Mental health: managing your emotions in the workplace

Women in Tech regatta 2019

In October 2019 I attended the Women in Tech regatta, and was super excited to take part in 2 very interesting panels that inspired me to write.

One of those was called “Hiding in the bathroom: emotions in the workplace and how to manage them”. It was moderated by the wonderful Lara Manqui and included other people whose work I already enjoy following such as Vivian Acquah and Kevin Groen.

Call me crazy, but it was only during this panel that the penny dropped: holy shit! Emotions in the workplace are so connected to our mental health. How have I not talked about this before?

Mood Mind Blown GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Yes I know, I am late to the party. But now I’ve had this revelation, I am excited to talk about it. I have to confess, as the panelists were being asked questions about their experiences I had a million stories popping up in my brain where I could shout “me too”. So here are a few emotions/situations I can think of:

There are many more, but these are the ones that first sprung to mind. As you can see it’s a lot and while I have stories for almost every one of them, that’s not what I want to focus on.

I’d like to talk about learning to manage your emotions. That doesn’t mean to say emotions are bad and should be “managed” for that reason, rather, learn how to harness them instead of letting them take over.

Being in touch with your emotions

Inside Out Joy GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The first step towards managing your emotions is recognizing them. That may sound pretty basic but then again, is it really? The workplace is somewhere we tend to dissociate from our personal lives, sometimes we even become a different version of ourselves. Several people during the panels mentioned “switching modes” once they entered the workplace, sound familiar?

So what do you do when you’re suddenly angry, or sad? You might panic, bottle up your emotions, or let them all flow out. Start to understand what situations bring up these emotions in you. Are you always angry when your manager talks to you? Do you feel sad when someone gives you negative feedback? Understanding how certain situations make you feel will allow you to decide how you can deal with them.

Once you’ve identified how you feel, try to remember how you act. If you’re angry do you have outbursts of rage or just walk away? When you’re sad do you burst into tears or lash out? This will help you realize whether or not you want to act like that and if not, how you do.

Managing your emotions

As mentioned managing your emotions isn’t about supressing them, but learning to harness them to your advantage. After all we are human beings and it’s only normal for us to get emotional about certain topics. Nonetheless, here are certain ways to regain control and not find yourself hijacked by your amygdala.

  • Train your brain. You can control it and your thoughts more than you think, which is why for example certain therapists use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help patients with mental health issues. You might also have heard of the power of positive thinking and how this can help people reframe and be more resilient. Tell yourself the story you want to hear and paint the reactions you’d rather have. Practice having those reactions or taking steps towards them whenever you can.
  • Understand your triggers. In addition to identifying the situations that make you emotional, what is it about them that are setting off this reaction? Are they talking to an insecurity, or a lifelong fear? This might take some in depth work and self-discovery, but it will likely be a rewarding journey. When you can understand what’s triggering you, you can look at the situation more objectively and understand it wasn’t necessarily your colleague who was being horrible to you.
  • Seek first to understand and then to be understood. As said Stephen Covey in “The 7 habits of highly effective people”. It’s easy to get upset and blame others, it’s much easier than looking inwards… But if you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it will make a huge difference. You can still disagree with them, but it might completely change your perspective on why they acted how they did.
  • Set boundaries. We can often get upset because our boundaries have been overstepped, yet we never expressed them to anyone. This is how we end up burning-out or get into shouting matches. Where do you draw the line? What will you not compromise on? Figure out what it is and then communicate it to your colleagues.

Managing others’ emotions

Sad Work GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

What do you do when a colleague is having a full on meltdown? It can be hard to know how to react when someone has an emotional outpour (now you suddenly realize how others feel when you’re the one in a “situation”).

Managing our own emotions has a lot to do with managing other people’s emotions too. How their reactions are making us feel, how we react when they display vulnerability, and whether we all loose ourselves in an emotional spiral or manage to control the situation so we’re all happy with the outcome.

Here’s what you can do to help navigate other people’s emotions.

  1. Practice empathy. Being more empathetic can go a long way! As a natural empath I find that I am very much in tune to other people’s feelings and moods. I can often sense when something is off, which helps me “zone in” on what might be going wrong, or just adapt my behaviour. This is helpful to diffuse situations, know when to offer a helping hand, or leave a sensitive topic to another day.
  2. Practice your listening skills. Along with increased empathy, practice really listening to the people across from you with all your senses. Not just the words but the body language, facial expressions, and the message behind the message. When I practice active listening I am more present in the moment rather than trying to think of what to say next.
  3. Seek to understand the other person. Much as for your own reactions when someone has said something hurtful, try to understand what could be causing that person to have a meltdown. It doesn’t mean you have to excuse the behaviour, but perhaps it might help you be less judgemental.
  4. Get to know your colleagues personally. Go beyond the “nice weekend”, “can’t believe it’s raining again” and get to know more about them. Do they have kids? A side hustle? What makes them tick outside of work? You’d be surprised how much you can find out about people which can help you be a little bit closer. I’m not suggesting you become BFFs, but it might also give you more perspective on their emotions.
  5. Learn how to give feedback. A feedback training can go a long way, and companies should invest in this much more. Learning how to make your point using for example the Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI) model can really help take emotions out of the equation.

Emotions and mental health

What all of the above revealed to me, both in the panel and through experience, is that if we can learn to better manage our emotions we can pay more attention to our mental health. When we are no longer letting them control and override us, we can create the headspace to see what’s happening underneath. We can work to address the problem, and we can hopefully feel less frazzled.

Of course there is way more to be explored on the topic, so let’s consider this an introductory post, to be continued…

What about you, are you able to manage your emotions?

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