Being authentically me at work

Karishma Bolakee
Karishma Bolakee

Employer Engagement Officer, Mind's Mental Health at Work team

We know our identity, and how we relate to it, can have a big impact on our mental wellbeing. Here, Karishma Bolakee from our own Mental Health at Work team shares her experiences of being a British Mauritian and the impact that has had on her working life, and some top tips for making your workplace welcoming for everyone.


The meaning of assimilation is defined as, “The absorption of a minority group into a majority population, during which the group takes on the values and norms of the dominant culture.”.

The concept never really hit me until my 30s as I dealt with my anxieties and why it had increased in my life.

The more we assimilate the more we reject our true selves

When we join groups or environments different to what we have always known – especially ones that disregard inclusivity – unconscious survival instincts can kick in. Many people from marginalised backgrounds​Mental health and race at work Web page The City Mental Health Alliance has created a variety of resources that aim to increase the business community's understanding of race and mental health in the workplace.Free By: City Mental Health Alliance View resource who enter these environments can start to change the very things that made them authentically them – the working-class accent, their religion, the non-Anglican name – the list goes on. We don’t do it because we’re weak and yes, we do have a choice to not go to the pub after work but we’re all too aware that the less we conform the less we feel accepted. However, the more we assimilate the more we reject our true selves.

I look back at my time working in film, TV and live broadcasting and recognise how unconsciously I gave myself kudos for every time I seemed to fit in with my white middle class comrades and the hip ‘media culture’, both in and out of the workplace.

Two women discuss work by a large window.

In many creative workplaces, there is always a strange desperation to be doing cool things, mixed in with an unhealthy co-dependency on the social connections everyone had to offer, whether you respected each other or not. It was not a place for a quiet Mauritian girl who likes being at home, cooking with the family.

Apparently, that made me ‘sheltered’ or was something to overcome. Thus, like many others in the non-white community, I started to adopt ways of living that weren’t really me but made me more palatable to the crowd around me.

No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t fit in

It must be said that I have always had a sense of self and I’m incredibly proud of my Mauritian and working-class roots. I just felt like I was constantly fighting to be accepted as I was. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t fit in. The microaggressions and judgements​Things not to say series – racism Playlist or series The "Things not to say" series from BBC Three features people discussing their own experiences of everyday prejudices, but in a funny, accessible way. This playlist brings together videos focused on racism.Free By: BBC Three View resource from colleagues, friends and bosses about the way I lived my life and what I did and didn’t do, increased a feeling of not belonging. “Is there something different about me?”

Have you ever pondered on the long-term consequences of assimilation? What the distancing from your identity does to your wellbeing?

A man wearing a bow-tie, deep in thought.

When someone goes through constant rejection in the form of not being included as part of the work team; subtle comments about the way they live or the things they do, the exclusion piles up and finally overflows into a pool of low self-esteem and trauma.

However, from those moments can rise a renewed sense of self, power and respect. I left workplaces, friends and industries to find people and teams who loved me for everything that I was and who gave me the space to flourish without the fear of judgement. It’s been a journey!

How do we see people as they are, and not what we think they should be?

In a forever connected world, employers and staff have a responsibility to make sure everyone feels accepted and valued. What can we do to truly integrate everyone in the workplace and create an open and non-judgmental space?

1. Be curious and have compassion.

When we work on ourselves, this radiates into the workplace and vice versa. Question if your friendships/circles follow an unconscious bias​How to have difficult conversations about race at work Web page This web page and PDF guide from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) offers a detailed step-by-step process that you can use as a template for starting conversations about race in your workplace.Free By: CIPD View resource and if so, why might this be? When you judge someone different to you, where does this come from? How do we see people as they are and not what we think they should be and what does this look like in (workplace) interactions?

2. Create or join networks

Join the list of networks​St Mungo’s Diversity Networks PDF Networks are a great way of connecting staff who have similar experiences and backgrounds. At St Mungo's, there are several different groups offering support and advice.Free By: St Mungo’s View resource (multi-ethnic, disability etc) available in your workplace or create one. Integrating different ways of thinking and being will enrich your life.

3. Go back to your roots.

This one is for the employees struggling with their identity! I always go back to my roots to feel a sense of self. Tapping into the history of how you got here, taking part in rituals and traditions you may have been distant from, to develop a sense of pride in who you truly are. You carry your ancestry wherever you go and connecting with this can be revelatory.

Two girls pose by a brightly painted wall.

4. Accept that people learn differently and nurture their talents!

Assimilation crosses over into neurodivergency too. There are many instances where workers will mask their neurodivergent traits, either because they’re afraid of judgement or because it’s an office environment that suits the neurotypical. It takes a lot of mental power to try and process information in one way, when your learning style is another. As a consequence, a worker or freelancer can become side-lined or not invited back because they’re seen as ‘slow’ or they don’t ‘fit in’.

Managers must understand that employees learn in different ways, but also need be given an opportunity to learn from mistakes. People can’t develop their talents if they are being set up to fail – so remember that people can get better if they’re given feedback and taught with the right adjustments for them.

Ensure that people are safe to be their authentic selves

The reality is that there are people from the global majority who have rejected a part of themselves trying to fit into a workplace and the friendships that grow from of them.

Assimilation can’t be integration if people are expected to change their core to fit in. How can we be a rich and multi-faceted society if we’re all expected to live in the same way?

Having a healthy and embracing support network in and out of the workplace ensures that people are safe to be their authentic selves. In return, we work more productively and contribute to a more innovative and dynamic workplace.

About this website

Your guide to mental health at work

Whether you work with 10 people, 10,000 people or just yourself, paying attention to mental health in the workplace has never been more important.

Find out more