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The impact strict dress codes have on mental health

According to a psychology professor, the disadvantages of enforcing strict dress codes far outweigh any possible benefits.
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The nation is divided when it comes to the importance of dress codes. On the one hand, it highlights a cohesive and professional team that in turn portrays the company’s identity. In contrast is the belief that more casual attire boosts confidence and productivity, not to mention job satisfaction.

Whatever your thoughts on the matter, make sure you don’t go the way of Goldilocks by first trying the porridge that’s too hot – in this case, inflicting policy that’s too strict. That’s because it can have an impact on the mental health of staff.

The revelation is courtesy of psychology professor Cary Cooper, following a study claiming 79 per cent of the UK workforce was subject to some form of dress code.

Style Compare, which quizzed 2,000 people, found though that 20 per cent of 18-24-year-olds would avoid applying for a company with strict policy. Some one in ten people also cited it as the reason they wanted to quit their jobs – more so the case for women than men.

Of course, many resent being told how to dress. Jonny Challenger, founder of Style Compare, goes so far as to say entire industries are alienating people due to outdated notions of what is appropriate for work.

He said: “The big problem is that we’re afraid to challenge the definition of what ‘smart’ actually is.”

As Cooper explained, however, it doesn’t merely evoke a mental revolt – it impacts mental health too. To many it suggests a lack of trust, which can prove frustrating, and forces people to conform to a definition of “smart” they don’t necessarily buy into. 

“Office dress codes can and often do discriminate against women, men, disabled people and gender nonconforming people,” Cooper explained. “They cause anxiety, discomfort and ultimately – as the research by Style Compare suggests – make people want to leave their job. All of this for negligible, if any, benefit to the employer.

“Strict policies have only persisted so far due to the attitudes of senior leadership, who grew up with the idea that wearing a suit and tie to work was the only way. There’s scant evidence that dress codes have a positive impact on wellbeing, productivity or perceptions of an organisation.

“If dress codes did have a meaningful impact on productivity, why sacrifice productivity 20 per cent of the year with dress down Friday? Organisations should trust people to dress how they please. If someone is smart enough to do the job, they’re most likely smart enough to dress appropriately without being told what to wear.”

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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