17th May 2021
3 Min Read

Tackling workplace taboos. What are the issues we need to bring to the table?

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
Culture & Change

Now that ‘burnout’, ‘fatigue’ and ‘anxiety’ have become mainstays of our lockdown lexicon, which barriers are next to tumble? What other taboos can we terminate?

Where talking about our mental health might have previously been frowned upon at work, when the workplace is your kitchen table, it seems somewhat unavoidable.

And we’ve needed to have those conversations. The impact of our shared global experience has been to break down the barriers. Now, we have a collective shorthand.

In response, many organisations are changing their policies, boosting their benefits and revising working practices to accommodate. But the change isn’t wholesale. At a time when others are turning to airing and baring, the recent Basecamp furore highlights the potential backlash waiting in the wings for organisations that look to shut down discourse at a time when we are so in need of openness.

So, what’s next on the agenda? And will this spirit of openness and a hunger for change drive us to tackle more taboos in the workplace? I asked my colleagues to share the stigmas they feel should be brought out of the shadows.

Menopause

Jacey Lamerton

Picture this: you’re in the middle of presenting your financial results and you feel a hot flush rising. Red-faced and sweating, you plough on, only to hear laughter and heckling from the all-male audience: “Are you nervous, love?” “Nah, she fancies me!”

Pretty painful, eh? Imagine going on to report the incident to a manager, only to have them sweep it aside, calling you ‘hysterical’.

This was the worst of a grim bunch of real-life menopause experiences relayed to me by friends. Teachers (a female-dominated profession if ever there was one) complained of a lack of policy and guidance, and even business owners said they’d been reluctant to tell their own employees that they were menopausal.

But as middle-aged women, we’ve earned our stripes and it’s time we demanded that the shame is dragged out of the shadows. Half the population’s going to experience menopause. And the other half damn well need to know about it.

If you’re a man, ask yourself how many female leaders and managers are silently battling brain fog and sleeplessness? How many are piling performance anxiety onto a set of neuroses already bulging with our society’s youth-obsessed judgements? Men or women can start the conversation but if senior female employees continue to mask menopause symptoms for fear of professional retribution, none of the attitudes around ‘the change’ will change.

Money

Russ Norton

If you’re looking for a big, thorny, ingrained taboo, look no further than money. Particularly in the UK, we just don’t like talking about stuff like salaries. It’s fascinating that as we’ve shifted to a different way of working, people are recalibrating their opinions of what a good deal looks like, benefits-wise. More people are questioning whether the give-get contract in their workplace is really working for them.

At a recent webinar, I was interested to hear a discussion about unions, raising the potential issue that, with people working remotely, it’s harder to organise and collectively bargain. The future of pay parity and negotiations become entirely one-to-one, employee vs employer conversations.

It will be interesting in the year ahead to see how people question and challenge whether they’re getting a fair deal, whether men are being paid more than women, and how disparities show up across other characteristics such as ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.

Periods

Elle Bradley-Cox

Bloody periods. TMI or am I just cursing their existence? I can tell you that there’s no way I’d choose to feel tetchy, bloated, hangry, tired and have bad skin and cramps every month, but it’s a fact of life for those of us who menstruate.

But how about the women who wait with bated breath to see if it drops –for positive reasons or for negative? Maybe they had a now-regrettable one night stand, or are desperately trying for a baby, or suffer a tide wave of indignity every month due to a health condition – the complexities of the female body are endless. Each situation is unique, and each comes with anxiety, particularly when you have to be in the workplace on a heavy day.

My colleague Kate wrote the article I wish I had on Bodyform’s breakthrough #wombstories campaign and its testament to authenticity. I urge any employer reading this, don’t shy away from being real about periods. At any given point, up to 50 per cent of your workforce is having theirs, and it’s not blue. So make your organisation one where it’s ok to open up about how they’re feeling – and why. It might just be the root cause of other issues and if you don’t know, you can’t grow.

Men‘s Health

James Houston

Men – well, most of us – are learning that relying on our gender, or on stereotypical male characteristics such as strong or dominant behaviour, is unlikely to get us very far.

But we’re finding it harder to speak openly about challenges we face to our physical or mental wellbeing. For many men, revealing and talking about chinks in their armour is a step too far.

It’s time to change. Middle-aged men have the highest suicide rates in England and Wales, according to the Samaritans. What leads to these men taking their lives – and how many of those deaths could have been prevented?

And who’d have thought a man dies every 45 minutes from prostate cancer - the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK? One in eight of us will get that diagnosis (129 men will receive it today), yet we rarely talk about it.

Being open about these and other threats to our wellbeing shows strength rather than weakness, and gaining support and solidarity from others will help us thrive through mental and physical challenges.

Politics

Dr Alex Gapud

While the rule about never discussing politics or religion in polite company probably helps to keep the peace, perhaps avoiding these conversations has impaired our ability to constructively and respectfully disagree with people. We’ve stayed away from talking about politics so well that now, we don’t know how to.

Combine that reticence with our social media echo chambers, created by advanced algorithms and our own homogenous communities, and we start to see those who disagree with us as ‘other’ – people we can’t reconcile with. It’s easy to forget that many of them aren’t that different from us.

A polarised culture, plus blurred boundaries between home and work, mean dialogue is more necessary than ever. Events and issues can be deeply political, yet go beyond party politics. Decisions over Covid-19 policy, NHS pay and children in our communities going hungry are issues that affect us all – and they don’t have clear and easy answers.

If we’re going to address them effectively, we need to have honest conversations. And to have those conversations – especially at work – we need the psychological safety to know we won’t be sacked for disagreeing with our colleagues.

Mental Health 2.0

Hester Lonergan

After years spent slowly dismantling the brick wall of workplace silence around mental health, out of nowhere, the pandemic swung in like a wrecking ball and blasted the conversation wide open.

A few dinosaurs still thought mental ill health was a distant struggle that belonged to people they didn’t know, in a place they’d never been. But this last year, we’ve often shared one very real, close fear: suddenly, people who’d wondered what anxiety, depression, stress or burnout felt like were experiencing these feelings first-hand.

The space the pandemic created for conversations on mental health is one of its true – and few – positives. We’re talking about how we feel with far less shame than before, but there are still so many ways for people to hide what’s going on in their heads, particularly when it comes to work. How easy is it to tell a manager we’re seeing a therapist? And, as the number of people taking antidepressants reaches an all-time high, how safe do we feel talking about the impact their side effects might have on our work performance?

It’s been refreshing to watch taboos around mental health disappear. But our quest is far from finished, and we risk doing damage by assuming we’ve universally found the words to express our struggles.

***

The past year brought many issues to a head. Our collective vulnerability and the strangeness of our situation seemed to give permission for us to voice the unsayable. But as we return to ‘normal’, it’s vital that we keep these conversations going.

While it may make us uncomfortable, it’s from our discomfort that we grow and progress can only be made if we’re truly open to tackling the tough topics.

This article was inspired by Stigmas in the Shadows, one of ten topics covered in our World Changers 2021 report.

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