How to be yourself at work: Be realistic, separate your identity and have boundaries

Benefits packages that reach into intimate areas of employees’ lives can give a sense that there is no need for boundaries. Photograph: PA

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“You can bring your whole self to work, you can be your authentic self here” – some workplaces promise that their culture is one where it is safe, and even good, for employees to share things about themselves.

Benefits packages that reach into intimate areas of employees’ lives can give a sense that there is no need for boundaries. From company-sponsored weight management classes to financial planning, funded egg freezing to psychological counselling – we’re all family here.

However, sharing too much without due consideration to your own boundaries can backfire personally and professionally.

Be realistic

Employees exchange their labour for money. Of course that exchange doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People can and do care about each other at work. Bosses, colleagues and clients can be a source of real friendship and support. Employers provide benefits because they have a vested interest in retaining happy, healthy workers.

The reason you are all there however is to make profit or deliver a service. Workers need to be realistic that sharing personal information with bosses and colleagues won’t shield them should hard decisions need to be made.

“The idea that work is a family isn’t realistic because we have families outside of work,” says Linda Breathnach, member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and founder of

Separate your identity

Some workplace cultures are so all-encompassing and well-defined, employees can feel like they are a tribe. Googlers, Tweeps, Microsofties, Metamates, Trailblazers – these are names the management and staff of some well known companies have given themselves. Work and identity appear to merge.

Whatever about being yourself at work, some employees may find it hard to be themselves outside of work.

“Identity outside of work can become really difficult if you are all using a certain language, you conform to a certain culture or a certain way of being,” says Breathnach.

“I think it’s much healthier to have other things and to have more of a balance in terms of your identity, your interests and your connections and that it’s not all wrapped up in the workplace.”

Have boundaries

Your health, a caring responsibility, your gender identity or sexual orientation – there is no hard or fast rule as to whether you should or should not disclose these things at work. Just think about what is right for you.

“If you don’t feel comfortable disclosing that you have a sick family member or that you are trying for a baby, that should be respected. But the first person who needs to respect that is yourself,” says Breathnach.

“Personal and professional boundaries are important, but where that line is, is up to you.

“It’s worth putting a bit of thought into it, be professional and strategic to some extent. It’s work. It’s not personal, it is business, and business is going to guide what decisions are made when it comes to promotions or redundancies. We have to live by that as employees.”

Being involved in a menopause committee at work, or being a spokesperson for diversity and inclusion will feel right both professionally and personally for others.

Ditch the persona

Hiding your true self in the workplace isn’t recommended either.

“Having a persona of strength and resilience where people think nothing affects you and you are professional almost like a robot, I don’t agree with that either,” says Breathnach.

“There is a balance about how much you disclose. It’s important to be genuine, and that self-awareness and emotional intelligence comes into it as well. It’s about knowing what your issues are and not trying to meet unmet needs inappropriately in the workplace.”


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