Masking at work; it’s a big concept to unpack, but if we start with the definition and energy of the word “masking” we might be able to travel quickly to the heart of this trauma-based behavior at work. Let’s start here –
- Cover or partial cover for the face used for disguise
- A grotesque false face worn at carnivals or in rituals
- Something that conceals from view
Now consider this –
Neurodivergent Masking: For many neurodivergent people, masking is a survival tool for engaging in neurotypical societies and organizations. Masking (also called camouflaging) is the artificial performance of social behaviors deemed more “socially acceptable” in a neurotypical culture.
And finally, when we look into the Latin root meaning of the word mask, we find the truth:
A false face
There are professional expectations and boundaries at work for good reasons. There is a specific way that humans in our society show up, function and implement in our professional lives. In fact, there are lots of policies, handbooks and rules about work: what to wear, what to say, how to say it and how to act. There is an expectation for people to be “professional” so we can all get work done and go home to be ourselves. Is this working for everyone at our workplaces? I don’t think so, as masking runs rampant and it’s stressing us all out.
I’m grateful some workplaces are starting to see the high level of stress it causes a human being to have to act, preform or fake being something they are in one place, but not another (home vs. work).
The professional environment can require a certain type of behavior, and if a person can’t do that behavior they need to choose between quitting the job (or have the company release them form the job), or change/modify/accommodate their behavior so they can match the expectations of professionalism or, if they work for a great company have a discussion with their supervisor about what could change.
These options can be very uncomfortable. Especially if you are neurodiverse and are having some issues with social processing, conversation skills, organization or a myriad of other challenges neurodiverse humans have at work. So, to overcome some of these challenges, we mask.
Masking is a trauma response.
A trauma response is participating in a behavior that you think will keep you from further traumatization, in this case, at work.
Masking is when a person creates a persona that is not their own, but is laid over top of their own truth in order to complete a goal. In the professional world that goal could be money, power, status or SIMPLY TO GET THROUGH THE DAY.
Consider this example: a networking event or conference. You know the feeling of always having to be “on” at these things? Of having to act more outgoing/friendly/excited/exaggerated than you normally would? Or laughing at jokes you don’t find funny, that are told by people you normally wouldn’t spend time with? Maybe you also stay out later and make a point of not missing a single thing on the schedule, so you don’t miss out on any opportunities to network.
We hide parts of ourselves – like, how cranky we are being a non-morning person surrounded by colleagues at a 7am breakfast. And we exaggerate other parts, or mimic other people to fit in – a joke may not be funny, but we laugh at it anyway.
And when it’s done, you’re exhausted. Drained. All peopled out. In need of time to rest and recharge before heading back to the office on Monday. Even the most outgoing and people-oriented among us feel this way. Because being “on” is essentially masking.
Now imagine feeling the need to be at that level of “on” every single day at work. There can never be enough time to rest and recharge when that’s the baseline you feel you have to show up at.
One of my favorite things to say about neurodiversity is: Insides don’t always match outsides.
The outside is a mask, a fake persona to be who society wants us to be at work or to keep from further bad things happening to us at work. I assume that on some level all people mask at work. All humans sometimes modify who they are to get things done. But when this type of “masking” or “faking just to get through the day” become chronic it also becomes incredibly exhausting, confusing and anxiety provoking. The pressure on the brain and nervous system to constantly “act” in a way that is not authentic is devastating to the human form – so people quit their jobs, they get let go and they feel defeated at work.
Masking becomes “necessary” when we cannot be ourselves and when we do not have the tools and maps to navigate our differences with the concept of professionalism. Masking is damaging because it asks me to be something I am not.
So how do we KNOW if our colleagues are masking? Some of them are really good at it!
It’s true that we can’t go running about the office asking people if they are currently masking, faking and hurting. People need to have space to disclose their challenges and co-create safe solutions.
We can start to have a more vulnerable conversation.
Start by admitting this: there ARE neurodivergent people at your workplace. I promise. Some of them will have disclosed this and other will not have told anyone and still others are neurodiverse and undiagnosed. Many others are living with neurodivergent family members or supporting them. So, start talking.
Start learning about neurodiversity and what it means to have different professional needs. Start asking in anonymous surveys (or another internal feedback measure) about practices in your workspace to find out if people need modifications in their:
- Environments (can there be an area of the office with low lighting? Can people work from another environment than an office? Can people have their earbuds in as long as they are productive? Can the office be a scent free environment? Etc.)
- Communication (do you need to have a VISUAL of how the copier is fixed when it gets a jam, or is it just written words? How does each person on your team communicate best? Is it possible to have a designated “quiet conversation” area for people who need to step out of a busy environment to have a conversation and focus? Etc.)
- Relationships (can supervisors be checking in with people 1:1 if they have additional needs at work the company could help support? Do your colleagues have opportunity to get to know each other and support each other? How do you support healthy relationships at work?)
- Processes (can internal processes be modified to allow for different working and learning styles? Adding more visuals, check ins, checklists, mentoring and feedback?)
When your employees and co-workers are masking to satisfy the tenets of professionalism for the sake of nothing more that how the company looks, they are not giving you their best. They are using some of their energy to work for you and your company, and MOST of their energy to make it look like they are doing that work “right”. The perception we are asking people to maintain is breaking them. All for the goal of image.
An employee who is masking is NOT working in their HIGHEST POTENTIAL. Get curious about how you can empower people to best work “mask-off”, as themselves. Intentionally co-create workspaces that allow for creativity and the power of different brains and we will see the masks drop away. We will start to witness the authenticity of our colleagues and the brilliance they bring to the task.
Let’s work in the spirit of truth – no more false faces. It starts with each of us now, taking of the mask first to allow others the space the permission to do the same. The new movement at work is to generate productive safety in our teams so we can all be who we are, ask questions, learn new ways of being and doing, innovate; and all of this – as ourselves.