Simon Blake: Why I DO believe in bringing your ‘whole self’ to work

Simon Blake

I really enjoyed reading Clarke Carlisle’s interview published on 14 February 2023.

He is an inspiring man who talks naturally about the importance of openness and authenticity, and I found myself nodding and smiling along. Given the rest of the article, this made me curious:

“One aspect I rail against [which is currently trendy in the employee wellbeing discussion] is this idea of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work. I actually don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s a working environment – you need to be professional. Men naturally compartmentalise their lives. We do it innately. So, when we put our ‘mask’ on, or adopt our professional persona at work, that doesn’t need to feed into imposter syndrome or feeling like a fraud. What’s important, I think, is that we have a compartment where we are dealing with whatever it is we need to be dealing with to be well. So the focus needs to be in understanding effective and positive compartmentalisation.”

Clarke Carlisle

Yes, I agree, we must be professional. That is a core requirement of work. Exactly what is meant by professional will vary from industry to industry but that is a conversation for another day. I also have some thoughts on creating workplaces where people are able to bring their whole self to work. 

In 1998 Joanna Laxton and I published a book called Strides: a practical guide to effective sex and relationships education with boys and young men. It was based on our community work with boys and young men. Through this work we realised that this group tended to put on a mask when talking about emotions, relationships and sex. 

We warned against sex educators trying to rip off that mask. Instead advising them to try to understand the gendered expectations on young men (and young women), and find ways to work with their masks, role modelling a wide range of behaviours and encouraging young men to develop their self-confidence, emotional intelligence, and broaden their rigid understanding of masculinity.

And so, 25 years on, I, like Carlisle, would counsel against employers trying to rip off that mask too. 

My Whole Self is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s campaign for workplace culture change. For me, it is about creating workplaces where everybody – men, women, trans, non-binary and gender fluid people – can thrive. It is about creating workplaces where extraverts and introverts, thinkers, doers, creatives and strategists, people old and young, first, second and third language English speakers, neurodiverse people, those going through the menopause and many more can be themselves. 

I believe that by bringing together diversity and inclusion with health and wellbeing we can drive positive transformation in workplace mental health and by doing so fuel productivity and performance. 

In feeling able to be ourselves, we can make choices about what we share and what we don’t share, so we can operate at work without fear of being ‘caught out’, or on guard. When we have that sense of safety we can operate at our full potential. 

I am a (gay) man. I often compartmentalise. I sometimes don’t. I honestly don’t know which of my behaviours are innate and which ones I have learned. If we have workplace cultures which take diversity as a fact and employers who create inclusive cultures of care it doesn’t really matter what is innate and what is learnt, what matters is that people feel seen, heard and valued. 

I believe, to the core of my being, that everyone should be psychologically safe at work. Within the boundaries of professionalism, I – and every single working person – should be able to show up at work without worrying that we will be judged or penalised for being who we are, for what we do or don’t share or what we do or don’t compartmentalise.

My Whole Self is not about taking a one size fits all approach nor about dictating a single way of being. It is about recognising that the prevailing culture in UK workplaces advantages some over others and disadvantages so many of us. How much of our whole self we choose to share or not should be on each and every one of us to choose without fear or favour.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has been working with us for a couple of years building and rolling out their own My Whole Self programme. Their Health and Wellbeing Manager sums up the campaign for them, “My Whole Self is not about sharing things you don’t want to share or hitting targets. It’s about helping to support our staff, some of whom are subject to upsetting and traumatic events, in the best way possible. If we can understand our employees’ heritage, culture, and life experiences we can be better equipped to offer personalised, holistic care and foster an inclusive, supportive working environment.” 

To launch My Whole Self 2023, we surveyed 2,000 managers. Over a quarter (29%) said more support and training from their employer would help them to create a team where everyone feels they can bring their whole selves to work. We know that brilliant managers are worth their weight in gold. Ensuring they have the training, tools and time they need to support their teams will build cultures that support wellbeing and performance.

On My Whole Self Day, 14 March, we will be launching a new Managers’ toolkit to support managers throughout the employee life cycle. We hope that it will empower managers to have open conversations about mental health and lived experience with their teams – on a human level. I hope that we would all want to support each other through good times and bad.  On a business level, understanding what makes people tick, what motivates them and what support they need, can aid productivity and create happy, healthy working environments, where people and organisations can thrive. 

Everyone has different boundaries around what they are and aren’t comfortable sharing or, what they view as professional. This not about trying to force people to have the same boundaries or force people to over share. Instead, it’s a gentle nudge to remind each other that we all have different intersectionalities that need their own space. 

Let’s give each other that space – is a conversation really that dangerous? It may help us to understand ourselves, and one another, better and break some of the toxic cycles that need to be challenged.

About the author:

Simon Blake is Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England



Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.