According to an old-fashioned take on work life, emotions do not belong in the workplace. We should solely focus on performing our job professionally without any emotional involvement. Nowadays, it’s understood that we come to work as a complete person. Reason cannot be packed into your bag and brought to the office while leaving emotions at home. Being human entails experiencing a range of emotions every day.
That old belief was based on the idea that emotions are not productive. However, emotions do in fact serve various purposes in the workplace. Studies show, for example, that decision-making requires emotions in addition to reason. Listening to your own emotions and observing those of others provides valuable information about situations. Those insights lay the foundation for wise, informed actions.
In a work context, it remains true that emotions can be difficult at times. Some people feel nervous about public speaking and may need assistance in managing their fears. Challenging emotions can also arise from factors such as excessive workload. Continuous pressure to accomplish more than you can normally handle easily leads to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Over time, those emotions can deepen, eventually resulting in numbness and detachment from work. They become detrimental to work productivity and your overall well-being.
Though progress has been made in accepting emotions at work, many of us fear losing control of our emotions. For instance, a completely exhausted colleague may understand the need to have a talk with the supervisor. Potentially crying in front of a supervisor is too embarrassing, though, preventing meaningful discussion. Emotions can be controlled to an extent. Sometimes their expression, such as through tears, helps by emphasising the seriousness of the situation.
Consider people who come to the realisation that their current job is just not suitable for them. This realisation may be preceded by a surge of negative emotions related to certain tasks. In such cases, emotional regulation is more like a painkiller treating just the symptoms. It is necessary to address the root cause of the pain by seeking a new job before more serious health issues develop.
Sometimes, heavy emotions come from personal life. Going to work can serve as a welcome change – a chance to shift one's thoughts away from personal issues. On the other hand, stress may reach a point where coping with emotions becomes challenging no matter where you are.
Social dynamics at the workplace also trigger emotions. They can elicit joy, a sense of belonging, and a shared sense of flow. The same dynamics can spur challenging emotions like irritation, jealousy, and feeling misunderstood or even undermined.
When the social dimension causes discomfort, the primary focus should be on practical measures to streamline collaboration rather than controlling emotions. This may involve clarifying roles and expectations or establishing appropriate workplace behaviour.
Preventing difficult emotions
Many people seek ways to cope with unpleasant emotions, yet prevention is often the easiest approach. We can take actions to reduce the chance of emotions arising, or, if they do come up, make them less intense, allowing for a more peaceful coexistence with them.
A key way to achieve emotional balance is to take care of yourself. The seemingly obvious trio of quality sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise is often neglected. When we diligently attended to our physical and mental health, the intensity of emotions decreases.
Simply thinking "I should do more of this and less of that" is not sufficient. It's important to conduct small experiments to find out what helps you most. For example, you can try going to bed an hour earlier for a week and evaluating the effects. If the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, consider making it a routine.
Your experiments should be realistic and concrete. Getting that extra hour of sleep may require planning evenings as a whole to allow for an early bedtime. House chores, exercise routines or other activities you typically leave for late in the evening need adjusting. it is also a good idea to use reminders to ensure that the intended changes are implemented.
Another preventive measure for heavy emotions is maintaining personal boundaries. If you are constantly bending and stretching to meet expectations, emotional tensions can build up. Assess (and then respect) your boundaries in terms of workload and time management. Am I taking on a reasonable amount of work? Is my pace sustainable? Is there room in my life for things other than work?
Change what you can change
Healthy boundaries are also essential in interpersonal relationships. Are my relationships mutually beneficial? Can I say "no" when I don't want something? As Nedra Glover Tawwab writes in her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, you can't change other people, but you can change:
How you act with others
What you accept from others
How you react to others
How you reach out to others
How much space you allow for others in your life
How you participate in certain activities
What meaning you attribute to others
How you connect with certain people
Whom you allow into your life
How you interpret and perceive things
I already feel the emotion – what do I do?
For difficult emotions, we often need additional support to regulate them. Pleasant emotions are usually not a problem. However, even positive emotions may require regulation. Excessive enthusiasm, for example, can lead to social friction or taking on too many tasks at work.
When seeking a more peaceful relationship with intense emotions, various methods of regulation are available. The biggest challenge is typically recognizing during a highly emotional moment that it's time to employ a bit of regulation.
Emotional regulation doesn’t have to be a big effort. Even just naming the emotion can have a calming effect on brain chemistry. The action of speaking brings clarity and some tranquillity in the midst of an emotional storm. Many people also find verbal articulation helpful, whether by thinking attentively or writing about their feelings.
Sharing with another person can offer relief as well. It helps us process a troubling issue, and the experience of being understood provides an import form of social support. Sociologist Anssi Peräkylä and his research group have demonstrated how being understood, even on a physiological level, relaxes and soothes the body.
We can also take more direct measures to improve our ability to regulate emotions. Trying exercises related to self-compassion or mindfulness, for example, may lead you to discover methods that work well for you. Many good approaches can be found online. Searching for "self-compassion" or "mindfulness" exercises, for example, gives you instructions, including visualisations, for calming breathing techniques.
These techniques can also be easily deployed when needed. In a challenging meeting situation, you can calm your emotions by taking deep, slow breaths or consciously changing your posture and putting your hands, palms open, down on your thighs.
Adopting methods that allow you to detach from a situation that is causing intense emotion helps change your state of mind. If you're struggling while at your desk, taking a walk around the block can help ground you. A gentle jog after a stressful day at work can release accumulated tension. For some, a burst of house cleaning serves as a way to distance themselves from their emotions and regain balance.
It's important to find for yourself a diverse range of effective methods of emotional regulation. With many options at your disposal, you are ready to ease your emotional state in most any situation.
Need help with your emotions at work? The Stressed Out package can help.
Kati Kärkkäinen is an Auntie professional, a professional counsellor and trainer, and a social psychologist.