Knowing how to manage and process emotions is a desirable quality, especially in a world where emotional intelligence is increasingly seen to be more important than IQ. The physical and virtual workplace is an interesting environment to consider the processing of emotions, as we can lack the freedom and space we enjoy in our personal lives. Increased remote working and lack of facetime brings certain challenges, but it also poses a real opportunity to enhance emotion processing and cognitive function to ultimately help improve performance at work.
The science behind emotion processing and the workplace
Emotions are the feelings we experience in response to circumstances, moods or relationships, which result from hormonal patterns in the brain. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are released as a result of positive experiences, leading us to experience increased alertness, memory and an elevated mood. When levels of dopamine and serotonin drop, and the stress hormone cortisol is released, we experience a reduction in motivation, alertness, happiness and wellbeing.
The Oxford dictionary definition of emotional intelligence is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” The good news is that emotional intelligence is a muscle which can be trained over time. It can also lead to a number of commercial outcomes in an organisation or project team, including enhanced self-awareness, compassion, teamwork, time management, motivation and leadership capabilities (Obradovic et al 2012).
Managing emotions for a wage has been defined as emotional labour (Hochschild, 1983). Here, the expression (or suppression) of an emotion results in a more effective interaction, e.g. staff in customer service roles being told to smile, or employees remaining calm in difficult client meetings. Often staff undertake a significant amount of emotional labour in day-to-day roles without even realising, causing the familiar sensation of needing to ‘unwind’ after work.
Identifying emotions at work
There are six basic emotions humans feel, with associated facial expressions being universally recognised, beyond language and culture (Ekman, 1972).
Managing emotions in the workplace can be difficult as we don’t have the freedom and space we enjoy in our personal lives. We are confined to our desks, projects, and colleagues we must interact with, as well as mentally confined by culture and ways of working. This challenge is heightened by the new virtual ways of working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the project-based working world, the joy of finishing an assignment can often be paired with the anxiety of not knowing what project or role is coming next. The smile that you are paid to wear in a customer experience role may be hindering the effective processing of something difficult outside of work, through dissonance. These examples illustrate how employees often juggle many personal and work-related emotions at once, making the processing of them challenging.
Why processing and managing emotions is important, and how it can be done effectively
The brain-body feedback loop explains how emotional health impacts us physiologically. This is because negative emotions trigger a release in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which are not subsequently used by physical activity (as they would have been by our ancestors). These hormones then become harmful to our bodies. Ingram and Di Pilla (2007) conclude that stress plays a role in health problems such as cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, impaired immune function, workplace injury and psychological disorders. Similarly, when we feel positive emotions, happy hormones are released and subsequently associated with the happy experiences that triggered the positive emotions.
When managing emotions, the focus should not be on breaking the loop between brain and body, rather embracing it. Emotions exist for a reason, and to live without emotion is not the answer. Being your authentic self in the workplace (whatever it may be) and not supressing a part of the feedback loop results in lower dissonance and better emotional wellbeing.
It is possible to become more aware of your emotions, to recognise certain feelings, and to understand what triggered them so you can learn to manage more effectively. Bakken (2011) outlines several ways to do this:
- Recognising emotions in their early stages: Take 10 minutes to review your daily activities and the feelings triggered, then reflect on your sources of happiness, excitement and stress. Knowing our triggers allows us to be in control. We can design our days and interactions to maximise exposure to those things that have a positive impact on our emotions’ and can put coping-strategies in place to manage triggers of emotions that inhibit us.
- Giving feedback early on regarding your triggers: Early intervention can solve future emotional conflict. If you have identified something that triggers you positively or negatively then feedback to yourself and others could amplify or mitigate this going forward.
- Learning to express emotions in appropriate ways: You don’t need to pretend you’re not feeling the way you are, but we often need to address our emotions so they do not negatively affect our interactions with others. Can you re-schedule an interaction if you are feeling stressed about a deliverable and unable to ‘zoom out’? If working remotely, can you leave your desk for a moment to tackle something that might be causing you stress?
- Reflecting on how you worked well or managed problems in the past: What worked and what didn’t? How might this person or situation differ, and does the working environment help or hinder this?
- Maintaining support systems outside of work: Talking honestly about your concerns with trusted colleagues, friends and family can help keep problems in perspective. They are also likely to give you honest feedback and an impartial perspective when you need it. Seeking professional support should also be considered if workplace stressors are having an impact on your health and wellbeing.
- Building up emotional resilience: Pay attention to your overall physical and emotional health. Eat well, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. If you’re well-rested, well-nourished, and physically strong, you’ll have more energy to meet emotional challenges. This will help keep you “emotionally resilient” and help you feel more in control of your emotions and your life.
The phrase “bringing your whole self to work” really does ring true for emotion processing, and this is the case for both physical and virtual workplaces. Identifying and encouraging positive emotions can have far reaching effects, whilst reflecting on your experiences, and how you could have managed emotions better, will prepare you for future challenges and interactions.
Managing emotions and understanding those of others is an ongoing process which should not end after one cycle of the steps outlined above. A person who practices good emotion perception and maintenance will likely experience lower levels of job stress, higher levels of job satisfaction, and better cognitive function due to the correct balance of hormones in the brain. This will therefore directly protect overall health and wellbeing at work (Muir, 2006).