Is it OK to feel sad at work? How emotions affect us in the workplace
Aug. 12, 2021
“Most of us vastly underestimate the size and scope of the emotional needs we bring to the office….., emotional dynamics affect our motivation, health, communication, decision making, and more” No Hard Feelings
Recently rereading No Hard Feelings, I was prompted by both the book and the story of the “crying room” that was established in Jennifer Palimieris office during Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, to think about emotions in the workplace; how they are perceived, how they affect us and our communication; how resilient we are in times of uncertainty and challenge and how they can work with us and against us in terms of our wellbeing.
Palimeieris writes “No one I worked with - man or woman - thought anything of it other than that it was a human reaction to the inhumane crush a president and his or her staff have to endure. No stigma was attached to anyone who had to use the crying room.” Palimieris’s description of why people were crying is interesting - an emotional response to an extremely challenging environment to work in, and not necessarily as we might assume, associated with only experiencing sadness. As the author Joanne Lipman found, women report crying more at work, but it’s usually out of anger or frustration and not sadness! Such a challenging environment would inevitably provoke a great deal of emotion. But we don’t all have to be in the ‘war room’ to experience our emotions at work.
The horse and the rider
“Success depends on learning how to let emotion in to the workplace without letting it run wild”
There is a cultural idea that expressing emotion in the workplace is unprofessional and should be suppressed for fear of exposing vulnerability and an unbounded mess. Emotion is often equated with vulnerability, which culturally, isn’t generally seen as a good thing in the workplace. Some research finds that women are often associated with expressing more positive emotion while internalising negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety. While men’s often associated expression of emotion as anger, can show more physiologically - higher blood pressure and greater amounts of cortisol.
It is impossible for us to separate our emotions from our cognitive, thoughtful selves, and we might be doing a disservice to our wellbeing, our colleagues and our work if we do so. If we haven’t felt able to express something to a colleague that has been difficult then nothing gets resolved. Internalising our emotions can result in greater stress causing problems for our physical and mental wellbeing. Neuroscience has shown us that emotional responses are hardwired into us for immediate response - and survival. Luckily for us, our highly developed prefrontal cortex has a unique ability to mediate and process these emotions. Think of the amygdala as the horse, and the prefrontal cortex as the rider. The amygdala’s job is to process incoming threat stimulus in whatever form that comes; no longer bears perhaps, but maybe a threat to our status or sense of identity. When the amygdala gets upset it sends a cascade of inhibiting signals to the cortex, forcing it into black and white thinking - fight, flight or, in the case of presentations sometimes, freeze! In the case of an approaching bear, the brain needs a quick answer for survival! The thinking brain is simply too slow to process what is happening for immediate survival and decision making. But our world is now so deeply complex and our body can overreact to the huge range of non-life threatening stressors we have to negotiate.
An emotionally aroused person is in a state where the more primitive brain is switched right on and not best able to regulate or consider their own feelings and responses. In order for our higher order thinking to switch on we need to have had a moment to calm ourselves, to process the information in order to act more productively and thoughtfully. This is pretty sound advice for everyone in the workplace particularly if you’ve had a difficult conversation or something hasn’t gone well - allow yourself a moment, or time, to move from the emotionally aroused state that’s telling you something is a threat to you, to one that is calmer and more thoughtful where we are better able to process our thoughts and feelings.
Feeling comfortable to express emotion and pay it due attention is really important because it’s a signal that we need to listen to something, to understand it and take action. More productively our feelings can be guideposts, and as such we can learn from, and use them effectively.
Feedback and our emotions
“Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival.” Daniel Goleman (psychologist)
Our recent internal wellbeing session on how to give and receive feedback provided some food for thought on how we feel when we receive feedback from peers and colleagues. Openness and transparency, and continuous improvement are two of our core values at Unboxed and feedback plays an important role in how we continue to best deliver projects, work collaboratively and develop ourselves. Feedback is a useful tool if it’s provided effectively; positive feedback is great for our motivation, self esteem and wellbeing - it makes us feel encouraged and valued, particularly if we are new to the company or to a role. We want to feel and know we are doing a good job and that we belong. But positive feedback alone doesn’t necessarily offer the best opportunity for us to develop, grow and do a better job.
We opened the discussion to ask people how they felt about any feedback they’d received. Was it useful? Had it given points for development? And importantly, how did it make you feel? People absolutely value positive feedback, hearing nice things about yourself is really good. But there was also a feeling that having something to work on, was more productive - there are always ways to improve, challenge and develop and the suggestion that if nothing is offered to work on, the feedback may not be as truthful as it could be.
