Imposter syndrome and work – it’s not a ‘you’ problem

A McPin senior researcher discusses how imposter syndrome is related to discrimination in employment systems, and how peer support and lived experience could counteract it

Photo by Shiva Smyth from Pexels

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon associated with deep sense of self-doubt. Feeling like an outsider in a group, thinking you’re not smart enough and anticipating failure are common symptoms.

Imposter syndrome can be crippling but it is also incredibly common. My research at McPin has shown that it affects job seekers and employees affected by mental distress. The term ‘syndrome’ suggests medical origins like a disease or disorder, but I would argue that the causes of imposter syndrome are societal.

‘I often felt the fault for unemployment was my own’

Having experienced long periods of unemployment living with mental illness, I often felt the fault for unemployment was my own. Interviews were where I usually failed. Then I learnt I am autistic and this changed my perspective.

Autism affects how I process information, cognitively and socially, including how I react to and interpret social interactions. It also explains why I found interviews so hard. The standardised, artificial social scenarios set out by companies to examine how I work in a team or respond to a challenge are ill fitting for neurodivergent brains.

When I finally secured work, I accessed additional support through a government scheme called ‘Access to Work’, specifically designed for people with a disability or long term physical and/or mental health condition. 

I received coaching and software to support me. However, an underlying assumption for this support is the need to fix; to provide ‘reasonable adjustments’ so the disabled person can perform on a par with colleagues that don’t have a disability. And the person receiving the support has little say in what determines a reasonable adjustment.

I believe these are subtle forms of discrimination that feed into imposter syndrome. For me, it compounded things – I felt dumb, and again like the problem was my own.

Changing the narrative around unseen disabilities

I don’t think it should be this way. The employment system needs to change how it thinks about disabilities that cannot readily be seen. The narrative needs to change from fixing something broken to recognising and supporting the strengths and value that neurodiversity brings to the workplace.

I have found a similar narrative in the research I do, most recently on employment and mental health. There is a link between discrimination and one’s personal sense of responsibility when it comes to mental health and employment.

I have spoken to people who fear that disclosure of their mental health issues in a job role will result in a penalty, so they opt to suffer in silence. I have heard employment advisors speak about agencies refusing to take on people who have six month gaps in their career history. Gaps are considered ‘red flags’ to potential employers.

I have spoken to qualified, intelligent, motivated graduates begrudgingly signing on for Jobseeker’s Allowance because they cannot afford to take on unpaid internships or they do not have access to the social capital needed to access such opportunities. This often results in job offers that do not match the time and investment they have made into their own education.

I have also spoken to employees from various ethnic backgrounds that describe workplace bullying being accepted as banter, as part of acceptable office culture. Others spoke about the lack of role models that are like them perpetuating feelings of being an outsider and not belonging. Perpetuating imposter syndrome.

The role of peer support for employment

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I have witnessed pockets of hope in my career and these are echoed in my work. Peer support and working from a lived experience perspective can help fight feelings of imposter syndrome and the impact of discrimination.

One example is the Peer Support Employment Groups (PSEG) project I have worked on. Here peer support groups ran alongside one-to-one employment support in local Mind organisations across five London boroughs.

Peer support offers the opportunity to be oneself, warts and all. A common phrases peers use in praise of peer support is, “You are not alone”. This phrase blows the lid on one of the things that keeps imposter syndrome alive: silent suffering.

The PSEG project demonstrated how sharing between people in similar situations helps to allay fears associated with mental health. People in the groups shared stories of previous workplace discrimination and how to manage mental health disclosure in a work context. This sharing around stigmatising topics that may not get aired in other spaces nurtured a sense of camaraderie.

Working from a lived experience perspective

Many employment advisors on the PSEG project also worked from a lived experience perspective, centring the person seeking work rather than the job. Working from this perspective can make the journey into work more rewarding for the job seeker.

Relationships adopt a mentorship quality, accommodating needs and preferences. For example, respecting and understanding boundaries around part-time working when living with enduring mental health conditions. Some of these employment advisors had also experienced the pitfalls of unemployment themselves and were able to navigate a system seemingly designed to further marginalise people who have patchy career histories.

Embed lived experience to redefine success

Peer support and employment advisors who really understand mental health distress from the inside out could be important counterweights to imposter syndrome for people seeking work. I would go further and suggest that if we want to change the way employment systems operate, funders of innovative employment schemes should also place people with lived experience on their funding panels.

This would increase the chance that decisions over what constitutes ‘successful progress’ would have human, qualitative elements embedded in them, alongside the more standard, quantitative ones that focus on monetary utility.

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Read more about the Peer Support Employment Groups project on our project page, along with the full evaluation report. An accompanying blog about the project is here.