The new emotional workforce allows you to bring your personal life to work

Odette Barry from Odette and Co explores how your personal life can come together with your work life.

“We are in the wilderness—it’s hard. You can’t belong when you are betraying yourself.”

Brené Brown, SXSW 2019

The guru of vulnerability Brené Brown spoke so many wise words about the merging of work and personal life at this year’s SXSW conference, but this quote in particular struck a chord with me — coming after an especially tough time for several of my small team’s members, due to break-ups, fertility challenges and a family cancer diagnosis.

We’d ended the year, frankly, collectively drained. As our office culture encourages sharing openly, we’d update and reassure each other on team WIPs and there were lots of private conversations too. Somehow, the hard times were coming all at once and it impacted the whole team, in both beautiful and confronting ways. Brown’s words were so very welcome as I have wrestled with the question: how much sharing is the right amount of sharing?

Turns out, my team and I were navigating through all this just as a brighter spotlight had begun shining on the emotional realities of people working within the media, marketing and creative industries. In fact, one report by UnLtd in December 2018 showed greater signs of mental illness compared to the national average in other professional industries. The first report of its kind, the survey sought responses from more than 1800 people and found that a total of 61% of creatives have symptoms of depression, 75% work while not physically or mentally well, 57% show signs of stress and the rate of anxiety across the industry is 29% higher than the rest of Australia.

These statistics make me even more motivated to create an environment where people feel comfortable bringing their ‘whole’ selves to the office — especially given that I’ve invited both friends and colleagues into this business. We’re not here to masquerade as one all-amazing, sparkly thing. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. And because we spend so much time at work, we have a genuine yearning for that relationship to be one filled with passion, purpose, joy, connection, authenticity and transparency – qualities once reserved for a life partner are now ‘key criteria’ in our ideal job description.

Enter the emotional workforce, where leaders of today need to activate their full emotional arsenal to create space for this. It’s a pursuit that is sometimes messy, yet utterly essential. I did, after all, found the business out of defiance against a personal wilderness. Eight years ago, I was in a corporate gig in financial services with a decent salary and the ability to work part time – the holy grail for a first-time mum with a newborn. But I really lacked connection and passion and there was never any crossover between my worlds — for five years, I flicked the work switch on at the office door, turned it off come COB. And that made me very uncomfortable.

I was undoubtedly part of those statistics at that time in my life. But the cycle was broken for me thanks to an inspiring, transformational leader who believed in his colleagues striving for authenticity and wholeness. Ultimately, he gave me the confidence to create a business that thrives on the personalities of my team, some of who are my friends from that time when we were all in the wilderness, feeling alone. And working with friends brings both rewards and challenges. I’m the first to admit I still get the emotions that come with being a friend’s boss tangled at times.

Truth be told, I’m not surprised when I read stats like 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, 30% in their second and 50% after five years. I’m also not surprised that 65% of start-ups fail because relationships combust between founders – because the relationships we have at our workplace today are integral to its future success.

Yet all these blurred boundaries are teaching me a more fluid style of management, and one that is driven by honesty and courage from both sides. As Brené Brown says, those values mean my team and I can have “discussions that are uncomfortable, but crucial. It means co-workers can trust, confide and respect each other more. It means your team can learn from failures instead of getting discouraged. And it means crystallising your company’s values so candidates and current employees see that they can bring their whole selves to the workplace.”

And that’s important, because I don’t want to work with people — team members or clients — who don’t share our values. Clients who don’t understand our boundaries on time and energy are rarely the right fit. And determining ‘right fit’ comes down to not just what a clients’ business is about, but what kind of people they are. Have they made mistakes along their journey? Are they willing to share those mistakes so we can learn and grow from them? Because in Brené’s own words, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change… you can’t innovate without risk or uncertainty.”

For too long talking about vulnerability in leadership has been typified as a weakness, rather than a strength. Yet we’re living in a time when we’re finally learning that showing your whole, authentic self has huge benefits to both business and personal life — in building trust and relationships, in exploring diverse experiences, and ultimately producing better work for clients that reflects all the colour of reality.

So bring on the times driven by risk, the uncomfortable conversations and a space where home and work life blur into one muddy mess. Bring on a business culture in which work fits within our lifestyle – not the other way round. Because when we allow that, we can all feel like we belong in this wilderness.

Odette Barry is the founder and director of digital marketing and PR agency Odette & Co.


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