You know that feeling when you open Facebook or Instagram? A brief moment of pleasure and escapism – all those happy faces, beautiful meals, stunning vacations and cute kids. But it also leaves a nagging feeling: “How come everyone else’s life is so perfect?”
By now, we all know these perfect “Facebook lives” are not real. But it’s still difficult to escape its effect: research has even shown that the more we use social media, the worse we feel (1).
But social media is not the only place where we cover up our true selves to look good in the eyes of others. We also do it in corporate wellbeing programs.
Our personal health has become public
Over the last decade, corporate wellbeing has skyrocketed in popularity. Fuelled by the health trend and dozens of eager startups, every company nowadays has a wellbeing program. Exercise competitions, “walk to the moon and back” campaigns, weight loss extravaganzas, in-house yoga and Fitbit giveaways. One company we visited visibly posted a (quite large) number on the wall of their lobby: “The kilos of fat we lost before summer”. All very public, competitive, team-spirit-based.
In our work, we’ve discovered a craving for something quite different. We did a project with a large technology company on smarter working practices. The top identified challenges: too many meetings, inability to focus, too much to do. Together we arrived at three top themes: deep work, time management, collaboration & meetings. We added two “softer” ones for balance: purpose and energy management.
What happened? 70% of participants chose one of the “soft” topics. The very topics we had expected a male-dominated engineering organization to shy away from. The very topics they had shied away from in the past.
Who’s looking makes all the difference
What was the difference? Simple: privacy.
In our project everything was anonymous and private. No one could see what you chose, no one (except for your dedicated coach) could see what you posted. It was 100% private. You were even encouraged to refrain from using your real name in the program. Turns out that when your colleagues and boss don’t see what you choose – that changes everything.
There’s a concept in psychology that explains this: self-presentation theory. Coined by sociologist Erving Goffman back in 1959 (2), he explained our social interactions in terms of a theatrical performance. When we are on stage in front of the audience we adapt to different social roles expected from us. We play a part where the primary purpose is avoiding embarrassment. Then there is the backstage where we can set aside our roles and “take off our masks”. Backstage we can be our true selves.
“Backstage is the place that allows for the switching of roles and involves no performance.” (Goffman, “The presentation of self in everyday life”, 1959)
What we do when our colleagues are looking is being on stage, what we do when they’re not goes backstage.
In 2017 a study by the Helsinki University into YOU-app (the name of our mobile platform) found that 98% of respondents felt more comfortable sharing their personal life on YOU than on social media. “I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not when in YOU” was a typical comment. At the same time, 74% of respondents didn’t want their closest friends or family seeing their posts. This comment says it all: “When I started promoting the app to my friends I understood that […] there are some things that I share [here] that I would not share with some or all of my friends.”
The conclusion: Social media is on stage, strategically presenting ourselves to others. By encouraging honest, private posting, YOU goes backstage, tapping into our true selves.
What does this mean for employee programs?
This is what generally happens with wellbeing and health campaigns. Exercise is cool, physical wellbeing is a worthy goal, and workouts are acceptable watercooler topics. We feel okay about sharing that publicly, even with our colleagues. Feeling stressed, being low on energy, not knowing our purpose, on the other hand, is not cool. Hence, it’s natural that wellbeing programs focus on the physical. The soft stuff is really hard.
But ask yourself: are your company’s health campaigns designed to help employees work on what they truly want to work on, or are they only a front stage show for the boss?
“We also need to make space for our backstage persona – helping people work on their most meaningful goals, without the limiting role of expectations created by social pressure.”
There’s a clear place for team spirit lifting exercise campaigns – a shared goal makes us feel connected to our co-workers and can push us to do activities we otherwise wouldn’t. But too often it feels like it’s simply ticking a box for the company: “We help our employees be healthy”.
Companies should, however, also look deeper and broader. We also need to make space for our backstage persona – helping people work on their most meaningful goals, without the limiting role of expectations created by social pressure. And who knows – you may even succeed in reaching someone who really needs the support, not only the triple-triathlonist who thrives at the top of any leaderboard.
What would you choose to work on if no one was looking? Energy management, connecting with your purpose, self-compassion, maybe being a better parent?
How often do you let backstage-you out?
1: “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel” by Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis, April 2017, https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-new-more-rigorous-study-confirms-the-more-you-use-facebook-the-worse-you-feel
2: Goffman, Erving. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y. :Doubleday