Let’s be frank: we’ve all cried tears of rage, exhaustion or frustration in the toilet cubicles at work. And yet the vast majority of women would sooner reveal details about their sex life to co-workers than expose our true emotions in front of them.
As the first generation of women to enjoy an equality of sorts with men in the workplace, indulging in the supposedly feminine trait of being over-emotional negates the idea that we stand on an even platform.
Just ask Martha Stewart, business superwoman and head of an $638 million dollar company, who blasted an emotional female contestant during an episode of The Apprentice in America. “Cry and you’re out of here. Women in business don’t cry my dear.” Society dictates that we’re supposed to put on a different mask at work – well-up or show vulnerability when a colleague criticises a project you’ve spent weeks honing and you undermine your professionalism, especially in front of men. It may be 2011 now but most women still believe they operate in what Dr Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, describes as “macho work cultures that tend to denigrate any display of emotion.”
And it’s not just a feeling; women are judged when their mask slips. A recent study found that women who showed anger during meetings were more likely to be deemed “out of control” and “a bad employee” than men who let their frustrations show in the same way. For men, emotion was seen as a justifiable response, not a character flaw. Although interestingly it’s actually women who are often the harshest critics of people who display emotion in the workplace – a recent US survey found that 43% of women (compared to 32% of men) consider people who cry at work “unstable”.
However, despite preconceptions about letting loose at work, maintaining professional composure could actually be detrimental to both your health and your performance. Dr Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Lancashire, describes this workplacebased restriction of feelings as “emotional labour”. “The effort it takes to fake or hide emotions can be compared to physical labour and it causes huge mental stress – it can make you lose your sense of identity, as if your employer ‘owns’ your emotions.”
Society dictates that we’re supposed to put on a different mask at work
New studies show that replacing emotional labour with emotional liberation can have a profound effect on how happy and productive we are at work. “The emotional part of our brains came into existence two million years before the analytical part, and science has shown that humans are unable to make a decision without it – something to remember when you’re told to think rationally about an issue at work,” says Dan Hill, author of Emotionomics: Leveraging Emotions For Business Success. “Emotions are a signal that something meaningful is happening. To ban them from the workplace is just Orwellian.”
The trick is to use your ‘emotional intelligence’ to recognise how you are feeling and how it impacts your work persona. Emotional intelligence is the ability to “motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathise and to hope,” as defined by Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. In short, an intimate knowledge of emotions – your own and those of co-workers – is the best way to cope with the highs and lows of the workplace.
Acknowledge your feelings, identify where they come from and how they affect your performance. “As you’d expect, happiness is a positive emotion that boosts performance,” explains Hill. “Sadness makes you less productive. The way to manage a sad emotion is to give someone an easy, quick success, so their feelings become more positive.
Contempt is about disrespect – perhaps if you’ve put an idea forward and it’s been rejected. It can often be gender-motivated – men are tremendously driven by pride and rank, and will defend their position.”
Experts agree that it’s time we all gave our emotions more desk-space at work. Dr Mann says, “Tears release endorphins that help us to feel better, and anger stimulates the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, leading to a build-up of energy that needs to be released.” A landmark study in 1991 by the Dry Ear and Tear Research Center in Minnesota found that 85% of women and 73% of men admit that they feel better after crying.
However, Dr Kinman warns that there’s still a stigma attached to tears, particularly on the cheek of a professional woman. “It’s perceived as loss of control. Plus co-workers can brand you as manipulative, because your tears may cause your boss to back away from a confrontation. And as a woman you feel you have let yourself down, so as well as your original unhappiness, you also experience shame and embarrassment.”
Tears release endorphins that help us to feel better, and anger stimulates the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, leading to a build-up of energy that needs to be released.
However, holding back the tears in a high-pressure environment doesn’t come easily. A recent study found that 41% of women admitted to crying at work, compared to just 9% of men. Biochemist William Frey has found that women cry 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men. Our tear ducts are formed differently too, so when we do cry, we produce a larger volume of tears than men. Put simply, sometimes women need to cry. The trick is to spot when they’re coming and get yourself into a supportive, non-judgmental position (ie outside with a trusted co-worker) or learning to pre-empt situations where you could get emotional – plan difficult conversations, jotting down your main points so focus outweighs emotion.
According to Hill, however, the most damaging emotion at work is anger. “It usually stems from wanting to feel in control, and feeling that this control is under threat,” says Hill. It’s also essential to distinguish emotions that we bring to work – frustration that our train was delayed, concern about our partner’s potential redundancy – and those that are a direct result of our jobs. Avoid venting about “at home” issues during work hours.
“If I’ve had a dreadful commute, I don’t rant about it to colleagues any more,” says Marie, a 37-year-old administrator from Manchester. “Instead I channel all that pent-up aggression into blitzing paperwork for half an hour. After that, I feel calmer.” The first step to controlling tantrums and tears is to acknowledge the feelings behind them – even if they arise between 9am and 6pm. “Using emotions positively at work is about selfknowledge,” says Dr Kinman. “Finding out about your triggers and learning to anticipate how you respond, can help you control your feelings.”
So instead of stamping down on all emotions the instant you walk through the office door, take time out to analyse what you’re feeling – whether that’s upset or angry – and how quickly you can resolve it. Are you stressed at work because you’ve got the builders in at home – or is it a more long-term issue?
“Your anger at a lack of payrise should be addressed, not hidden,” says Dr Kinman. “Happiness on a particular project could signal a new job direction so listen to this emotion. Tapping into your feelings could be the most rational, professional approach you’ve ever made to your career.”