Commentary: The new epidemic of oversharing at the office
Post-pandemic, our personal lives are a mess. Colleagues bear the brunt as we struggle to keep up appearances, says the Financial Times’ Miranda Green.
LONDON: For most of my adult life, my peers and I strode around in trouser suits giving off - or trying to - a strong whiff of high-energy professionalism.
But I regret to report that the mask, insecurely attached for some time, has finally slipped. With personal crises arriving thick and fast there is an epidemic of letting it all hang out emotionally in the office.
Sick and dying parents, one’s own ill health, plus wayward adolescents and relationships hitting a bumpy patch: These are (mostly) inevitable features of this stage of life. Being words people at the Financial Times, we’ve been debating the best metaphor for the concatenation of disasters that seems to hit in late middle age.
When you’re in the thick of it, does it more resemble an anxious game of whack-a-mole or just a constantly raging bin fire?
To me, this mid-life barrage has the hallmarks of a sadistically designed video game, where the path clears for a split second before another catastrophe hurtles into view - any gaming entrepreneurs reading this can have the idea for free.
Could we market it as Call of Duty: Middle Age? It’s a navigation of treacherous territory followed by a pile-up. But my colleagues and I are not competing in ranking our traumas - if you win at this one, you really do lose.
Nevertheless, whatever we call it, attempts at professional poise have gradually been abandoned in favour of mass, multidirectional exchanges of confession and empathy.
It’s become totally #nofilter - we’re all so beaten up by the rolling programme of challenges that there is little energy for anything other than the work itself. You can forget about keeping up appearances, let alone a stiff upper lip.
A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD
The mutual support is of immense value. It is probably keeping us healthy (and working) for longer: An Australian study of women aged between 45 and 70 released this year found that those with friends at work and good relationships with colleagues were much less likely to develop a range of common diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer.
After the difficulties prompted by the COVID-19 emergency, these friendships, both recent and long-term, feel particularly nourishing.
But we don’t yet know the nature and extent of the costs attached to airing our dirty linen in the office (and I’m no longer talking about an aspirational trouser suit, more the psychological equivalent of loungewear).
What if the collapse of your at-work persona means a career penalty after your crisis has passed? What if those work friendships can’t take the load?
As for the managers, they are pulled in two directions by sympathy and the need to deliver - the show must go on and the work has to come first. Not for nothing does the traditional training include a section on how to comfort an underling, pass them a tissue as they blub, then move the conversation on.
These days, work buzzwords emphasise humanity. Take the call to “bring your whole self to work”, or the slightly terrifying exhortation to “radical candour”, a sort of update of tough love.
It is a direction of travel that introduces more emotion rather than damping it down. This seemed refreshing pre-pandemic: A chance to wriggle out of an office straitjacket that homogenised the workforce. “I’m not like you so don’t make me pretend” is a pretty good response to outmoded and often exclusive formality.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION
But we now have a different problem of too much information - a TMI SOS, with workers at all levels sending up emergency flares. It’s a constant onslaught of exhausting revelations. Career reviews since COVID-19 are a minefield of medical updates and childcare and eldercare crises.
With so many of us withdrawing from work or struggling because of ill health and caring responsibilities, particularly among the over-50s, running a team has become less like a normal white-collar job and more like keeping a unit’s morale up in a trench filled with muddy water.
There’s too much for managers to handle - and for our poor colleagues, who bear the brunt as carefully crafted competent personas crumble before their eyes.
This doesn’t feel sustainable. Employees need support better tailored to these tricky times and managers need help to cope with the carnage.
In the meantime, my newest worry is I’ve become one of those people whom it’s dangerous to ask “how are you?” in case they actually, you know, tell you.