So we talked about how to give constructive feedback which offers the opportunity for growth, development, challenge and reflection by reinforcing positive behaviour and highlighting areas for improvement and discussion. But emotions have a role to play when we receive any form of feedback, positive or “constructive”. When we hear things about ourselves, particularly if we perceive them to be critical, we have to process someone else's view of us. It can be perceived as a threat to our sense of self - “they think I’m not very good at my job” might be what you hear. But we have to move past our immediate defensive reaction (our threat status in the brain), to thoughtfulness, determination and action (our higher order thinking brain) and consider what it is that person is actually saying to us and how it has good intentions - “That piece of work I did was really well received; next time I need to consider how I can engage more people”
When we’ve allowed a moment to apply a more thoughtful process, we are better able to receive the feedback for what it is; intentionally constructive and supportive. The bit of feedback you got that said “I’d like to see you trust your team more, as sometimes it feels like you need to do everything yourself” is giving you the information that you need to do something a bit differently, for the sake of your team and yourself.
Research at Stanford University on gender bias in companies found that bias was apparent in feedback. Emotive language would often be ascribed to women who were quite vocal and confident with feedback that they “were coming on too strong” and their achievements were more often associated with being team players rather than individual achievers.
Emotions and communication
“Your feelings aren’t facts. Communication is one of the most powerful tools we have to effect change”
Effective communication really depends on our ability to be able to talk about emotions without getting emotional. This is a nice idea, but it can feel impossible. The emotion we express has a reason and if it’s constantly mediated then does that lead to frustration? It will also depend on so many other factors in our lives; if those other factors are in balance and we feel supported and in control, then we have the tools we need to be resilient and not let our emotions undermine us. An emotion is a valuable expression. Anger is one of the emotions considered most negatively, and with good reason as it is often used most destructively. But without anger we wouldn’t take a stand against injustice and unfairness. Anger is a secondary emotion and often masks a primary emotion such as sadness, fear or anxiety - all of which are uncomfortable emotions to sit with. So an unconscious shift is made into feelings of anger, which in contrast to the primary emotions, produces a surge of energy and a sense of control over something, rather than a feeling of vulnerability. If someone’s emotions are getting the better of them, then it’s time for a compassionate check in.
It’s been one of the things that we have struggled with during lockdown and remote working - the fact that it’s much harder to read the facial expressions and physical cues that reveal someone’s emotions through a screen. We’ve probably all experienced how challenging it can be, trying to communicate with someone without being able to read any expression.
The psychologist Steven Pinker said that “words themselves are not the ultimate point of communication. Words are a window into a world.” The words people say are not always what they mean which leads to misunderstandings. So it’s important to choose words that will help people understand what you are trying to say. Business students at Stanford learn to say “When you…...I feel……” in order to enable them to talk about feelings without letting them take over the whole discussion and fall into victim and perpetrator roles. Allowing the space and the opportunity for your feelings to be heard, hopefully allows for an understanding of someone else’s perspective and ultimately better and more productive communication.
Belonging and a healthy emotional environment
“At Unboxed, we strive to create an inclusive workplace environment where people can thrive and feel they belong, by promoting a good work life balance, open communication and positive working relationships.”
A sense of belonging is a great indicator of a healthy emotional environment. Knowing who your colleagues and your clients are, goes a long way to understanding how people work and communicate best, and why there may be challenges. We all have the power to create and affect a healthy emotional environment and emotional contagion means that we catch one another’s feelings. It’s an automatic response. When we watch someone else laugh we generally find ourselves laughing too!
Laughter is the physical and auditory expression of positive emotional states such as joy, relief, surprise and happiness; and the health benefits of laughter are far ranging, from reducing stress, boosting the immune system and pain relief. It can also help us to keep some perspective on situations and share positive emotions with our colleagues. That shared expression has certainly proved more difficult with remote working and the challenges of a global pandemic.
When we feel supported and motivated by our colleagues we are happier, more productive and more likely to spend a much longer time with an organisation. It’s better for our wellbeing too, enabling us to cope with stress. So encouraging healthy emotional expression is very valuable and there’s a few things that we’ve been doing at Unboxed. Like many others, we took some inspiration from Giles Turnbull’s “It’s OK to” poster at UK Government Digital Service (GDS), and created our own “at Unboxed It’s OK to” poster.
Before the pandemic hit, I wrote about the importance of food and eating together in the workplace, encouraging us to keep connected and interested in each other, and having opportunities to acknowledge people’s private lives. Remote working and a pandemic has sadly meant that it's much harder to share food in the way we did and as we move to a more hybrid way of working it will be really important for us to continue to find ways to have time together.
We’ve been really lucky to have a number of people join us at Unboxed during this pandemic and we’ve tried really hard to pay careful attention to their experience of joining us remotely and the onboarding process. It can be a really anxious transition time starting a new job and enabling people who join us to feel welcomed and a sense of belonging is super important to us. We don’t always get it right but when Fiacré our fabulous new Marketing Coordinator joined us he wrote about his particular experience. Making sure people have what they need to get started, understand the values and culture of the way we work and have ample opportunities to meet and connect with people goes a long way to creating an emotionally healthy environment.
A sense of belonging is when we feel safe to be our authentic selves, whoever we are, even if that means feeling sad or frustrated. So, yes it’s OK to feel sad at work!