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  • Natalie Collins

Do emotions belong in the workplace?

We are innately emotional beings. And yet, when it comes to our working lives, maintaining professionalism implies eschewing our emotions in favour of cold, hard reason (*eye-roll* as though it’s a zero-sum game). Whilst employers have typically shied away from acknowledging our rich emotional interiors, for fear that it will disrupt productivity, the past year of lockdown has rendered this approach, somewhat, impossible. What with living through a pandemic, almost all of us have experienced an oscillating spectrum of emotion on (almost) a daily basis, with loss, anxiety, and stress making regular appearances. All of a sudden, failing to acknowledge these emotions and the impact they are likely to have on us at work, is no longer considered professional. Instead, our emotional responses have become a frequent talking point amongst us; over work instant messenger with colleagues, in one-to-ones with our line-managers, and even in organisation-wide meetings, led by the CEO. And just like that, emotions have snuck into our workplace. Now that the UK is opening back up, and workplaces make plans to head back to the office, we’ve been wondering whether our emotions will be allowed back in with us?

Hands up anyone who has ever felt their heart race in response to an email titled ‘URGENT’ landing in their inbox? Ever felt irritated by that colleague who constantly turns up late to meetings? And I know I am not the only one who has felt disappointed after making a mistake in external communication with clients. And guess what? The very things underlying all these experiences are our emotions, and so, whether we like it or not, it’s time to acknowledge that emotions exist within the workplace (and in fact always have). The main issue then, is not whether we’re allowed to feel emotional at work, but whether we have a work culture that allows us to express our emotions. *Imagines boss grimacing*. Writing this, I know, many of us imagine 'expressing our feelings' to mean the escalation of ‘who ate my lunch’ drama into primal screaming matches, or hysterical outbursts in response to unreasonable client demands but, actually, the opposite may be true.

Intuitively we know, trying to suppress certain emotions, can cause them to grow bigger (think of how irritated we get hour-by-hour hearing a fly fail to escape through the office window).

The ability to express our emotions, as and when we feel them, is in fact, more likely to prevent us from experiencing hugely disruptive outpourings of emotion, which result from the pressure of trying to ignore or conceal them in the first place. What’s more, is that having the opportunity to express our emotions is actually much better for our health than attempting to suppress them. This means that workplaces which acknowledge emotions and allow their teams to express them are more likely to function well and be productive, compared to those which adopt the more traditional stiff-upper-lip approach.

Not only does acknowledging emotions allow us to avert potential crises in the workplace, but the ability to express emotions can also be a useful tool for helping employees and leaders thrive at work. If we try to understand our emotions better, then we can effectively use them to inform our decision-making. Say we feel envious of a colleague for delivering a killer presentation - if we feel ashamed of that emotion, perhaps we’ll build up resentment towards that colleague for receiving praise and recognition where we didn’t but if we interrogate the emotion (why do I feel envious?/ I feel that my presentation skills aren’t that good), then we can use it to make positive changes (maybe I can ask for tips to improve my presentation skills or do some public speaking training).

Recognising the importance of expressing emotions at work, means recognising that the skills needed to succeed in the workplace have changed radically over time.

Emotional intelligence is now highly sought after and valued in workplace settings: Clients connect better to workplaces driven by a shared passion for their industry, managers who can express and manage their emotions (healthily) unintentionally invite their team to do the same and forge better trust between colleagues in the process, and overall people who work in joyful and compassionate cultures are more committed to their work.

Contrary then to what corporate culture would have us believe, emotions not only belong in the workplace, they (and our ability to express them) are essential for ensuring we thrive in work- it just took a pandemic to make us realise it! So with many of us returning to work in our offices, let’s embrace our emotions and use them to create a work culture that’s both compassionate and productive.

What do you think? Would you feel comfortable expressing your emotions at work?

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