New research suggests it’s healthier and more productive to be honest about who you are at work.
When you’re at work, do you feel like ‘yourself’? Maybe there’s absolutely no difference between the ‘real you’ – the person you are around your closest friends and relatives – and the version of yourself that appears in the workplace. But chances are, there’s some distance between the two.
This variance might be subtle: perhaps you’re quieter at work than you are at home, or maybe you feel more comfortable being assertive with colleagues than you do with friends. But it might also be huge. Many people keep fundamental parts of their lives and identities hidden from their employers and co-workers – from their sexuality to disabilities, mental illness and even pregnancies.
Of course, there are valid reasons why someone might want to keep parts of their identity quiet at work. Studies suggest that more than a third of LGBT staff in the UK hide their sexuality at work for fear of discrimination, while almost half of British workers with mental health issues don’t tell their employer due to concerns that it could block their career progress. Many people with ‘hidden’ disabilities – impairments that others can’t see – report experiencing dismissive attitudes towards their health problems at work, according to a report by the TUC, and recent research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that maternity discrimination is still rife in the UK. Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to understand why many people choose not to disclose certain things at work.
But if you feel able, it’s always better to be your authentic self in the workplace. That’s the conclusion of a new report due to be published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, which examines what happens after employees share a stigmatised part of their identity at work.
The report’s authors looked at 65 different studies on this issue, and found that the research overwhelmingly reaches the same conclusion: that people with “non-visible stigmas” (such as sexual orientation or health problems) tend to be happier with their overall lives and more productive in the workplace if they live openly at work.
Eden King, a co-author on the study and an associate professor of psychology at Rice University in Texas, explains that self-disclosure is usually a positive experience, because it allows people to improve connections with colleagues, form more genuine work relationships, and free their minds of unwanted anxieties.
Research shows that employees who spoke openly about their non-visible stigmas in the workplace experienced decreased job anxiety, decreased role ambiguity, improved job satisfaction and increased commitment to their position. Outside of work, they also reported decreased psychological stress and increased life satisfaction.
However, employees didn’t experience the same boost in happiness and productivity when they spoke openly about their more obvious stigmatised traits, such as gender, race or visible physical disabilities. King says this is because people generally don’t feel anxiety about whether or not to reveal these kinds of “immediately observable” identities.
“The same kinds of difficult decisions about whether or not to disclose the identity – not to mention the questions of to whom, how, when and where to disclose those identities – are probably less central to their psychological experiences,” she explains.
If you’re considering whether or not to reveal a part of your identity to your employer or colleagues, you don’t have to work to anyone’s timeline except your own. But it’s also important to remember that your workplace may have a much more positive response to your disclosure than you’re expecting – and it’s also against the law for employers to discriminate against you because of your sexual orientation, disabilities (including mental health issues) or pregnancy.
This research suggests that being true to yourself in the workplace could make you feel happier, healthier and more satisfied with your job. Ultimately, though, you’re not obligated to share anything you’re not comfortable with – and only you can decide whether you want to let your colleagues know who you really are.
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