Often a casual dress policy makes clothing decisions harder, not easier. Photo: Shutterstock

Friday 22nd July 2016

Casual stress

Is casual workwear wearing us down?

Casual dress is, like, the best thing at work ever, right? It’s a chance to shed layers when the weather’s warm. It’s usually a tonne cheaper than formal wear. And as well-being buffs will happily tell you, it’s a chance to share your true character in the office – to bring your whole self to work, as it were.

Put in the vernacular, it’s a way of saying to the world that yes, you might be working for the man, but even though he owns your time he sure as heck doesn’t own your soul.

Well, perhaps. But equally, perhaps not. A recent survey has pointed out that a sizeable minority of British workers love casual dress about as much as Donald Trump loves piñatas. That is, not much.

The survey, carried out by office stationery suppliers Viking (Blu Tack Economy size just 99p, while stocks last!) reveals that one in ten workers are unhappy with their workplace attire. Specifically, 52% of female office workers feel pressured into buying new work clothes just to ‘keep up appearances’. (The survey also suggests that almost a quarter of women spend £600 a year on clothes just for work, no small proportion of the average wage.)

When asked why they felt the need to buy new clothing, the majority said they felt their fellow colleagues would ‘judge them for not rejuvenating their wardrobe’.

Of the 52% mentioned above, 42% feared female colleagues would judge their clothes and 41% feared the same of male colleagues. Which sounds to us like a move toward gender equality in the workplace, but not in a good way.

Women scrutinised

Other issues thrown up by the study include: those wearing ‘smart-casual’ attire are most worried about their boss judging their appearance; and women are more likely to be scrutinised than men in smart-casual, casual and uniformed workplaces.

Zuckerberg: lacking confidence?
Zuckerberg: lacking confidence?

The study also claims a clear link between formal clothing and employee confidence. 70% of people who wear business formal clothing feel confident at work, compared to 55% of those who wear smart-casual attire, 45% who wear casual clothing and 35% for uniformed workers.

(If those in uniform feel low in confidence, you have to wonder if that’s a desirable state in some uniformed job roles. In the services and in process-based manufacturing, for example, orders generally have to be followed instinctively and without objection. Some forms of ‘confidence’ might inhibit that.)

But the downsides aren’t just stress and insecurity: arguably, there’s a case for saying casual dress harms productivity too.

On Forbes, Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and a fashion psychologist (wonder if she’s ever diagnosed someone as wearing a bi-polar neck?) suggests that dressing casually can cause employees to be less focused and alert.

‘When we put on an item of clothing it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment,’ opines Pine. ‘A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it’s ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear’, so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.’

Well, Pine might be right. Casual dress might not be all it’s cracked up to be. But the workplace would be a much less interesting landscape without it. You’d miss the woman who dresses like it’s still the 1980s; the guy whose only concession is short sleeves on his suit shirt; and if you’re really unlucky, this individual, mentioned on Fashionista:

During the warmer months, we once had an intern come to work in a super-short romper, which was questionable, but mostly fine — until she sat down to organize samples and it was very clear she had no underwear on. We ended up having to send her home early because it was so apparent and uncomfortable.




About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.