Bring Your Whole Self To Work?

5th December 2022

What are the pros and cons of merging your work and personal lives more closely together?

We are contractually at work, whether in the office, hybrid or wfh, for a third of our adult lives. There is, however, a school of thought encouraging us to shift those proportions to metaphorically bring our whole selves to work. The theory goes that this can bring multiple benefits including increased engagement, productivity and wellbeing. But not everyone agrees with others questioning how that fits in with the delineation between work and play?

The roots of this ‘bring your whole self to work’ concept can be traced back to a 1990 study by psychologist William Kahn entitled Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work. This built on existing research into human motivation by Frederick Herzberg and also Ryan & Deci’s work on motivation. Kahn’s study defined employee engagement as people’s ability to bring their ‘full self’ at work. Looking at a summer camp and an architectural firm Kahn pinpointed three conditions that enabled this to happen: if employees found their work meaningful, if they felt safe and if they also felt mentally and physically available.

Mike Robbins, author of a book called Bring Your Whole Self To Work explains, “It takes courage to show up and bring all of who we are to the work that we do. It’s essential to embrace vulnerability and to let go of our attachment to what other people think about us. The two most important cultural elements for this to occur are a high level of healthy expectation and a high level of nurturance.” Robbins added in an interview with Forbes that “It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up, ask for help, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow ourselves to be truly seen.”

Employers can support their staff bringing their whole selves to work through a number of means, from what the company policy is on what staff wear to encouraging them to share their interests outside the workplace or supporting time outside the office by offering flexible work opportunities to, for example, care for children or elderly relatives.

In a world saturated with gender, age, and seemingly interminable stereotypes, we at BW ignore what is fashionable. Everyone here can be anything they want to be in the workplace, no matter what their age, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality because, for us, personality beats stereotypes every time. If you look at our website, you’ll see people’s passions outside work as well as their professional experience, from a love of country music to a passion for DJ-ing. Amongst our workforce we have everyone from committed football fans to wine connoisseurs, photographers, travel buffs and even a stand up comedian!

This idea of bringing your whole self to work is especially pertinent in a time when the concept of ‘quiet quitting’: strictly working to rule is cropping up more and more. Perhaps by being encouraged to talk about who they are and what interests them outside work, they might feel less disenfranchised with their employer and more likely to give more than just the bare minimum.

There are some dissenting voices in the bring your whole self to work debate. Those striking a note of caution include American columnist Pamela Paul who writing in the New York Times says, “Defy the latest catchphrase of human resources and leave a good portion of you back home. No one in your workplace will miss [it}. And remember, it works both ways. Anyone worth sharing a flex desk with is not someone you want to see every last ounce of either. They, too, can reserve their aches, grievances, flimsy excuses and noisy opinions for the roommate, the pandemic puppy and the houseplants.”

Indeed some argue that when we’re told about the importance of a work/life balance isn’t it best when a private life is actually private? As a 2019 Fast Company article puts it: “What if your job is just a job? Since when is it the norm to have no life outside work, or keep nothing private? Should we feel guilty if we don’t bring our whole selves to work?”

For now, it’s up to employees and employers to work out the proportions so everyone’s happy.