Must You Stifle Your Self at Work?

True confession: when I ran a psychiatric outpatient department, I never really wanted to know how the staff felt about things. I just wanted them to shut up and do their jobs. I did know, of course, because my staff felt compelled to share their reactions to every simple change of policy and every impending caseload shift, as well as to broadcast their breakups, current stress levels, holiday anxieties, in-law conflicts, and general problems of daily life for which we were, presumably, treating our patients. Staff regularly exposed the person behind their job title; I inwardly rolled my eyes and donned the professional mask of the administrator—warmly receptive but not too.

Which of us—overexposed staffer or inauthentic administrator—makes the greater contribution to the workplace?

How much of a person belongs at work, and to what degree should the workplace support that whole person? Enlightened organizations have been addressing these issues in policies and procedures for some time. Parental leave, mental-health days, onsite day care, flex time—all reflect an evolving philosophy that a great place to work accommodates many of an employee's personal needs.

Google, for example, has been cited as one of the best places to work in the country, primarily because it has created a delightfully indulgent work environment where employees are offered fine meals for free, where puppies and pool tables are equally welcome, and where brainiacs can go to work in their bunny slippers. In return for this wide-open welcome to the whole person, Google has the pick of the talent pool and workers who report—with giggles—that they are loath to leave the office.

Still, much as I long for a corporate masseuse to show up at my office, and as much as I recognize that a motivated staffer is one who feels heard—and that means listening to his gripes, however petty—I still believe that somewhere there is a line we ought to consider. Doesn't a part of you need to be left home when you come to work—if not for your own sake then for those around you? Where should that line be and how do you know when you've crossed it?

There are three situations when your individual issues or emotional reactions should be carefully titrated in the work setting: when you are having a particularly good time at work, when you are having an especially bad time at home, and when your personal needs impede your ability to conform to company expectations.

A good time at work is the classic water-cooler moment—it's the corner where everyone gathers to share a laugh, vent an injustice, relive last night's episode of Lost. Having an especially good time at work seems like the point, so it's easy to miss its negative impact on someone else—your boss, or your boss' office buddy. Moments of connection and relaxed camaraderie, if occasional and inclusive, are assets to the general professional atmosphere.

Too often though, the gang that laughs together does so loudly, regularly, and exclusively. Then the rest of us listening down the hall are starting to stew: Hmmm, we are thinking, she has time to enjoy herself for an hour after lunch, but not time to finish the cost projections.

An acutely troubled private life may have the same impact, squared. Yes, we do need to know when a colleague has a seriously sick child, a marriage unraveling, a legal catastrophe. We need to know because we owe each other the compassion, the extra kindness, and the specific work support needed to ease a burden during the dark times that befall us. None of us is able to offer this dignified assistance when we simply have no idea what is behind the mask.

Besides, under times of great personal duress, even the most iron of professional facades cracks. Your co-worker needs to know that when you snarled in the meeting, it was probably because you're on your third round of antibiotics and that makes you a little testy.

Knowing the reality is not the same as living every detail. It's one thing to allow colleagues to know you are going through a divorce. It's another to review daily the excruciating he said, she said. Especially in the land of cubicle hell, where your conversation is my consciousness, your pain, anxiety, frustration, and fear—whether provoked by the boss or your soon-to-be-ex wife—are best confined to off-site conversations.

And when your personal situation interferes with your ability to keep to regular work schedules, it's best to make a distinction between managing colleagues' expectations and making a bid for their sympathy. An acute life crisis—your teenager in the ER—requires no explanation. You drop the ball then and there, and the rest of us pick it up.

But less-emergent circumstances require even less affective expression. If you leave work at 5 on Tuesdays because you can't miss Little League, and the boss sanctions your absence, so be it. But do I really need to hear about how guilty you feel when you neglect your child and how I shouldn't mind because mine are out of the house and don't need me so much? If I have to pick up your slack, I don't want to have to sympathize too. If you're going—go.

A professional mask affords two-way protection. First, of course, it may shield you from co-workers whose personal dramas otherwise vacuum your productive energies right into their emotional storm.

Without the benefit of professional boundaries, only outright rudeness stems this tide. (Think Murphy Brown, ushering weeping colleagues out the door saying, "I'm not good at this. Couldn't you find someone else to talk to?") A culture supporting the mask offers built-in self-protection from the floodgate of bad-boyfriend or backstabbing-manager stories.

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