Science says keeping 'secrets' can destroy your productivity at work

You’d be hard pressed to find a career expert who says you should go around blabbing to all your coworkers about your romantic life.

But new research suggests that if you’ve got a preoccupying personal secret — say, you’re cheating on your partner — it can interfere with your professional performance.

That’s because you spend so much time and effort trying to keep the information private that you can’t devote enough attention to your job.

The studies were led by Columbia Business School’s Michael Slepian, Ph.D. Researchers asked some participants to think of a secret that they thought about often and that really bothered them (preoccupying); others were instructed to think of a secret that they didn’t think about often and that they felt OK about (non-preoccupying).

Participants were then asked to judge the steepness of a hill. Turns out, those that thought about preoccupying secrets viewed the hill as much steeper than those who thought about non-preoccupying secrets.

The researchers say this is because the first group was “weighed down” by their secrets in the same way they would be weighed down by a physical burden. And because they had to expend so much effort “carrying” their secret, they would have less energy to expend on climbing the hill.

The research has some important implications for keeping secrets in the workplace. When you’ve got a preoccupying secret — whether that’s infidelity, financial troubles, or a mental health issue — you allocate your cognitive resources to keeping that information safe. So you have less attention available for work tasks, and therefore perceive them as more difficult.

“Sometimes people feel like the right thing to do is to keep the secret,” Slepian said in a release. “But by doing that, you may set yourself up for negative consequences.”

Perhaps the best way to keep a personal secret from interfering with your performance at work is to disclose it. Ideally, you’d be able to discuss the situation with someone trustworthy, such as a colleague in another department. If not, Slepian recommends posting on an online forum or even simply writing it down in a journal.

Once you relieve yourself of that psychological burden by processing it and learning how to cope with it, Slepian says you can regain your focus and productivity.

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