Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
I’ve written a workplace advice column for 12 years, but it’s only in the past two that a new theme has emerged in my inbox: employers who mandate that employees talk about their feelings—publicly and often.
No doubt this stems from an increased awareness of mental health issues, which is a good thing. Reducing the stigma around these struggles makes it more likely people will seek help and less likely they’ll encounter discrimination when they do. But the implementation of these efforts in some offices can be intrusive and even counter to employees’ mental health needs.
Take, for example, this workplace:
My boss has started asking us to share reflections on mental health as an icebreaker at mandatory meetings in the name of “breaking down the stigma around mental health.” His intention is so genuinely good—he wants to support his staff. … The people who jump in first set the tone by going all-in and sharing super personal details about medications and therapy. It creates a lot of implicit pressure to share something similarly personal.
Aside from finding this uncomfortable, I’m noticing that these sharing sessions actually detract from my mental health. (I don’t have truly serious issues, but I do struggle with some anxiety and insomnia.) Work is by far the most significant stress in my life, because the organization is not well managed. … I’ve suffered a lot from insomnia that’s often triggered by workplace frustrations, so [to] protect my mental health I’ve been working on creating a mental wall where I ignore what everyone else is doing or not doing … and focus on doing a good job on my own projects. These “mental health sharing sessions” break down this (sadly fragile) wall and I end up dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings again, often leading to insomnia that night, because when I really contemplate what I need for mental health, I re-examine all the frustrations of the office.[/bq]
Then there’s this office that requires people to share their emotions via sticker:
I work in an office of a large company. The work my team does is often stressful, so sometimes staff morale suffers. The managers of my team have created a feelings chart that has giant emoji representing various levels of being happy, stressed, and angry. There are stickers of all our names that we’re meant to put next to the emoji representing how we’re feeling about work at the start and end of the day.
If participation were fully voluntary, I’d consider it peculiar but largely harmless. However, it’s compulsory and participation is sometimes enforced. One day recently, they stalled starting a staff meeting until everyone’s stickers were placed.
Perhaps the managers have good intentions with it, but I find it unsettling. I’m usually selective about who I discuss my feelings with. … When I was struggling through work while suffering from depression, if my manager had forced me to frequently state my feelings, it would have made me even more miserable. I also worry about how responses could be used against us, perhaps by using the presence of positive responses to silence people who believe the job is too stressful or difficult.
Employees at another office were instructed, in the name of relationship building, to write highly personal poems to share with colleagues:
While it seems like a fine introspective journaling activity, I am uncomfortable with the requirement to write them and share them with our coworkers and leadership. Especially since the instructions state “Make yourself cry a little. It should do that” and “The key is making this as specific and personal as possible.” The suggested categories include “the worst things that you have been told,” “accidents or traumatic experiences,” and “losses.”
While these instructions might be appropriate for a therapeutic or spiritual retreat, they’re entirely inappropriate for a required work activity.
No doubt these efforts all stem from the growing sense that we should be able to bring our whole selves to work and that it’s healthy to acknowledge that we’re all humans with a range of emotions, which can intersect with our work in real ways. But asking employees to be vulnerable in this way puts some people in a position of, well, vulnerability. For some people, bringing their whole selves to work risks opening them up to discrimination (particularly when their whole selves aren’t part of what’s mainstream in that office). Other people feel violated by demands that they lower their boundaries or simply have no interest in sharing deeply personal emotions with their co-workers or managers.
Increased openness about mental health is a good thing. Employers who want to work toward that can secure strong mental health coverage as part of their health insurance plans, be flexible with employees who need time off for therapy or other treatment, offer free and confidential help through employee assistance programs, talk openly about what types of accommodations are available to employees who need them, and remain cognizant of how much stress employees are expected to take on.
And while certainly employees should be allowed to talk about emotions they’re experiencing (within reason), requiring it should be seen as the overstep and counterproductive measure it generally is.