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Emotions at Work

In the April issue, we discussed the link between emotional intelligence and personal effectiveness. This article explores how being aware of emotions can help us at work, helping to enhance our resilience and enjoyment of work.

Work means different things to different people. For some it provides a vehicle for following an interest or passion, for others it’s about helping people or making a difference, and for others, it’s a vehicle for providing the financial means to pursue other goals. In each case, there is an emotional connection between work and something that is important to us, making us feel positive about going to work. Positive emotions include pleasure, happiness, pride, enthusiasm, and optimism.

Work also places demands on us, including changing work conditions, conflicting expectations, lack of control, challenging relationships and lack of resources. As a result, our experience at work can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war where we experience mixed, or even conflicting emotions. Negative workplace emotions can include frustration, worry, disappointment, annoyance, anger, unhappiness, embarrassment and fear.

Emotions are often felt in the body. Examples are an elevation in breathing and heart rate (fear), increases in limb activity (anger), decreases in limb activity (sadness), constriction in the throat (disgust). These body sensations provide clues that can help us identify and label emotions.

Negative emotions generate a sense of discomfort, an internal experience that something is wrong. How we respond to this is very important. Even though our immediate reaction might be to try to suppress the negative feelings, doing so is more likely to cause an eruption in our internal dialogue of worry and unhelpful thoughts. Trying to control negative emotions in this way amplifies the problem rather than making it go away.

By relating to negative emotions as an ally rather than an enemy, we can use them to gain a better understanding of what is really going on. This emotions-friendly approach is a little like going to the dentist, where we tolerate some discomfort because we know it will lead to a beneficial outcome. Being open to emotions in this way helps to train our brain to be less reactive and more reflective. This frees up resources to examine the situation from different perspectives, to consider what is important to us, and possible responses. It can also provide assurance that we are ok or remind ourselves of what we enjoy about work.

The reality of the modern workplace is one of constant change, different personalities and competing priorities. Our understanding of emotions at work can better equip us to deal with uncertainty and complexity. Being able to experience positive and negative emotions helps to make use of the information that emotions contain, to balance our perspective rather than jump to conclusions about what is happening around us. This broadens our sense of ourselves and others and helps us to access our deeper, intuitive self in navigating our work landscape.

Notwithstanding, if you experience prolonged distress from events taking place at work, it is a signal to pay closer attention. Chronic stress has associated mental health risks, including anxiety and depression. Signs can include sleep disruption, fatigue, lethargy, anxiety or sadness. It is wise to consult your GP who may suggest seeing a mental health professional.

Anne Ward is an executive coach and principal psychologist of Mindinsight, providing coaching and psychology services to individuals and organisations. Visit or phone Mindinsight on 4942 7660 for more information.

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