5 Tools for Handling Negative Emotions in the Workplace


Work and stress. To most of us, they seem to go hand-in-hand. The negative emotions that cause work stress and its resulting conditions (think depression, burnout and a host of other mental, emotional and even physical problems) are sometimes seen as unavoidable parts of the work experience. So many people tend to accept them without protest, thinking that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. 

These emotions often affect your life and behaviour without you even realising that you are feeling them, let alone understanding their source. The alarm goes off in the morning and the first thing you feel is that sudden pang of sadness, anger or dread as you think about the day to come. Then you sit in traffic and wonder where that momentary surge of murderous rage came from just a moment ago when that sweet old lady in the Mini accidentally cut you off. Once at the office, you go about your daily routine; dawdle in the kitchen making coffee, read your emails, avoid your boss if possible, count down the hours until home time (knowing that you’ll have to work late at home to finish that presentation anyway). At times a wave of emotion comes over you and you wonder why you left your desk between tea and lunch with an overwhelming urge to close yourself into a toilet cubicle and cry. It’s all so confusing and so frustrating – it’s no wonder you nearly bite the IT guy’s head off when you have to tell him for the third time that your computer is not connecting to the printer and you have reports you needed to be printed – yesterday.

Does any of the above sound familiar? You’re not alone. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), work-related depression, anxiety and burnout are so common that they cost the global economy in the region of US$1 trillion in lost productivity every year. The causes described by the WHO are quite varied and wide-ranging. But, ultimately they come down to one thing – brewing negative emotion, which is often unconscious and never dealt with.

I have had personal experience with this phenomenon. For years, I have worked in corporate environments where the pressure was piled on. I took pride in being able to work hard for more than 50 hours a week, and then playing just as hard in my downtime. Ultimately, it led to nothing but exhaustion and the revelation that this was no way to live my life. If you’re in the same boat, I believe that I can not only help you towards the same realisation, but can also inspire you to take action to change the way you work, live and feel so as to get and give the most out of your life.

Common Denominators Causing Burnout in the Workplace

While every business, office, department and individual are different, the basic causes of the depression, exhaustion, anxiety and burnout so many of them experience are fairly uniform and recognisable across almost all cases. I have identified 4 common denominators that are known to trigger this downward spiral:

  • Lack of Safety

The safety and security of the work environment is one thing. But, that’s not the most important issue here. What happens is that people don’t feel safe being themselves at work. They feel the need to take on a different persona when they step through the door in the morning. People who are laid back and creative by nature might put on the appearance of being strict, serious and numbers-driven because that’s what they think the job, their colleagues and employers want from them. It’s tiring being someone you’re not, and it will take its toll eventually.

  • Having to Prove Yourself 

In the work environment, you are measured by the results you deliver. So, who you are, makes little difference to the bottom line. All that is required of you is that you fill your quota. This leads to the toxic (mis)perception that we have no value apart from our output which, in turn, leaves us feeling like we have to fight and struggle to prove ourselves. We stay late, we compete with our colleagues, we may even seek extreme means to get a competitive edge. In the end, though, we can only push so hard before the constant exertion, as well as the fading sense of self, starts to erode our emotional, mental and physical strength.

  • Control 

Perhaps the most common problem felt by employees is the sense that their careers are not in their control. They are getting paid to do a job. And, therefore, they have to do it as they are instructed. They have no say as to whether they will still have their job in a month’s time, whether the new boss will be easy to deal with or whether their department will cease to exist after the next board meeting. There are few things more harmful to a human being’s mental health than the feeling that our freedom and future are not within our control or, at the very least, predictable enough to give us a sense of security. 

  • No Boundaries 

“Sure, I can stay late.” “No problem – I’ll add it to my portfolio.” “Oh, you can’t put in overtime? Oh, okay, I’ll handle it then.” “I’ve taken on the role of two employees, but yes, I understand that there are no increases this year.”

In the absence of control and the need to perform and impress, many people do not set boundaries around their personal preferences and capacities. They take on more than they should, and they accept treatment that they really shouldn’t from colleagues and employers. And, while accepting that this is just what they have to do, they consequently start to foster resentment, which grows and grows inside them until some kind of explosion or implosion becomes inevitable.

Tools for Handling these Factors

The truth is that, as an employee, you have a very limited ability to change your working environment. Assuming you choose to stay where you are, you can’t change your boss, your colleagues, your work or your working conditions. What you can do, however, is to control the way you respond to the environment and the way you behave in it. Here are 6 of the essential emotional tools you can use to handle the common negativities of today’s workplaces:

  • Be Self-Aware and Authentic

Know who you are and what you have to offer, and bring the best of yourself to every situation. When you know yourself, you know how you react to certain situations, you know what you are capable of and you know your worth. You realise that your work performance and your esteem among your colleagues are not functions of some role you are expected to play, but the results of your authentic self-expression. 

  • Acknowledge Your Feelings, Never Repress Them

At the heart of the problem is the fact that people do not accept the way they feel when situations arise at work. Annoyed? Disappointed? Taken advantage of? “Never mind, just set it aside and carry on.” That is a recipe for disaster. As a worker, you are not expected to be an automaton. You’re a human being and you have the right to assert yourself as such. When a situation doesn’t feel right, express that. We often feel that it is not permissible to express our true feelings – especially negative ones – to our managers and employers. This is simply not true! There are entirely appropriate means and channels to express grievances. If there aren’t any such outlets, then you may want to ask yourself why you’re staying at such a company. A self-aware person who is conscious of her feelings does not stay in a genuinely toxic environment for long. Your feelings act as warnings or affirmations of your environment – listen to them.

  • Build Your Self-Esteem

How you value yourself has nothing to do with external factors. It is not measured in the quality and quantity of the work you deliver. It is entirely internal. You decide and accept that you are a person of worth and substance, and that no job you do will ever change that. When you respect yourself more, you will also find people around you will respond differently to you. Harassment and exploitation are not things that are likely to be experienced by people with high self-esteem. This is work you need to do on yourself, and it is well worth it.

  • Set Boundaries and Enforce Them

“No” is not a dirty word. It also does not need to be an expression of aggression or rudeness, which is how so many of us are conditioned to perceive it. It is simply an expression of a boundary that you have drawn around yourself, which claims your space so to speak – you will only go so far and no further. Here are some examples of good, healthy and enforced boundaries:

  • “No, I can’t work overtime. I made it very clear that I was not available to work late on Tuesdays.”
  • “No, I won’t take on your work. I have enough of my own and it’s not fair that I should carry your weight.”
  • “No, I will not accept being spoken to like that. If you want to address me again, please do so respectfully.
  • Let Go of How You Expect Everything to Be

Accept your lack of control over your external work environment. Stop trying to control it. And, stop mourning for your inability to do so. The only thing you can do is control your reactions to people and circumstances. Once you are self-aware, have set boundaries and have good self-esteem, this becomes easier. 

Book a Free Stress Awareness Session

If you are dealing with the symptoms of work-related stress, depression and burnout, book a free stress awareness session with me. In this free session, we will assess where you currently stand in relation to your stress. Then, we can start to work on a plan of action on how you can develop and apply these tools in your life. 

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