Posted 28 July 2021
Interview by Creative Lives in Progress
Mention Sophia Luu

How to bring your full self to work, by designer Sophia Luu

When designer Sophia Luu added a red drop emoji (🩸) to her Slack status at work, it ended up sparking company-wide conversations. Letting 11,000 of her colleagues know that she was on her period – and later sharing her experience on Linkedin – the response further highlighted questions around transparency at work. From discussing anxiety around mental health and menstruation to chronic pain or low mood, here, Sophia shares her insights on being more open at work, and the benefits we seek to gain from it.

I don’t think a lot of people are prepared for the world of work. And that’s definitely the case for a lot of junior creatives. The culture in a workplace is 100% shaped by the people who were there before you, which means it’s easy to feel like you have to change parts of yourself to fit into the norm of what your workplace is like.

The fear of being seen as ‘lazy’
I’ve had previous experiences where someone would ask: “How was your weekend?”, and I felt like I couldn’t respond honestly. I’d say, “Oh, it was really good. I did a workout, I cooked a meal...” and make my weekend sound as productive as my work days – when, in reality, I sat on my arse all day and watched Glow Up. I think that’s why a lot of social issues remain under discussed; it can be nerve-racking to want to talk about anything that seems outside of the norm – even the most normal thing, like in my case, periods.

A few months ago, I told 11,000 people that I was on my period. It’s normal for me to throw up from pain on my period and I found myself uncontrollably cramping during meetings. I had just come back from being ill, and worried it would look like I was ‘slacking’.

I didn’t feel comfortable starting this conversation in the team room, so I used a red drop emoji (🩸) and set it as my Slack status. It was my way of saying “I’m in pain, please be mindful and recognise that I might not have the energy to deal with some tasks.” It ended up sparking many conversations across the company, with some colleagues expressing they too had the same experience, some who were unsure about the approach, and others who didn’t have periods wanting to know how best to support.

“Openness at work – from answering what you did at the weekend, to feeling like your voice matters – comes from feeling like you are supported.”

I’ve been in other situations where I expressed concerns about my mental health only to then be taken off a project without my consent because I said I might need to leave earlier to go to counselling. At other times, I’ve had senior colleagues be racially insensitive towards me. Whether in social environments like Christmas parties or in normal work environments: if I’m already feeling that my concerns aren’t going to be addressed, then why would I feel comfortable being myself at work?

You should feel supported at work

Openness at work – from answering what you did at the weekend, to feeling like your voice matters in a team room – comes from feeling like you are supported. This is more than just learning not to cover up moments when you’re struggling, though; it’s also the duty of your workplace to create an environment where you feel like you can disclose where you’re struggling.

And it’s in their best interests, too. From my own experience, particularly as a designer, opening up conversation and awareness in the workplace helps you to design better products and services – because people feel like they can be themselves. Happier teams work better together, have a higher chance of approaching problems from diverse perspectives and ultimately create environments where everyone can feel comfortable and enjoys going to work.

With that in mind, here are some top pointers to help you bring your full self to work:

Tips on bringing your full self to work

🤔 What does it mean to bring your full self to work?

‘Bringing your full self’ means feeling just as comfortable being yourself among work colleagues as you would around friends and family. It doesn’t mean that you need to tell everyone everything about your life – just that you feel comfortable enough to tell people things which might affect the way you work, and how you feel in a work environment.

While some people are more comfortable doing this than others, it’s about creating a workplace culture where everyone feels heard and understood. Some examples:

• Feeling comfortable enough to tell your colleagues that you are on your period if it is affecting your day.
• Speaking in a way you would normally speak at home around your colleagues.
• Feeling as though you can go to pray without needing to explain yourself or remind others.
• Not feeling pressure to be ‘high energy’ and happy all of the time.

👋 Be more honest about your weekend

Try writing down everything you did on Saturday. Be completely honest and include every detail. Then cross out the things you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling your colleagues. Ask yourself: why is it that you feel uncomfortable telling people this? Is it because you don’t want to burden others, or is it because you are worried about how others will perceive you?

Then challenge your assumptions. Reach out to colleagues or team members and discuss if there are ever situations where it is acceptable to tell your colleagues everything that happened in your weekend. Will it affect the way you perform normally?

🏁 Request a kickoff

At the start of every project, organise a kickoff meeting. As well as talking about the logistics of the project, have everyone introduce themselves and how you can support each other. It’s important to remember that if you are someone who’s got the privilege of not having felt this way in your workplace, you have a duty to support the people who are struggling.

In the past, I’ve worked with people who are carers and have needed more flexible deadlines incase the person they’re caring for needs to go to hospital. I’ve worked with people who were struggling with their mental health because they had a parent in hospital and wanted to make sure they could speak to their family at a certain time, and then catch up on work in the evening. Everyone has their own limits.

💬 Understand what support is available

It’s important that you find out where a company can support you. Some businesses offer employees or freelancers access to free counselling or mental health support, for example. It's worth noting that a lot of companies aren’t so good at explaining how they’ve supported people in the past, so you might have to do some digging.


Interview by Creative Lives in Progress
Mention Sophia Luu