Our work follows us everywhere now. Evenings, weekends and vacations are accessible by and commonly interrupted by work. We need to consider whether it is time to take our whole self from work.
Of late, I have read a flurry of articles around bringing your whole self to work. Most people who have tried that have found their whole self is rarely appreciated. Whatever that expression is trying to encourage, the employee experience is usually different. Few workplaces are genuinely realms of inclusion. Before you ask the employee to initiate that sharing it is better to ensure that they are welcome to bring their whole selves. As long as the culture of work is a performative environment, our whole self is likely to be too far from the idealised norms to be appreciated there.
The bigger issue about taking your whole self to work is that it further centres work. Work is meant to be the bit that delivers some sense of achievement and an income to support a rich and fulfilling life outside of work. Even if we put aside the relentlessness of the hustle bros, expectations of availability, responsiveness and work centricity are misaligned with the reality of our desire for a life.
One reason working from home has been such a trauma for many is that it has brought the work centricity deeper into the home, at the exact moment that enabling supports like childcare, schools, home care and wider family have been removed. Accomodating somebody’s life in a video conference when working from home is not allowing people to bring their whole selves to work. It is work invading a place that people used to go to escape work.
In an era of mobile phones, instant messaging and chat channels, work doesn’t even respect the weekend or vacation boundary. Out of office responses are useful, but they assume that people won’t see their crisis as just urgent enough or a minor inconvenience to interrupt your much needed escape.
If the idea of taking your whole self from work sounds transgressive. It is because it is. We have reached a point where work is the norm, the expectation, the continuous presence and the centre. Anyone who has been between work, whether by choice or by accident, can describe the difficult conversations where people can’t process that you don’t happen to work at this moment. It usually involves long discussions of what you used to do, plan to do or could do to remove the disconcerting absence of work. Work is such a fixation that even when I explained to people that I was consulting, they would say ‘Don’t worry. It won’t last long’.
There is no way of being fully human without being fully stuck or event completely absent: we are simply not made that way. There is no possibility of pursuing a work without coming to terms with all the ways that it is impossible to do it. Feeling far away from what we want tells us one of two things about our work: that we are at the beginning or we have forgotten where we are goingDavid Whyte, Three Marriages
We have to take our whole selves from work so that we can see those selves and that work more clearly. We have to have distance to be able to bring new perspective to the most important work, creating a rich and fulfilling life despite all the challenges and obstacles. More work can be a path from disadvantage or an opportunity to build wealth. More work can be a vehicle for success or an opportunity to achieve long overdue recognition. For most people though more work is just the grind of more work. The more of yourself you put into work the return, financial or personal, is unchanged. By taking some distance, we can understand where we stand and what we need from our work. Then we can go back. What we choose to bring to work after we take our whole selves away will be more valuable to us and to our organisations.
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