Why It is So Often Not Okay to Not Be Okay…At Work



I have recently spoken about how, in the aftermath of the Olympics, that maybe, just maybe it’s time to get behind being really and truly okay with ourselves when we are not okay, and some ideas about how to do that on a personal level. Now I want to consider what this might mean for the organizations we work in and the cultural influences therein that can hinder our ability to identify and support ourselves and each other when we are, well, not okay. But even before we can get to be more open about our mental health, let’s unpack some of the barriers and concerns about even expressing emotions in the workplace.


I work in corporate cultures where professionalism is equated with stoicism. Leaders are blank slates, thinking is prized over emotion, the word “cognitive” becomes code for the “acceptable” side of our inner experience while anything on the emotional side is discouraged.


In one such organization, leaders became aware that there were mental health concerns in the ranks and wondered if there was more the company could be doing to support employees. In the spirit of wanting to bring the unseen—the collective emotional experience—to the surface in a more playful way, I asked these leaders to indicate, using their fingers, how they were feeling that day. Ten fingers meant, “I’m feeling fine!” while no fingers meant, “I was having a pretty bad day.” The idea behind the exercise being that once people self-rated, this could provide a potential conduit for ensuing discussion, in the spirit of, “hmm, I see a lot of ‘5s’ out there, can someone tell me about their experience as a ‘5’?” In my experience, such discussions can start to pave the way toward a more emotionally open culture where mental health concerns might eventually be expressed and addressed.


Before fingers could be raised, however, one executive objected, stating that no way was he going to reveal his emotions to people he worked with. “Who knows the ripple effect that would cause! It would be unprofessional!” This stopped the exercise in its tracks. I noted that it could feel uncomfortable or even scary to reveal one’s inner state if the culture was unused to such admissions. Perhaps predictably, the same executive reacted with a decisive, “I am NOT afraid!”


Indeed.


The Emotional Floodgate Effect. In addition to concerns about the unpredictability of others’ reactions to an emotional share, these executives expressed worry about a “slippery slope” effect. That letting some emotional expression out into this world would encourage more and more of it…and what would happen? Won’t things just get “out of control?” These concerns portray a simplistic view of our emotional experience and say more about our underlying fears and biases around emotion than they do about the human reality of it.


It was as if, for these executives, there was this reservoir of untapped emotion sitting like an oil spill under the workplace, and if they weren’t careful, an errant admission would spark and set the whole place ablaze. I ask you, does this characterization resonate as part of your own internal emotional experience? That you are sitting on a personal powder-keg of emotion, just a match-strike away from a flame-out? I’m much more likely to see people for whom emotional expression has been met with such discomfort and derision that they are loathe to risk it. Much like the concerns expressed by the aforementioned executive unwilling to share.


Discomfort with Emotional Expression. So there’s the fear that emotion will overwhelm the workplace. Equally prevalent if less dramatic is the “I don’t know what to do when someone gets emotional” fear. Otherwise known as the “there’s no crying in baseball” dictum inherent in many performance and business cultures. When I was the head of performance psychology at the AIS, I was surprised when a coach approached me wanting to see if we could put him in touch with a clinical psychologist. [For the uninitiated, there are several different specialities in psychology; AIS staff were predominately sport psychologists trained to manage performance as well as mild to moderate clinical issues. Clinical psychologists have expertise on the mental illness end of the mental health spectrum.] Surprised, I asked the coach about why he thought he needed a clinical psychologist. He said that he had an athlete prone to crying and needed someone with clinical expertise to assist him in managing this athlete’s emotionality. Indeed. This incident spawned the performance psychology tagline: crying is not clinical. Now, this is not to say that crying could never be a sign of some more serious underlying problem, but it seemed that, in this case, it was more revealing of the coach’s discomfort than it was about accurately tending to the athlete’s needs.


What's Okay to Share? Another concern that these executives voiced was about what could reasonably be shared at an emotional level with others in the workplace. “I’m not going to just announce that I’m getting a divorce! That would be nuts!” First of all, it is highly likely that if a leader has been working through the process of divorce for any amount of time, their team will already know that something is going on. Coaches will tell me that they are really good at masking their nervousness or angst during big competitions, but ask their athletes and you get a different story. We usually know when something’s not right with the people we work with or for. Second, it is safe to say that not all our emotional admissions are equally appropriate. It’s one thing to share a difficult personal transition such as a divorce in the interest of paving the way for work flexibility and/or understanding from teammates and colleagues. It’s another matter entirely if the admission turns into a soon-to-be-ex complaint session. Emotionally-aware leaders recognize that emotional oversharing used as an excuse for bad behaviour, ignorance, mindless venting, or just because can be as detrimental as no sharing at all. In the end, it’s less about “how much” emotionally sharing is okay and more about “what am I looking for or to achieve as a result of this share?”


If I were to peel back the layers of discomfort about emotion being discussed that day with those executives, it would inevitably come down to perceived weakness. Staying with crying as an example, it is often seen with distaste as being messy, overt, and surely a sign of a lack of self-control. Something to fear, avoid, or treat as a sign of pathology. Whereas, in my work with clients, I find that crying is a sign that something is important, that in our work we have hit a nerve. But so often, before we can explore this realization further, we first have to tackle the shame that almost every client feels about crying in my presence. And this is in the supposed safety of a psychologist’s office.


We may have a way to go, personally, professionally, and in our workplaces, before emotions are as welcome as thoughts. Before mental health is on par with physical health as an easy and comfortable topic. But this is the path toward creating more humane relationships with ourselves, those we love, and even those we work with… and is a journey, by my estimation, worth taking.


I will be talking more about how we can shift culture away from knee-jerk fear of and more toward welcoming acceptance of emotion (and mental health, while we're at it). In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about the experiences in your workplace around emotion and mental health. Does your workplace promote the free and useful exchange of ideas in this space, or is it not okay with you being not okay?


Thanks for reading and as always, I welcome your feedback.


In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com

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