Being a Whole Human

Earlier this week, project management software company Basecamp caused quite a stir when it publicly announced policy changes, one of which was “No more societal and political discussions at work.” One of the co-founders later followed up with more detail, writing that it was “a return to whole minds that can focus fully on the work we choose to do.”

I already wrote a reaction, taking an exception to the idea that work and societal issues (“politics”) can be separated. But I want to further expand on the message that “We come to work only to do work and need to focus on that.”

What struck me about Basecamp’s policy changes is the message that work and personal lives should remain separate. Of course, it was couched in only being about politics, but the reality is that work and life are intertwined. Any number of things could be a “distraction at work.” Parents who are juggling their children. People who have cancer. People grieving the loss of a loved one.

Back in 2016 after Iris died, I was a mess. Nelle’s death less than 6 months earlier had already left me in shambles so having a second baby die in such a short time flattened me. I took several weeks off of work and when I returned, I felt like a shell of the person I once was.

I was collaborating with a colleague on my company’s large annual conference. I wasn’t anywhere near my best work, and in truth what I was contributing was barely passable. After a lapse in communication on my part led to a misunderstanding, I asked for some compassion since I was not 100%. The response I received was that my grief was “irrelevant” to work.

In case I wasn’t already suffering, this callous comment devastated me further. I realized that I could not make people care about my grief. I had opened up and made myself vulnerable… and in return was trampled.

My grief support group often talked about when and how we share the stories of our babies. The group leader often reminded us: “It is about what makes you comfortable not the other person.” We are the ones who have to live with our losses every day. It’s not our jobs to make other people comfortable if it forces us to sit with discomfort.

While Basecamp may think that they have drawn a line in the sand by banning “politics” at work, the truth is that the line is very gray. For example, on January 6th this year, as I watched the insurrection unfold at the Capitol, I abandoned all work for the day. I was horrified. I thought that I was watching the death of democracy. Is that a political issue? Or is that a historic moment, like 09/11 or the shooting at Columbine (both of which I also watched unfold live). These events can be emotionally distressing. Some current events, political issues, and social issues are so profound that they invoke a strong emotional response, one that cannot possibly be compartmentalized as “not for work.”

Even setting current events aside… Should employees not correct colleagues that use the wrong gender pronouns? Can employees not advocate for paid parental leave because that is a “political” issue? If a mass shooting occurs in the city where an employee lives, does that have to be ignored since it brings up gun violence? And do employees have to remain silent on support for paid bereavement leave because it is part of a policy that Joe Biden has introduced?

To say “we come to work only to do work” ignores that life impacts work. They’re intertwined. It is impossible to separate and say “these life topics are ok to discuss at work, but others aren’t.”

I shared how this line is blurry on LinkedIn, sharing the story of the unfeeling response from my colleague. When I shared the story, I only said “I had a stillborn baby girl.” I didn’t get into the details of losing two baby girls. I have learned over the years to accept that sometimes the story is more powerful in fewer words. I know that the comment came after losing Iris, not Nelle. But I also recognized that giving more detail would not help me talk about how work and personal lives are intertwined. I can read the words “my stillborn baby girl” and know in my head that I mean “my two girls.”

It was yet another vulnerable moment, this time sharing my story with a much larger audience, and one that tends to be focused on “work” achievements and issues. But it was important to me to bring to light how interconnected work and personal lives are. We can’t just leave “personal” at home, and we can’t say that political and social issues aren’t personal.

One comment I received as a response was very on-point. The statement was that it’s important to be a “whole human” at work. Asking people to put personal issues aside because it makes other people uncomfortable is asking them to be less than they are.