We’re not superheroes, and that’s OK

Leo Burnett Italy's Claudia Olivieri looks to Hegel, Marx and Vischer for answers

What are we like in the workplace?

Are we the same person after leaving the office, or do we unconsciously adapt to the context and the expectations we have to meet? If in our privacy we occasionally allow ourselves the luxury of wondering how we feel, at work we could feel under the weather, and yet automatically show off the best smile as soon as we set foot in the office. A sort of automatism triggered by the environment where we spend most of our day.

Over time, the definition of work has taken on different meanings. Hegel taught us work is an essential tool for human fulfilment and freedom. Marx, on the other hand, warned us of alienation and dispossession as consequences of work itself. Now — with no need to bother philosophers and sociologists — we know that we live in an era where work means performance, goals, and results.

As chill as the office environment may be and as far as colleagues may turn into friends, we still find ourselves in a context where every single gesture is noted and judged. Our behaviour is measured and evaluated. Being performative is part of who we are from our early stage in school, after all.

If I had to give my personal (and definitely debatable) definition of work, I’d talk about a situation where we always need to be the best and most efficient version of ourselves.

But how this concept of ‘perfect work’ coexist with the fallibility of humans?

On one side, there’s our job, with its demands for efficiency and reliability; on the other, there’s the unpredictability of our lives. Efficiency and reliability are strong words. When combined with commitment and talent, they clear the way to the great results everyone expects. But when the day ends and we stop being accountants, strategists and creatives, new factors come into play disrupting our plans, reducing our energy and determining our mood.

The 24-hour efficiency culture triggers an invisible mechanism: a constant effort — intended or not — to meet others expectations. The result:

If I’m not at my best, I won’t say it.
If I am worried, I won’t show it.
If I have family issues, I won’t tell anyone.

This invisible mechanism is usually nobody’s fault. We can’t blame those who always expect the best from us. We’ve got them used to certain performances, right? Also, we can’t blame ourselves for not being able to ask for help or support when we are in trouble. Let’s get through this: asking for understanding, raising your hand, doesn’t mean excuse ourselves. It means letting others understand us. It means allowing people around us to develop an important skill: being empathetic.

Robert Vischer

The term empathy, from the Greek en-, ‘inside‘, and pathos, ‘suffering or feeling‘, was introduced by German philosopher Robert Vischer at the end of the 19th century to refer to the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. We are surely talking about something extremely difficult to manage. Reconsider the way we approach our lives, freeze our innate attitude for judgment in order to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and experience others’ states of mind.

So, the question is…

If we realise we’re overwhelmed by the culture of efficiency and stuck in the invisible mechanism of expectations, what can we do to develop empathy? It may not save the world, but will definitely help to make it a better place. Starting with: if we feel sick, let’s say so. If we are worried, let’s say so. If we are scared and it affects our focus, let’s say so. Let’s give others the chance to develop empathy. If someone already knows how to understand others, experience their difficulties, someone else needs to be driven toward a deeper level of human relationships.

Without empathy and support we can’t be the best-performing version of ourselves. Whatever issue we’re facing, we need to make an effort:

  • Let’s ask for the support we need. Let’s share concerns and feelings. Being less attentive, less present, less performing, will not reduce our value. It won’t make us worse colleagues or mediocre professionals
  • When we are the ones who listen, let’s do so with kindness. Let’s make others feel comfortable in telling us about themselves

Through this mutual exchange, honest and sheer, empathy increases and can make the culture of efficiency more sustainable and more human.

Humanity and empathy were the goals of the #workingwithcancer campaign, launched by Publicis Groupe in January: a cross-industry coalition to erase the stigma of cancer in the workplace.

Working with Cancer asked some of the world’s most influential companies the commitment to building the most open, supportive and recovery-forward work cultures for their employees. It will invite every business, big and small, across the globe to join the movement at Workingwithcancerpledge.com. The platform allows each company to be able to help cancer patients in their organisations.

Publicis’ pledge has been amplified by the campaign Work/Life, that shows what cancer patients experience when they hide their condition from their colleagues. I’m proud to be part of a group that makes kindness and empathy two landmarks of their beliefs.

Featured image: Kerwin Elias / Unsplash

Claudia Olivieri, Account Director, Leo Burnett Italy

Claudia is a digital marketing and communication specialist with a strong user's centric approach. The first question a marketer should keep in mind is 'who are we designing for?' Her daily mission is to make clients happy. In her free time, you can find her walking in the nature, AirPods on listening to podcasts

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