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Why You Shouldn’t Hide Your Feelings at Work

The demands of emotional labor are draining. But there are ways to express them professionally.

3 min read

For a long time, Ruth tried to keep her cool and put a lid on her anger. The healthcare organization marketing professional had a critical and demanding boss, and a jealous assistant. But she started to find putting on a confident and happy face sapped her energy. “It was so exhausting,” she says.  

The majority of workers, like Ruth, must deal with managing emotions at work—also known as emotional labor, a term first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983. Hochschild’s groundbreaking work focused on flight attendants and others whose job descriptions required putting on a false happy face when dealing with customers and patients. But more recently, management experts, sociologists, and psychologists have started applying the concept to anyone who has to work with others—and must either suppress negative feelings or display falsely upbeat emotions to navigate the corporate jungle. 

While such techniques can help at times—after all, saying something positive can lead to more positive actions—it can also be draining. “If you have to repress what you’re feeling, over time it can become emotionally overwhelming,” says Rebecca Erickson, a professor of sociology at the University of Akron. Here’s how to let your feelings be known in a professional but productive manner.

Seek out a kindred spirit.

One of the best ways to let your feelings be known is to find someone at work to commiserate with. Of course, this is a delicate maneuver, as you must find someone you trust whose thoughts align with yours—and put it in the context of understanding what behavioral norms are acceptable in your organization. And the higher up the food chain, the more difficult it is to find allies. “Leaders may not be able to share the stress they’re under, either to maintain their positive image or because they don’t have other leaders they can talk to,” says Alicia Grandey, professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Penn State University. Another solution: seek commiseration outside of work. Jodi Himelright, principal consultant of Excelis Leadership Consulting, points to a client who regularly reached out to a mentor from a previous job and used him as a sounding board. “He was able to talk through how to handle different conflicts,” she says. 

Focus on the big picture.

Focusing on a long-term goal—such as getting a promotion or taking over your boss’s job—can help you deal with the stress. When Priscilla Claman, an executive coach who heads Career Strategies Inc. in Boston, was head of HR for a big corporation, she often had to deal with distraught employees unloading their problems onto her. To handle the stress and keep her own emotions in check, she would remind herself of the ultimate goal, which was to pinpoint the problem and fix it. That helped her remain quiet and listen to employees’ concerns. “If you keep that something else in mind, it helps you stay in control,” she says.

Build in breathers.

If you’ve just finished a meeting that has you blowing smoke out of your ears, take a time out to ensure you don’t react in an inappropriate manner. Himelright helped one client who would fire off emotional emails immediately instead of taking a five-minute break before responding to dicey emails. “We built in a buffer so she could regulate her emotions,” she says. And if it’s something that really ticks you off? Step away from it for a day. Chances are, by the next morning, you’ll see it in a different light—or at least a calmer one. 

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