What does bringing your whole self to work mean in practice?

Ama Afrifa-Tchie, Head of Culture & Wellbeing at MHFA England

My Whole Self Day took place on the 18 March this week and at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England we are calling on organisations to empower people to bring their ‘whole self’ to work because it’s better for mental wellbeing and better for business.

In 2020 we shouldn’t have to leave parts of our identity – be that our cultural or ethnic background, sexuality, or health – at the door when we get to work. But, unfortunately, many people across the country do feel they have to hide parts of themselves. They do so because of fears of bullying or harm, concerns they will be overlooked for a promotion or key project. They do so because of fears of being judged, ostracised or misunderstood, or worries that their ideas will be stolen – and as a result, they feel unheard or unseen.


What are the benefits when we can be our whole self at work?

We should all be able to live authentically in our bodies and our minds so we can be and feel the best we can. That’s why we are making this call for workplace culture change. Because if we put diversity and inclusion at the centre of mental health and wellbeing then employers can create an ethos where people can thrive.

My Whole Self aims to create a healthier working culture built on respect and collaboration to help us to be kinder to our teammates, more understanding of each other’s needs, and overall work better together. Creating this kind of culture isn’t just the right thing to do, its good business sense too. As the current health crisis sees more people working from home than ever before, human connections are so important at this time. Nurturing them virtually will be key to supporting the nation’s mental health and wellbeing as we come together to tackle the impact of coronavirus.


What do we mean by being your ‘whole self’ at work?

Of course, there are aspects of our personal lives we will want to keep out of the workplace and that in some cases would be wrong to bring to work. The nature of people’s work varies hugely and therefore so does what is appropriate in the workplace.

In the creative industries you might be encouraged to freely express yourself through your clothing, compared to other industries like health-care, legal or financial services, where it might be totally unacceptable. We are not prescribing a one-size fits all approach because each business will have its own framework for how it defines the baseline behaviours and expectations of staff. For some, different personas for their working and personal lives can create useful boundaries but for many it’s not about making a conscious choice, it is about feeling they cannot be themselves when it would benefit them, and their organisation, if they could be.

Many of us will dress, behave or talk differently when we are at work by choice. This campaign is not about forcing people to change their behaviours, but about supporting those who feel they have to hide aspects of their identity, which can cause stress and anxiety. It is on all of us to reflect on what authenticity means in our workplace and rethink how we create a culture in which people feel safe and free in deciding what they do and don’t reveal.

In 2010 the Equality Act became law – it protects people from discrimination, harassment and victimisation because of protected characteristics we have. But beyond the legal duty Mental Health First Aid England wants to encourage employers to take proactive positive action to welcome, support, and celebrate people of different backgrounds, cultures, beliefs and all those with health issues or family/carer responsibilities that sit outside of what has been in the past considered ‘the norm’.

What we want to create are cultures of trust and fairness where people can prosper, where they are not defined by their differences but rather have the safety and freedom to discuss and express aspects of the lives that are core to their identity. When there is trust in the workplace then people feel they can express their desire or concerns about being their whole self. This open dialogue means boundaries can be explored and redefined if needed to better support people.

So, join us as we encourage everyone to build deeper connections with colleagues. Take part online by sharing your whole self with a My Whole Selfie. We want everyone – whoever they are and wherever they’re working from – to feel they can bring their whole self to their work, every day of the year.

To get started, download your My Whole Self toolkit visit – mhfaengland.org/my-whole-self