Workplace wellbeing: Bringing your ‘whole self’ to work

Bring your whole self to work

A new campaign is encouraging people to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work in order to boost mental wellbeing.

The My Whole Self campaign from Mental Health First Aid England is calling on organisations to encourage their employees to be open and honest about themselves when at work.

When employees can be themselves, they’re happier, more confident and more productive too.



What is the My Whole Self campaign about?

The focus of the campaign is My Whole Self Day, a new awareness day that takes place yearly on 18 March.


MHFA England have provided a toolkit so organisations can join in and let employees express themselves. Some of the suggestions include letting employees wear clothes that mean something to them, and by arranging storytelling sessions where one employee will share their experiences with another.


By starting conversations, colleagues can learn more about each other and build connections.


Businesses can follow along and show how they’re marking the day using the #MyWholeSelf hashtag on Twitter.



Why is it important to bring your ‘whole self’ to work?

When an employee feels that they have to hide aspects of themselves, they spend much of their energy maintaining an act rather than being able to work freely.


Simon Blake, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England wrote on his blog: “I know from my own experience that I wasn’t able to deliver my best work when I was holding a secret before I came out.


“Nor did I deliver my best work when I didn’t feel safe to talk freely about my relationships and social experiences. When you are hiding bits of yourself your mind is focused on protection rather than excellence and innovation.”


Employees may be concerned about discrimination, judgement or bullying because of who they are.


Google’s Aristotle study found that ‘psychological safety’ is by far the most important of five key elements that allows a team to excel.


By this, the researchers found that psychological safely refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences when taking a personal risk.


The term was coined by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School in 1999 when she observed how companies with a trusting workplace perform better. She believes that psychological safety isn’t about being “nice”, but about being able to give candid feedback, openly admit mistakes, and learning from each other.


In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no-one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.


Naturally, this philosophy matches that of bringing your whole self to work. It means not having to censor yourself out of fear of ridicule.


Before their report, Google’s senior executives were convinced that the best teams were formed by combining the best people. However, upon further inspection, it turned out that teams were more influenced by how the members behaved.


The highest performing teams showed evidence of a culture where the members felt comfortable to be open, talk honestly and had a safe space to take risks.


The teams that performed poorly had leaders that panicked over minor details and micromanaged their subordinates.


Google noted that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety were less likely to leave the company, more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, bring in more revenue, and be rated as effective twice as often by executives.


It’s not just Google that has found out about the benefits of psychological safety. One high profile example was the England football team during the 2018 World Cup.


In previous tournaments, England had infamously underperformed in part due to crippling pressure. Instead of being seen as an honour and an opportunity to shine, playing for England at a World Cup meant living in a strict, highly regimented environment before facing heavy criticism from fans and the press when things went wrong.


After his appointment as manager in 2016, Gareth Southgate aimed to change this culture.


Michael Caulfield, a sport psychologist and the co-director of the consultancy Sporting Edge, said Southgate had a leadership style “built on incredible levels of trust between him and his players and staff.


“He was determined to convince the team there was nothing to fear from playing in the World Cup for England, whereas in the past people were nervous or fearful. He was determined to change that mindset from one of fear to one of adventure.”


Southgate reportedly sat the players down together in small groups to share their life experiences and anxieties, and to reveal intimate truths about their character and what drives them. The aim was to build trust, “making them closer, with a better understanding of each other”.


Although England didn’t go on to win the World Cup, the atmosphere around the camp was clearly a factor in a run of good results that led them to the semi-finals. One win included victory in a penalty shootout, traditionally a source of anxiety for England players.


Instead, the trusting culture allowed the players to see how taking a penalty could be an opportunity for victory rather than a potential defeat where someone has to take the blame. The experience of missing an important penalty himself in 1996 would certainly have been at the forefront of Southgate’s mind when building a team that wasn’t afraid to take risks – and this time it paid off.



How can I encourage employees to being their whole selves to work?

The idea of getting team members together and encouraging them to communicate is the basis of Mental Health First Aid England’s My Whole Self Day.


One of the activities included in their toolkit is the ‘discussion panel’, where senior leaders are invited to share more about themselves and their experiences.


The senior leaders taking part will be on the panel, while a moderator will ask them open ended questions about their wellbeing; for example whether they’ve ever felt the need to leave a part of themselves at home.


Ideally, this will be conducted with an audience of three to four employees who can ask questions afterwards.


This will help employees feel more comfortable about opening up about their own experiences, and shows that the senior managers are practicing what they preach.


A commitment from senior management shows the initiative is coming right from the top of the hierarchy and isn’t just lip service.


MHFA’s second activity is the ‘book club’, where employees can volunteer to tell a story about themselves. The story can be about anything, such as a hobby, somewhere they’ve been, or their family. Other members of staff can then attend the ten minute storytelling sessions and learn more about their colleague by listening and asking questions.


Of course, once the awareness day has been and passed, it’s important to keep this momentum going.


Although it isn’t always possible or appropriate for colleagues to sit and share intimate truths or experiences with each other, asking employees about their opinion and then acting on it will help build trust.


Managers can ask employees for their input when it comes to designing work, solving problems, or when making positive changes in the workplace.


This can happen during informal chats, performance meetings, or through a structured format such as an employee engagement survey. Managers must also remember to have robust anti-bullying and harassment policies in place too.


To learn more about how to create an inclusive workplace culture that allows people to be themselves, builds resilience and perform to the best of their ability, contact a member of the BounceBack team and we’ll be happy to help. We’re available on 0191 460 0707.

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