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Masking Your Feelings at Work and the Toll it Takes

Medically Reviewed by Patti van Eys, Ph.D.

Jack-o-lanterns, costumes, candy, masks–everything Halloween is here in all of its ghostly, witchy and pumpkin-spicy glory! It’s a time of spooky celebrations and way too many sweets, but the masks we put on once a year come off when trick-or-treating ends. For some, the masks are worn 24/7, 365 days a year…and it takes its toll.

Masking our feelings at work was once seen as professional, considered proper protocol during a time when work and home life did not coexist. Now companies recognize that employees are whole people, with lives both in and out of the office–even, in some cases, actually in the home with remote jobs or home offices on the rise since even before the pandemic and projected well into the future. Yet, the social pressure remains to act “professional” and project ourselves as perfect, cheerful, positive and unfazed by whatever is going on in the outside world or at home. Those masks are hard to remove and they hide something vital to our wellbeing.

“Masked” or “Smiling Depression” isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but the persistent attempts to cover up feelings of hopelessness, profound sadness or loss can adversely affect those who are trying to pretend that everything is fine in a desperate attempt to disguise or dissuade negative perceptions. In 2019-2020, over 50 million Americans experienced some form of mental illness. The energy and ability to hide these effects from work colleagues often results in increased suffering and difficulty recognizing what might otherwise be obvious signs of depression.

Some signs of “masked depression” can be:
  • Less communication overall, but still keeping a cordial or friendly demeanor
  • Displaying a “stiff upper lip”
  • Retreating from others
  • Keeping conversations superficial
  • A false chipperness even in the face of disappointment or upset

What’s important to know is that this mental illness is treatable with various therapies, medications and lifestyle changes. However, someone who is unwilling to let down their walls enough to come out from behind the mask might make diagnosis more difficult. The best way to help someone who wears a smile to cover up their inner pain or suffering is to be approachable and open to the topic of mental health. Normalizing the conversation and, if appropriate, offering both emotional and practical support is often the key to gaining trust and acceptance.

Helpful steps might include:
  • Kindly checking in when noticing a colleague’s change in behavior
  • Opening up about the topic of mental health in conversation
  • Being approachable and willing to listen
  • Offering information and resources available in the workplace
  • Creating opportunities for connection such as regular meetups, walks, talks or exercise as partners or in groups

While we all put on our best “game face” and force a smile we don’t necessarily feel from time to time, it is when we are too afraid of seeming weak or feeling embarrassed about our emotions or guilty of being imperfect in the workplace that the smiles become painful; the pretense becomes exhausting. The mask may hide more than our vulnerabilities, but also our true selves. Over time, “masking” can create a mental health crisis.

We shouldn’t have to go door to door and smile pretty in order to enjoy ourselves and our work. Being honest with our feelings, proactive with our self-care and having a willingness to be our whole selves while at work can ease the pressure of “perfect” and allow the masks to come off. It’s important to have a culture of psychological safety for employees to feel free to bring their authentic selves to work.

With patience and a willingness to receive help without the fear of judgment or stigma in the workplace, we can take off the masks and discover that honest self-expression is the real treat.

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