How to deal with ‘pleasanteeism’, the toxic behaviour that’s harming our wellbeing at work

Do you tend to hide when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or upset at work? Here’s why that’s a problem – and what you can do to change it.

We all want to be perceived well at work – but have you ever stopped to wonder whether the way you behave in front of your colleagues could be taking its toll on your mental health?

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be professional, but going out of your way to put on a ‘brave face’ and hide when you’re feeling sad, stressed or angry – also known as ‘pleasanteeism’ – can actually make you feel worse in the long-run.

It’s why bottling up our emotions can be so damaging – when we deny ourselves the chance to feel and express what’s going on inside, we allow those feelings to amplify even further.  

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“Disguising our struggles like this is exhausting,” explains Gemma Leigh Roberts, a chartered psychologist, founder of coaching platform The Resilience Edge and author of the new book Mindset Matters: Developing Mental Agility And Resilience To Thrive In Uncertainty.

“Putting on a ‘brave face’ only contributes to existing stress, eventually leading to weakened performance and productivity. Long-term exposure to unmanaged stress can not only negatively affect work performance, but also take a toll on our physical health and give rise to feelings of depression.”

While the shift towards working from home during the pandemic helped some people to relax and show their true selves at work, the return to the office seems to have made things worse. 

That’s according to new research by the healthcare services provider Lime Global, which shows that 75% of UK workers feel like they have to hide feelings of stress, anxiety and emotional turmoil in front of their colleagues, up from 51% in May 2021.

On top of the usual desire to be seen as ‘professional’, Roberts says this increase in pleasanteeism could be down to the fact that people feel like they have nowhere to turn.

“Pleasanteeism happens because employees are scared of being judged or punished for being honest about their poor mental health,” she says.  

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“They may also have a lack of confidence in sharing their concerns due to feeling like there’s no natural place or person for them to turn to in the workplace. Essentially, it comes down to culture. When people are worried that they’ll be looked down upon for seeming disruptive or problematic, they prefer to pretend everything is fine.”

Of course, it’s not possible to change the entire culture of an organisation overnight – and many of the people who are dealing with pleasanteeism won’t have the power to make that change either.

So, to help you unpick your need to ‘put on a brave face’, we asked Roberts for her top tips for dealing with pleasanteeism once and for all. Here’s what she had to say. 

1. Identify what you’re feeling

“Journaling can be a great way of getting things out of your head and visualising them.”

“Figure out what your stress triggers are and how you react to them,” Roberts recommends. “Journaling can be a great way of getting things out of your head and visualising them.”

She continues: “Once you know exactly what it is you’re masking, you can consider whether there are any actions you can take or solutions you can find to resolve it.”

2. Talk to someone

“In my work as a psychologist, I talk a lot about resilience,” Roberts explains. “A common misconception is that resilience means ‘powering through’ difficult periods and pushing ahead no matter what. 

“But resilience is about recovering from setbacks – getting back up when you’ve been knocked down. And a huge part of that is speaking up about struggles and seeking support when necessary.”

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She continues: “If you feel comfortable, speak with a manager, HR person, or colleague about how you’re feeling. They may be able to offer advice or help address some of your concerns.

“Confide in people outside of work too, such as family, friends or a professional. Having people you can count on during tough times – and who can help out in other areas of life if you need it, such as childcare – can alleviate some of the pressure.”

3. Take care of yourself

“Plan breaks into your day to step away from your desk and clear your mind, whether it’s with a lunchtime walk or listening to a podcast in between meetings.”

“Don’t wait until you reach your breaking point – make sure you’re keeping an eye on how much you’re working and whether you’re feeling overwhelmed,” Roberts recommends.

“Burnout can sneak up on you, so even if you think you’re coping well, ensure you’re prioritising balance. Plan breaks into your day to step away from your desk and clear your mind, whether it’s with a lunchtime walk or listening to a podcast in between meetings. Look ahead in your calendar and book a day or week off in advance, so that you have some holiday to look forward to and some time to recharge. 

“After work, it’s important to have periods where you don’t check work-related emails so that you can disconnect, and find ways to relax that are specific to you. Prioritise self-care, getting good sleep, eating well, and making time for fun. Meditation, breathing exercises and mindfulness practices can also help you feel more collected.”

4. Set boundaries

“Learn to say no to both yourself and others,” Roberts suggests. “Are all of your meetings essential? Do you have to answer that email outside of working hours? Are you trying to do too much for others when you need a night in with a bath? While we may need to set boundaries with other people, a lot of the time it comes down to setting boundaries with ourselves.”

She continues: “Being more organised about our schedule can often help us see where we’re overexerting ourselves and how we can trim the fat. 

“Try writing down a list of tasks at the beginning of your working week and ranking them according to priority – you may notice that some of the things you’re stressing about aren’t actually that urgent or important right now.”

Images: Getty

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