Work is no place for your ‘whole self’

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

19 February 2022

9:00 AM

One of the few things I have learned in this life is that Dante Alighieri was wrong. In the Inferno portion of The Divine Comedy (the only part most people read), the great Florentine poet describes hell as having just nine circles. Whereas whenever I survey matters it has always seemed me that this figure is on the low side. In fact I would go further. I would say that if you look down there is always a circle below every circle.

The other week I wrote about our nation’s ambassador to the Ukraine — a woman who seems to think that expressions of vulnerability and not-quite-coping are somehow helpful public attributes in her job. What I did not get into is that Melinda Simmons is not alone. She is part of a movement. A way of approaching the working world which constitutes a whole new circle of hell. It can be summed up in a phrase now working itself outwards from every HR department in the land. That phrase is ‘Bring your whole self to work’.

If you have not come across this phrase then you are among the blessed, perhaps due in time to be guided by Beatrice to the heavenly heights. For those of us who must perforce keep looking downwards, we have watched this wretched phrase spread every-where. It is not just pushed out by HR departments but is the subject of numerous books, TED talks and more.

It seems to have emerged as an invitation for people who are members of minority groups to not ‘hide’ their identities in the office place. So if you’re a gay you shouldn’t have to hide the fact at the office. If you are a member of some indigenous community (apart from the Anglo-Saxons, naturally) you should ensure that you do not try to ‘pass’ as somebody else. In some ways this idea is appealing. As all appalling ideas are.

‘Bring your whole self to work’ is also intended to destigmatise mental illness. Last year the CIA issued a recruitment video in which the agent they highlighted as their ideal recruiter was a woman of colour who said: ‘I am a cisgender millennial who’s been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. I am intersectional.’ She went on to describe her refusal to bow to the ‘patriarchy’. Instead she said she would ‘intoxicate people with my effort, my brilliance’. In its way this is a fine example of bringing your whole self to work. For the lady in question is clearly a narcissistic sociopath. A type I would rather not know exists in the CIA, and certainly would rather the CIA did not imagine was their ideal poster-girl for a recruitment campaign. My first thought when I saw the video was that I hoped this lady wasn’t in charge of America’s drone programme. But I am not in favour of bring your whole self to work. As ideas go I think it is demented.

Yet like all demented ideas it has of course caught on with our own civil service here in the UK. In the autumn of last year the civil service was busy celebrating ‘National Inclusion Week’. Among the events in that joyous, ancient week of celebration was an event called ‘Being authentic in the workplace’. The event was chaired by Sir Simon Gass of the Cabinet Office, who is chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Prime Minister’s special representative for the Afghan transition. A few weeks earlier Sir Simon had helped to oversee the successful transition of Afghanistan back into the hands of the Taliban.

The principal guest speaker on that occasion was Dr Ellen Hendriksen of Boston University, author of a book called How to Be Yourself: Quiet your Inner Critic and Rise above Social Anxiety. Other speakers included Helen Lederer, director of corporate services at No. 10 and ‘Cabinet Office inclusion champion’. Also one Nick Pett, the Ministry of Defence’s ‘LGBT+ champion’, who is also the head of the MoD’s Diversity and Inclusion unit and an MoD ‘Race network ally’. Circle after circle, I tell you.

I am told by some of those present that this fatuous occasion started with Sir Simon Gass doing the now compulsory white-man-struggle session, lamenting his whiteness, maleness, lack of intersectionality and so on. But the panel continued, under the rubric that: ‘Bringing your whole self to work is believed to lead to greater staff retention, productivity, happiness and wellbeing.’

In my own view, nothing that Dante came up with seven centuries ago could possibly be torture enough for the people who would put anyone, let alone our public servants, through such sessions. If I could watch them boil for all eternity I would. I would watch Cerberus rip at their limbs with relish. I would ogle at them in the frozen lake having their minute, indoctrinated brains being eaten out for ever. The point is, I wouldn’t be pulling at Virgil’s cloak like nice Mr Dante. I would be asking Virgil if we couldn’t hang around a little while longer, kick up our feet, enjoy ourselves.

Because here is an idea. How about not bringing your whole self to work? How about Sir Simon Gass, for instance, only brings that bit that knows a lot about Afghanistan? If that bit is there. Ditto for everyone else. If you have a fondness for any particular sexual or racial politics, leave that at the door too. Bring only the bit that’s really good at your job. And if you have anxiety that you can’t do your job, do another job or become so good at your job that such anxiety eventually disappears.

I say this from a point of considerable self-interest, of course. If my colleagues at The Spectator insisted on us ‘bringing our whole selves to work’, the magazine would soon be printing its last issue. My colleagues would hate me to bring my whole self into the office. For instance, I do not always display patience and forbearance. On occasion I take undue delight in the misfortune of others. These are among my better traits. And I won’t even mention what would happen if Rod brought his whole self to work. Or Taki. People should dwell on this. It could help us see an end to it.

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