Handling emotions at work

  • Published
  • By Airman and Family
  • Readiness Center
Managing your emotions in the workplace is more important today than it has ever been because today's workplace is a challenging place.

Change is constant due to reorganizations, mergers, transfers and individual job changes. Most of us are juggling multiple priorities, sometimes with limited resources. The work force is more diverse than it has ever been too, with a wide range of people of different ages, backgrounds and beliefs working together.

To succeed in today's work environment, Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, said it's important to understand our emotions, control our reactions, and recognize how our emotions affect our actions and the actions of others. When we manage our emotions, we're better able to handle the changes and challenges all jobs bring, such as adjusting to a new boss or co-worker, working on a team, or handling a conflict with a co-worker or customer.

The range of emotions we experience at work is enormous. During a five-minute presentation to your boss, you might feel worried, proud, relieved and happy, and your boss might experience a variety of feelings, too. In fact, whether we are aware of it or not, as we work, we are constantly moving from one emotional state to another.

Some emotions present an extra challenge when we encounter them at work. The five hard-to-handle emotions that are common in the workplace and that we need to pay attention to are fear, anger, feeling "down," guilt and insecurity.

Fear.  Some experts say fear is the emotion felt most often at work and by the greatest number of people. No one escapes it, from the company president to support staff. It takes many forms, including:
  • fear of authority
  • fear of failure
  • fear of being inadequate
  • fear of conflict
  • fear of losing your job
  • fear of loss of control
Fear often produces physical symptoms of anxiety, including headaches, heart palpitations, sleeplessness and heartburn.

It's a common response to change or impending change, such as a new supervisor, new co-workers and new expectations, and the uncertainty that change can bring.

Anger.  Slamming doors and yelling come quickly to mind as examples of anger. But it's important to remember that anger takes many forms, and that many of them are not physical. Here are some common forms of anger at work:
  • being excessively critical of others
  • berating or bullying others
  • being abrupt and dismissive
  • being cynical and sarcastic
  • "sabotaging" other people's work indirectly; for example, by being consistently late to meetings or responding to messages after it's too late
People who don't realize that they're angry sometimes turn their anger inward and become anxious and depressed. Others misdirect their anger to safer targets in their personal lives without even being aware of it.

Many of us, after a bad day at work, have gone home angry and then erupted in an angry outburst at a partner or a family member. Unmanaged anger has obvious costs -- in productivity, team relationships, and physical and emotional well-being.

Feeling down.   Everybody feels "low" or has a bad day now and then. For many people this takes the following form:
  • low energy
  • worrying more than usual
  • feeling distracted
  • just not feeling "up" to doing a full load of activities
Feeling down can be a response to a disappointment, such as not being recognized for an achievement at work, or feeling overloaded. Some people feel down after they've finished an important or especially exciting project and return to more ordinary tasks. Others feel low because of circumstances in their personal lives.

Most people bounce back from these occasional "blues." But left unchecked, feeling down can interfere with productivity and with relationships with co-workers. It's important to keep in mind that a prolonged period of feeling low, or feelings of worthlessness and despair, can be a sign of a more serious depression, which should be treated with professional help.

Guilt.  Guilt is the emotion many people feel when they aren't living up to their own standards or the standards they believe others have for them. Guilt can take the form of feeling undeserving or inadequate or that you aren't managing your time well enough. Guilt is an emotion many people feel who are trying to balance their work and personal lives. For instance, many parents feel guilty about not being at work when they are at home and about not being at home when they are at work. People who feel guilty often become angry at themselves or others.

Insecurity.  Most people experience insecurity or self-doubt at some time or another -- when they confront a new kind of task, for example, or when a new co-worker threatens their self-confidence. Feelings of insecurity are often fueled by the fear that we are being excluded. This fear can also lead to jealousy. Fortunately, these feelings are usually fleeting. But sometimes feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, and lack of confidence can be so strong that they inhibit our ability to work in a group. Insecurity can make us afraid to speak at meetings for example, when we disagree with a decision and this hesitation can affect our work as well as limit our opportunities for advancement. Feelings of jealousy can erode trust and make it impossible for us to work together productively.

Thankfully there are many resources available both on and off base to help with any or all of these emotions. Some of these agencies include: Chapel - (325) 654-3424; life skills support center - (325) 654-3122; Military OneSource - (800) 342-9647.

(Courtesy of the Airman and Family Readiness Center.)