As it turns out, we might be doing harm to those we tell secrets expecting them to keep. In her article, “Why You Can’t Keep a Secret” (The Atlantic, March 2014 edition), Sarah Yager cites six different studies exploring why it’s so difficult to keep secrets. Very simply, it’s stressful and carries implications for the workplace.
Among other things, secret keepers “performed worse on a spatial-ability task, reacted more rudely to criticism, gave up sooner” and perceived tasks more difficult. More importantly, secret keeping wears the body down including increased colds and chronic diseases. The severity of these effects increased with the secret’s importance. Secrets are stressful too to their originators especially if no one else knows such as personal secrets about sexual orientation.
What makes secrets hard to keep though is that once told most of these problems go away. For example, “teens who confide in a parent or close friend report fewer physical complaints and less delinquent behavior, loneliness, and depression than those who sit on their secrets.” Secret keepers feel better even if they simply write about them.
This isn’t new. It’s similar to the “talking cure” Freud popularized. Yet, vastly improved technology and research methodology have allowed researchers to deepen and reinforce our knowledge, concluding that sharing openly and venting are healthy for employees and for businesses.
For example, a secret could be as simple as employees being afraid to tell managers about problems. This increases employees’ stress, putting them under pressure and increasing the likelihood of improper behavior.
In the end though, the real problem hides as such employees are often reprimanded or terminated, thus categorizing the problem as one with the employee rather than the business culture. In effect, the real problem becomes a secret the company keeps from itself.