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Emotions At Work (and how to manage them)

04 February 2020 | Professional Development
– By Marion Baker

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“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..”

From Rudyard Kipling, If

*When we think about work, we may think about a whole range of things, mostly rational and organisational, before we consider the emotions that work engenders in us. Despite that, and whatever the nature of our work, we always have some kind of emotional reaction about what we do, where we work and the people we work with. Sometimes these emotions are more or less hidden, from both our colleagues and ourselves. Sometimes, less so. At a most basic level, work can animate us, challenge us, engage us and stress us. These emotional responses are an inseparable part of everyday worklife. What then are some of the factors which help us to manage emotions arising at work? And, when we feel pressure and anxiety, how can employers help more effectively to reduce our workplace stress?
 
EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE 
 
Resilience is the ability to cope with the knocks and setbacks that inevitably buffet us at work (as well as in life more generally). It is having the capacity to manage the emotional disruption that both expected and unexpected challenges throw at us, and to get ourselves back on track.  These are skills that are often innate, but that can be developed or enhanced through practice, and particularly through self-awareness. Ultimately, emotional resilience is the capability to remain steady and retain a confidence in one’s own abilities and values in the face of difficulties.
 
Factors that help develop resilience include:
  • Recognising that making mistakes, criticism, rejection and failure are part and parcel of working life, and happen to everyone;
  • Developing a growing sense of oneself, one’s principles and values, in order to gain inner confidence and a grounded self-esteem;
  • Observing one’s own responses to negativity and setbacks, to acknowledge when these may be counterproductive for us, and to try out and learn new approaches to coping where necessary;
  • Working to develop the emotional strength to bounce back when things go wrong, knowing setbacks are normal, and asking for support when necessary.
 
DETERMINATION, PERSEVERANCE AND EMOTIONAL AGILITY
 
Closely connected to the concept of resilience, determination and perseverance relate to the idea of not giving up, to a resoluteness of purpose when obstacles are put in our way. Much has been written recently about the need for ‘grit’ – rigour, tenacity and focus – in order to succeed in life and work. But there are also less obvious characteristics that help us to face emotional challenges at work, including courage and emotional agility. Courage to be honest with ourselves about how we are managing, and when we are not. Emotional agility to be flexible with our thoughts so as to best respond to difficult situations. We need this strength and adaptability in order to change direction, and to modify ourselves when we recognise that our goals, actions or behaviours no longer serve us. 
 
Factors that help develop perseverance and emotional agility include:
  • Giving ourselves the time and space to focus with attention, and without distraction, on our work and our goals;
  • Learning to recognise situations and interactions that are most challenging for us;
  • Facing difficult circumstances, emotions and thoughts with curiosity and compassion, rather than self-criticism;
  • Allowing ourselves to see other possibilities and routes for actions, behaviours and progression;
  • Using our knowledge of ourselves and our responses to adapt and make changes to our mindset and habits;
  • Working to find a balance between challenge and competence.
 
REST AND RELAXATION
 
These are often forgotten or overlooked in the mix of factors which enable us to manage emotion – and particularly stress – at work. However, they are among the most essential of the tools we can use. The leader or team member who is always intensively absorbed and relentlessly working is likely eventually to suffer the consequences, whether that is burnout or failing relationships in or out of work. Energy is not a limitless resource; it needs replenishing in whatever way is best for each of us as individuals. Many successful leaders have learned over time and through experience how to nurture their energy and rebuild their internal resources. This involves knowing what brings us inner buoyancy and the desire to be engaged in life and work – whether that is exercise and sports, time with family, giving back to the community, involvement in cultural pursuits or entertainment. Understanding your own varied sources of vitality and allowing yourself time to enjoy them is crucial in keeping us strong, healthy, energetic and successful.
 
APPROACHES TO WORKPLACE WELLNESS 
 
It has long been recognised that excessive stress at work is a health hazard. It also has a significant impact on performance – both at the individual level and more widely. However, as more organisations see the impact of burnout on the bottom line, the more wellness programmes and facilities are introduced at the workplace. Some employees now expect a range of wellness perks as part of an employment package. But a growing body of research is beginning to suggest that these programmes are not as effective or indeed nurturing as was hoped or expected. Furthermore, they are increasingly being perceived as counterproductive, by reducing the time employees are able to spend away from their working world. Allowing ourselves – and our employees – a real separation between work life and leisure time is hugely significant in terms of mental health and our coping strategies.  Employers therefore need to consider alternative, organisational-wide approaches for reducing stress and preventing burnout. In particular, this means changing what workplace wellness involves.
 
The latest research has shown that effective ways to reduce workplace stress include:
  • Increasing ‘psychological safety’ at work, meaning developing a workplace that is unthreatening – where employees’ voices are heard and valued, where honest communication is given and feedback is allowed, where failure is recognised as acceptable, and where expectations are clear and understood;
  • Providing private workspaces, available for when employees need to focus, to avoid distraction, or to get away from an open office – and encouraging their use;
  • Setting guidelines around working time outside the office – particularly in relation to evening and weekend emails and work calls, and using holiday allowances. The merging of work and personal time, and the expectation to be available or on call at all times for work contact, are significant sources of stress;
  • Creating an adaptable work environment by considering and implementing flexible working policies and opportunities;
  • Demonstrating commitment to employees’ professional development, growth and career progression. This includes ensuring that employees are in the right roles, allowing for internal mobility and recognising the need to move on to other jobs in order to further ambitions.
 
* Marion Baker is a former lawyer and Tavistock-trained Executive and Leadership Coach. She worked at Herbert Smith (legacy) from 1991-2011. www.marionbakercoaching.com