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The Dangers of Pleasanteeism

by Ngozi Weller

November 23, 2021

Resilience is an interesting word, and one, I’ll admit, that I’ve spent a long time disliking. You see, resilience for me is the buzzword that accompanied a lot of my own struggles with mental health.

All those times when I powered through instead of taking a break or asking for help. All those times when I’d lose out on a promotion to a colleague (often white, often male) and respond by working harder. In fact, in pretty much every incident in which I was pushing myself towards a breaking point, the word resilience was always there.

 People would look at me, and they’d say, ‘You know what I admire about Ngozi? Her resilience. She powers through. It’s a great work ethic.’

It was meant as a compliment, and I took it as one. I was proud of my resilience. In the corporate ‘work-till-you-drop’ world of the 90s, it meant I was successful, it meant I was going places.

The issue is, when you hear a compliment enough, you begin to stake your worth in it. Resilience became, to my mind, one of my best qualities, and so I didn’t want to let it slide. Therefore, going forward, for every problem I encountered, I just threw more of myself at it.

I didn’t stop, I didn’t ask for help, I powered through. I powered through until I ran out of power. Then I broke down, and to my mind, resilience was to blame.

What I’ve recently come to realise is that this wasn’t the case.

You see, what resilience is at its core is the capacity to recover. It’s getting back up when you’ve been knocked down. Now when I was finding everything very hard, what was damaging me wasn’t the fact that I had to get back up after every hit, because at the end of the day, getting back up is the only tolerable option, and we all have to do it. No, what was actually eroding away at my mental health, was that I was pretending that these hits weren’t knocking me down. I was pretending that I was okay. That I didn’t need a moment. That I didn’t need help.

This isn’t resilience. This is something much more toxic. This is pleasanteeism.

Pleasanteeism is commonly defined as the need to display our best self, show that we’re ‘okay’, regardless of whether we’re stressed, under pressure, or in need of help. This charade is, of course, exhausting to maintain; the stress of keeping up appearances only contributes to the sufferer’s existing worries, whilst the act of pretending to be okay cuts them off from all avenues of support.

On top of this, the phenomenon as a collective whole is doing an awful lot to undermine the efforts currently being made to end stigma and openly discuss mental health in the workplace. Pleasanteeism is hiding the issue; it allows employers to cast a cursory glance over their workforces and judge them to be healthy; it enables them to believe that their current support systems are working. Yet, under the surface, people are drowning.

A new study, commissioned by the health insurance company Lime Group, reveals that just over half (51%) of UK workers feel like they have to put on a brave face for their colleagues, a real consequence of which is that a further 40% feel less resilient now than they did before the pandemic. It’s understandable. Like I said when I discussed my history with mental-ill health, often it isn’t getting back up that drains you; it’s pretending that you haven’t fallen. Putting on a brave face can take it out of you. Pleasanteeism is both exacerbating and hiding the mental health crisis.

And a crisis it remains, let’s not forget that. I know that the last year has seen many companies step up the plate when it comes to acknowledging the impact that the global pandemic had (and is continuing to have) on the working world. Some of these companies have taken steps to combat this tidal wave. A few have done so effectively. The majority, however, have not yet managed to get it right and are now in danger of letting pleasanteeism and pride in their initial efforts stop them from recognising that a lot more work needs to be done. The same Lime Group report that I quoted above also provided updated figures regarding workplace wellbeing. Their investigations reveal that 1 in 4 employees report that they are struggling to cope at work, with a further 1 in 3 reporting that they are struggling to cope in their everyday lives. The mental health crisis is far from over.

If you are a people manager and you or your company is currently in the position of trying to talk about mental health, and you’re receiving nothing but green flags, you need to stop assuming that your current support systems are excellent and start assuming that they are broken. 1 in 4 is a recent and consistent statistic, so if you are looking at your workforce and can’t see mental ill-health represented to this degree, then you’re likely missing the problem. In fact, what you may just be looking at is the dangerous mask of pleasanteeism, so you need to adjust your approach.

At Aurora Wellness, we’ve developed an approach that circumvents the issues posed by pleasanteeism; we call it the Aurora 360°™. Our system begins from the point of effective discovery in which we help companies gain an accurate understanding of the wellbeing of their employees, from the issues they have to the changes they want to see. After progressing through key stages of awareness and empowerment, the Aurora 360°™ closes with a focus on policy and governance, ensuring that sensible stewardship metrics are in place to monitor employee wellbeing effectively. Systems such as the Aurora 360°™ support companies in their promotion of wellbeing, ensuring that the work employers are putting in enacts lasting, institutional change, and that the dangerous pitfall of pleasanteeism is carefully avoided.

To find out more about our Aurora Wellness 360°™, contacts us to book a consultation.

At Aurora Wellness we are all about mental wellbeing & productivity. To discover ways in which you can empower your people and maximise their full potential, contact us for information about our face to face and online mental wellbeing and productivity programmes.

I support HR and people managers with the tools they need to make managing workplace wellbeing for their employees easy.

Ngozi Weller,
Aurora Wellness