Do Not Bring Your ‘Whole Self’ to Work
For those lucky enough to have worked from home over the past two-and-a-half years or seven years or whatever it was, it’s back to the office time. We are finally R.T.O. and I.R.L., at least until the next wave hits. And some people can’t wait.
But for those less excited, reluctant to face the creepy supervisor they’ve been avoiding, the department suck-up they’ve been Slacking about, the portion of the job they’ve been faking, here’s a nifty tip for easing the transition: Do not “bring your whole self” to work.
That’s right! Defy the latest catchphrase of human resources and leave a good portion of you back home. Maybe it’s the part of you that’s grown overly attached to athleisure. The side that needs to talk about candy (guilty). It could be the getting-married part of you still agonizing over whether a destination wedding is morally defensible in These Times.
Leave those things behind and I promise: No one in your workplace will miss them. 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.
You may be unaware of the prevailing “whole self” fashion. Perhaps you managed to skip that H.R. module or you work at a small outfit, one unencumbered by systems, strategies and sweeping philosophies.
So what exactly does it even mean? According to TED talker and corporate consultant Mike Robbins, author of a book called — that’s right — “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” it means being able “to fully show up” and “allow ourselves to be truly seen” in the workplace. Per Robbins, it’s “essential” to create a work environment “where people feel safe enough to bring all of who they are to work.” Bringing the whole self is a certified buzzphrase at Google and encouraged at Experian. An entire issue of the Harvard Business Review has been devoted to the subject. In this new workplace, you don’t have to keep your head down and do your job. Instead, you “bring your whole self to work” — personality flaws, vulnerabilities, idiosyncratic mantras and all.
Perhaps you’ve heard of whole self’s cousin, the “authentic self,” also urged to head into the office. According to BetterUp, which bills itself as the first Whole Person™ platform, “That means acknowledging your personality, including the quirky bits, and bringing your interests, hopes, dreams, and even fears with you, even if they don’t seem relevant to your work.”
In other words, for the world outside the H.R. department, the phrase “bringing your whole self to work” is almost guaranteed to induce a vomit emoji. Rarely has a phrase of corporate jargon raised so much ire and rolled as many eyeballs with everyone I’ve talked to about the subject.
And yet. In recent years, the “whole self” movement has gained momentum in part because it dovetails with fortified corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) programs. Both purport to make employees feel comfortable expressing aspects of their identity in the workplace, even when irrelevant to the work at hand.
Comfort sure sounds nice.
The problem is for many people, it’s no more comfortable dragging the whole kit and caboodle into the workplace than it is showing up every day on a relentless basis. Nor is it necessarily productive. Not everyone wants their romantic life, their politics, their values or their identity viewed by their colleagues as pertinent to their performance. For some people, a private life is actually best when it’s private.
So here’s an alternative: Let’s everyone bring only — or at least primarily — the worky parts. You remember those fragments: the part that angsted over every résumé punctuation mark and put a suit on for the first interview, the part whose mom urged her to put her best face forward in the workplace? It’s that old-fashioned thing we used to call “being professional.” Heck, it’s the you you were for your entire corporate history, until the prevailing H.R. doctrine abandoned buttoning things up.
But “bringing your whole self to work” is a cheap benefit — easier for employers to provide than, say, a raise — and one vague enough to be largely meaningless. Nor is it available to the majority of the American work force. Nobody is asking a line worker or customer service representative to add more personal vulnerability to the enterprise. For most gainfully employed people, it’s not work’s job to provide self-fulfillment or self-actualization. It’s to put food on the table.
After all, the office isn’t the only place you exist — why should they get to have all of you? If you only bring the best parts of you or at the very least, the part of you that does the actual work, you’re more likely to get rewarded for it. One friend and former manager of Boomer vintage told me she credited her own success to religiously bringing her best self to work — and making sure the crabbiest, most critical part of her personality stayed home. Why deprive people of the ability to complain about work to their husband or roommate the moment they walk through the door? That’s where it generally belongs, despite the current misguided effort.
Nor is it fair to ask the workplace to deal with all your hopes, dreams and problems. “A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” an executive director for an advocacy organization recently told The Intercept. “Can you get your love and healing at home, please?”
Look, it’s understandable that things have gotten blurred. During the pandemic, many of us inadvertently shared a lot more of ourselves than we might have otherwise — partners yammering in the background, the occasional toddler, that weird wallpaper in the kitchen. Why are all your plants dead?
But not everyone is comfortable having their co-workers know so much about them. As the co-author of a recent paper out of Wharton (“OMG! My Boss Just Friended Me: How Evaluations of Colleagues’ Disclosure, Gender, and Rank Shape Personal/Professional Boundary Blurring Online”) noted, “There’s a tension that people have between this exhortation to bring your whole self to work, to connect, to be a part of things, but also to keep a separation between your personal and your professional life.”
Think of this as your chance to redraw those lines. Bring back a little healthy compartmentalization. You need not go all-out “Severance” and slash your brain in two halves just to get a little separation between work self and not-work-self. It’s not about being fake or hiding who you are. It’s just about keeping some things to yourself.
“I do think it’s OK to talk about what you’re going to do on the weekend or more generically,” a 33-year-old business analyst named Emily told The Times in a recent focus group on millennials in the workplace. “But if there’s something personal going on, or a problem that my family is having or something, health reasons or health concerns, I don’t talk about any of that.”
Let this be a reprieve for workers as they re-up their subway pass and pack leftovers lunches. It’s tiring being all-you, all the time, with all people. People are exhausted! And they’re scarcely even commuting yet.
Think, too, of this additional benefit: Now you have an excuse to get your work self out of the house. Some people there may actually be sick of that person.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.