support rather than a prison of isolation.
We can build a community where people feel safe to take off the mask and know that they have people around them who care and who are rooting for them when things are tough. We don’t know if the support they receive at work is the only source of encouragement they have in their life at the time. When people are part of a caring community they ultimately pay it forward to their teammates, to customers, in their work and beyond.
The pain will come out one way or another. Why not meet it with love, empathy, and compassion?