No, that isn’t a typo. Today, we’re talking about a relatively new term in the professional lexicon: Pleasanteeism. You’ve heard of absenteeism. But this new phenomenon is tripping up HR and management’s efforts to support employee wellbeing by stymieing honest communication. But what is pleasanteeism, and why should you know about it?

Pleasanteeism may be a recently coined term. But it’s quite fitting for a time when employers are being pushed to prioritize employee wellbeing more than ever. It refers to the pressure that many employees feel to conceal any stress, anxiety or other difficulties.

Employees can feel compelled to do this so they don’t seem disruptive or undependable. Seriously. Despite the fact everyone’s talking about mental health in the workplace in 2021, apparently people still can’t be open about their problems.

What causes pleasanteeism?

The simplest answer is a toxic work environment. In an ideal world, everyone would be comfortable acknowledging their own limitations. They would also be fully aware that their colleagues are people too. But unfortunately, this is often not the case. Especially in high pressure workplaces, people wear things like overtime and job stress like badges of honor.

This directly creates situations when employees don’t want to admit they’re struggling, for fear of being looked down on. In these toxic environments, an employee’s own career ambitions can prevent them from looking after their own wellbeing.

Pleasanteeism and the return to the office

The main reason we’ve decided to talk about pleasanteeism is because of some recent research from the healthcare provider Lime. They published a report, Keeping Up Appearances: How ‘Pleasanteeism’ is Eroding Resilience. It highlights how more than half of UK workers have experienced pleasanteeism at work.

On top of that, 25% of those returning to the office report being concerned about being the best version of themselves when they go back into the office. 19% are worried about their stress being visible to others.

Lately, life has been an onslaught of lockdowns and alarming articles talking about things like infection rates. So it’s understandable that some of your staff might be nervous about coming back post-COVID. But, if it were just fear of COVID that was the issue, that would be one thing.

Coming back into the office is going to be a huge re-adjustment process for a lot of people. Between social isolation and working from home, a lot of us probably feel as though our interpersonal skills have gotten rusty. People are also re-acclimating to their daily commutes, and a hundred other little inconveniences we all got used to doing without.

The return to work is testing employee resilience across the country, and pleasanteeism is only adding to that pressure. That’s why you need to encourage employees to be open about their difficulties. That way, you can keep them resilient and support them as they re-adjust.

The impact of pleasanteeism on mental health

What is pleasanteeism, if not an evil, smiling parasite feeding on our collective mental wellbeing?

Don’t worry, that was rhetorical. There’s absolutely no doubt that pleasanteeism is a blight on everybody’s mental health.

It’s simple. Pleasanteeism doesn’t work for the same reason that putting someone on seven twelve-hour shifts a week is a recipe for diminishing returns. Constant pressure wears people down. And make no mistake, constantly filtering your reactions to hide your true feelings is one of the worst forms of pressure.

Anyone who’s ever seen Pixar’s Inside Out can tell you that bottling up negative emotions only makes them come back stronger. You can push them down again, but eventually, something has to give.

Unfortunately, that something often tends to be a person’s mental wellbeing. If an animated kid’s movie can encapsulate that message, then full-grown managers should be able to comprehend it.

It’s not just mental symptoms like memory loss and self-esteem issues. Suppressing negative emotions can also adversely affect physical health too, as shown by this literature review from 2019.

This supports prior research which found that people who bottle up their emotions are at 30% higher risk of premature death, and 70% increased risk of cancer. On top of that, they’re also more at risk of diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, this just continues the long-running tradition of people not taking poor mental health seriously until it has a quantifiable physical impact, or even results in death.

How to minimize the impact

So, what is pleasanteeism good for?

Absolutely nothing. So, with that in mind, here are some practical tips for overcoming pleasanteeism and minimizing its impact in your workplace:

Make flexibility accessible

One thing that makes re-adjusting to normal working lives is that some things were genuinely improved by being able to work from home. As shown by Buffer’s annual reports, almost 100% of remote workers want to continue with it. Offering remote positions or taking a hybrid approach can help ensure that employees are not only productive, but genuinely content.

Invest in mental health education

General ignorance is one of the biggest reasons that people are prone to ignoring the signs of poor mental health in favour of quick-fix pleasanteeism. The only way around this is by investing in employee education.

You have to ensure that people have access to knowledge resources. That way, you can help them understand their own mental wellbeing, and that of their colleagues. This will ideally prevent employees from ignoring their own issues, while ensuring that people are supportive to one-another.

Encourage self-care and lead by example

Pleasanteeism in your business is a major problem. Employees worry about being judged for prioritizing their own wellbeing. It’s not enough just to encourage people to look after themselves. Unless you lead by example, people may assume that you don’t necessarily mean what you say.

For example, you should make a point of letting yourself leave early every so often. And you should be sure to remind your team that they can do the same.

We could keep listing tips all day, but this article’s long enough as it is. You can do everything you like to try and discourage pleasanteeism. But, in workplaces that treat employees like machines, as long as we don’t realize that everyone has off days, then pleasanteeism will always exist. Overcoming it is about challenging the basic assumptions we make every day about the people around us.