Building Vulnerability in the Workplace

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Having a diverse workforce means holding space for people to be vulnerable. If we want people to have supportive places to work to bring their entire selves, we need to build and maintain space for vulnerability. It doesn’t just happen because we’d like it to. This goes hand in hand with the work companies need to do to help attract and keep a diverse workforce. Training, support, gathering feedback from current and prospective staff, and generally looking at policies and procedures to see what’s working and what’s not ar call things that can help build that supportive, open environment.

I was on a panel talking about diverse candidates at Manchester Tech Festival last week, and we were discussing people disclosing a mental illness, or an invisible disability, or that they’re neurodiverse, etc, and what advice we’d give to people. The advice also touched on what companies and organisations need to keep in mind when it comes to staff disclosing something like this.

A photo of the Advice for Diverse Candidates panel at Manchester Tech Festival. I’m the one second from the left, wearing pink Dr Martens

Advice for disclosing an invisible condition in the workplace

The advice I’d give someone wanting to disclose at work is this: first of all, know why you want to disclose. Do you need accommodations? Is it affecting your work and you want to get ahead of it? Do you want to share your experiences? This will help you navigate the conversation, because you’ll have a purpose or a talking point to go in with.

Know that you don’t have to always disclose. If you want to that’s great, but you don’t have to, unless you need an accommodation that might need engagement with occupational health or a more formal process.

Get your support network in place. Even when these conversations go perfectly, that vulnerability can still be tiring, or affect you in surprising ways. Make sure you have space to process.

Advice for companies wanting to support a disclosing employee

For companies, my advice goes something like this: When a staff member discloses something like a mental illness, or some other invisible disability or difference, they’re being incredibly vulnerable. Even if the workplace is a safe space, and their line manager is supportive, there is an unavoidable power imbalance between employer and employee, and so anything that could disrupt that can feel scary.

Vulnerability needs to be earned, by being vulnerable yourself, and showing you can honour vulnerability. There a few ways you can do this, or set this environment up. Things like ERGs, or DEI initiatives can show that you’re aware of issues and want to empower employees to build support networks to help make the workplace more diverse. If leadership can be vulnerable, this shows that they are safe people to talk to about things, especially if leaders share similar experiences to staff.

You leadership team and line managers will need support. Whether that’s on the logistical side of setting up accommodations, or with figuring out boundaries and duty of care to employees vs company needs, or just help processing what they’ve been told, a clear support system is needed.

It’s always best to have these things in place before they are needed, but it’s also never too late to figure out how you want to support leadership in these conversations.

Do you have policies or processes in place for accommodations for neurodiversity, mental ill-health, or disability? Do you have any examples of accommodations you offer already to help guide these conversations? While the person asking for an accommodation will have the best insight into what they need, a lot of time people won’t know what a company can do for them, so providing a list of examples can help provide a framework.

This is sustained work. It’s not a one and done thing. While a lot of this environment can be self-sustaining (one you start building the environment, and hiring for this kind of environment, you’ll find that these conversations and processes will continue), you still need to check in and nudge where needed. Talk to staff regularly, have a working group, put out a survey. Then make changes: get in training, reaffirm what you’re building and why, etc.

Having a workplace where people can share their whole selves, if they want to, and can be vulnerable can be an amazing strength in a workplace. It can build stronger connections, and improve psychological safety. But companies and leaders need to put in effort to build and maintain this environment.

Like what you’ve read? You can read more on workplace wellness initiatives over on linkedin here and if you want to see how I can help you build vulnerability at your workplace, drop me a line or book a free 30min chat

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