In 2016, Nicola Thorp walked into her temporary place of work in formal flats, and was promptly instructed to go home and change into heels. When she refused, she was sent home without pay, but Nicola decided to stand up for what she felt was right, and started a petition regarding heels in the workplace — which garnered more than 150,000 signatures.
Nicola’s stance on office footwear sparked an international uproar and prompted a lot of questions. Should we require women to wear heels to work? Can we morally ask women to wear shoes that compromise their health? How do heels impact our day-to-day work performance? These are critical performance management questions which deserve serious consideration.
Why do we expect women to wear heels to work?
Despite the fact that, as the years go by, fewer women are wearing heels on a daily basis, we still tend to associate heels with formality and smartness. When the average person thinks of a professional-looking woman, chances are they imagine a confident woman wearing a pair of high heels. Similarly, we expect women to have styled hair and carefully applied makeup. If we’re honest with ourselves, we expect far more from women in terms of workplace appearance than we do men.
Some people state that wearing heels is a convention, similar to wearing a tie. However, as we will see below, this comparison falls apart when you consider that wearing heels can have serious effects on your personal health and, therefore, your workplace performance.
How heels can impact physical health
If we genuinely care about employee wellness, we need to consider how wearing heels for eight hours a day impacts employee health.
We have known high heels are bad for our physical health for quite some time. From 1730, there have been accounts of musculoskeletal damage as a result of wearing heels. 150 years later, a leading medical journal actually claimed that forcing female shop assistants to wear heels was “cruelty to women”.
In 2012, the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery reported 14,140 high heel-induced injuries, whilst the American Osteopathic Association has stated that heels can cause tendon damage and bunions. On top of this, women can suffer from plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, metatarsalgia, and Morton’s neuroma. The latter is a condition caused by bones pressing against nerves for a sustained period, resulting in constant pain akin to “walking on bruises and glass particles at the same time”.
Physically, according to the Spine Health Institute, wearing heels forces your lower back to be pushed forward, which takes your body’s hips and spine out of alignment. On top of this, excess pressure is placed on the knees, which could potentially result in the need for corrective surgery. The College of Podiatry states that the average woman can endure wearing high heels for one hour and six minutes before starting to feel considerable pain. When you consider the cost in terms of discomfort and probable absenteeism as a result of these health problems, it begins to put strict dress codes into perspective.
We shouldn’t forget the importance of comfort
If you’re looking to see marked improvements and more enthusiastic employees in your performance management reviews, you should consider the importance of comfort in relation to workplace performance. Do your employees feel awkward or not at ease? If so, this will certainly have an impact on their productivity.
The importance of comfort is something that is prioritized in Sweden. As an example, we can look to Remente, a company that has created an app to improve mental health. Remente’s CEO, David Brudo, went so far as to introduce a no-shoe policy in his Gothenburg offices, stating:
If you can have a relaxing office etiquette it can be very positive for workplace performance and how you experience stress and productivity […] If you’re comfortable, you’re less prone to feel stress and perform better […] In Sweden you always take off your shoes when you get into a home. What happens is doing that communicates to your body and mind that you’re more at home and comfortable, so things get a bit more quiet and relaxed. You see the same benefits in the workplace.
Brudo states that he has seen a positive effect when it comes to office morale, and would encourage other companies to emphasize comfort, suggesting that it would have a notable impact on productivity.
It’s official: heels diminish concentration and productivity levels
If you had to pick between a dress code and an improvement in concentration and productivity, you would probably pick the latter. Research has shown that high heels can certainly impact the wearer’s ability to perform at work, as the constant pain leads to an inability to focus. Furthermore, heels can affect breathing patterns and concentration. The same source suggests that the pain associated with uncomfortable footwear promotes fatigue, compromising workplace productivity.
Heels can get in the way of workplace socializing
Workplace relationships are critical to employee engagement, high morale, and better performance. One source attests that an insistence on heels in the workplace might put employees off leaving the office for lunch with a colleague, due to the associated discomfort. This means that employees will miss out on important team bonding and, more than likely, employees will spend more time at their desk, which leads to frustration and burnout.
Thankfully, times are changing. More companies are becoming flexible with regards to dress codes, and more still are offering remote working opportunities. As we move forward, we need to focus less on what employees should or should not be wearing in the office, and instead concentrate on more pressing matters such as accomplishments and the completion of SMART objectives. This shift of focus will help your company thrive in the years to come.
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About the author:
Stuart Hearn has over 20 years of experience in HR. He is currently CEO of Clear Review — a modern performance management software system that boosts individual, team, and company-wide performance.