Masking The Truth: Why workplace mental health needs us to be people, not personas

Why workplace mental health needs us to be people, not personas
Opinion: Career Leaders

Being open about my mental health struggles has made me a better leader. If working from home is here to stay, no one should have to pretend to their colleagues that our private lives are perfect.



That time of the year is here again… and no, I’m not thinking of Halloween, but something far more important — World Mental Health Day. And what strange conditions we find ourselves in, having jumped from one crisis to the next for three years running.

It hasn’t been entirely negative though. The new hybrid working model that has emerged post-pandemic gives us more control and flexibility over our work commitments than ever before. On the other hand, it’s become much harder to create a strong and cohesive work culture. With one big exception…

Covid was highly successful in making our working lives less formal. Like it or not, we’ve all invited our colleagues and clients into our homes via video calls. For the most fortunate that’s been into the home office, for others the kitchen or even their bedroom — washing baskets and all. We’ve become very accustomed to seeing people’s real and authentic ‘home’ selves, rather than the version they inhabit at work.

It’s hard to maintain an air of slick professionalism when we’ve attended informal meetings in our pyjamas or comforted a crying baby during a client call. For me, this has been liberating.

I know from personal experience just how difficult and damaging maintaining a work persona can be. Back in 2017 I suffered from burnout and had to take some time away from work to recover. I’ve now had five years to reflect on that time in my life and I’ve recognised that one of the big stresses I was facing was juggling multiple personas.

Enough was enough

I’ve also seen this in my daughter’s autism. She ‘masks’ it when she’s with people she doesn’t feel comfortable with, this takes up a lot of her energy and usually results in a meltdown once she’s safely back home.

To a certain extent, this is what happened to me five years ago.

At that time, I was maintaining a father persona, a husband persona, a work persona, and a friend persona. Each was a subtle variation on a theme, but none was quite truly ‘me’.

It was exhausting.

Eventually my mind (and body!) just said ‘enough is enough’. Working from home during Covid was a huge help in getting over these bad habits. Actually, it really wasn’t a huge effort to stop hiding my true self, dropping the mask is much easier than putting it on.

And doing so doesn’t need any grand gestures. For instance, you can learn a lot about someone just from the backdrop to video calls — and my twin loves of Lego and Star Wars certainly couldn’t be hidden, and nor should they! I’ve since had lots of questions, positive comments, and more geeky discussions about Lego and/or Star Wars on Teams calls than I care to count. And it’s been great!

Bring more humanity to work relationships

I never tried to hide my burnout and admitting you’re vulnerable actually takes a lot of courage. I am human, I am fallible, I’m a Star Wars fan and that’s ok.

One thing I’m sure of is being open about my mental health struggles has made me a better leader. Relatability matters, it encourages colleagues to be more authentic and open at work, happier teams means less office politics, less churn and ultimately gives people the headspace to focus on producing great work.

A lot has already been written about the importance of bringing ‘our authentic selves to work’ and it’s never been easier to do that than now. My concern is that as many of us spend more and more time back in the office we will let ourselves slip back into old habits. And that would be a huge step backwards.

While we can’t ever be thankful of Covid, it has forced some changes that have ultimately been for the better. Humanising our working relationships and bringing greater balance to our home and work lives has had hugely positive impacts on our job satisfaction and mental wellbeing.

So, let’s throw out those bland video call backgrounds, welcome our colleagues into our homes and bring our same messy, nerdy, unashamed self into work. It’s done wonders for me and I’m sure it will do wonders for you too.

Sean Betts (pictured) is chief product & technology officer at Omnicom Media Group UK

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