Employee wellbeing: Is it ever OK to show emotion at work?

Did Hillary Clinton fear expressing emotion during her election campaign?
Gerry Broome/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Hillary Clinton’s former head of communications has urged women in business to cry more – going against the conventional advice to appear strong if they want to be on a level playing field to men. Life coach Ben Edwards explores how organisations can be supportive of employees’ emotional health. 

Females have historically been perceived as the weaker gender; often having to work harder to earn respect in the workplace and are given less leadership opportunities.

This was a struggle Hillary Clinton had to face during her gruelling election campaign; she had to prove a woman can be strong enough to hold one of the most powerful positions.

Arguably though, her inability to openly express emotion was in the end detrimental to her campaign. At one point, she pushed herself so far that she ended up in hospital because of exhaustion and dehydration.

In hindsight, the former head of communications for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Jennifer Palmieri, has given women in business some surprisingly controversial advice: nod less, cry more.

According to Palmieri, rather than attempting to portray those qualities we associate with men – such as strength, security and few displays of emotion – women should normalise the practice of crying in the workplace and make others less reluctant to do so.

Palmieri claims “it’s our world and we should be able to cry in it if we want to”. This goes directly against conventional advice which tells women that showing their emotions is showing weakness.

Only human

There are many reasons why people may cry at work, whether its problems at home, conflicts with co-workers or just because of the mounting stress that comes with many jobs. You’re only human so sometimes it’s difficult to hide emotions, but a line must be drawn if the reaction is unjustifiable or occurring too often.

The question as to whether crying at work is acceptable or not is therefore not a simple one.

Ultimately, showing extreme emotion at work is unprofessional. Businesses need employees who are capable of doing the job and if someone is regularly crying at work this would suggest they are not.

Although crying may be a healthier way of releasing frustration as opposed to getting cross with co-workers, I would suggest avoiding extreme expressions of emotions publicly at work and instead try to deal with the source of this emotion so that you are able to plan for progress.

People often feel stressed if they think they’re not getting anywhere so if you set little steps each day to achieve your goal you don’t become overwhelmed, whether this be at work or in day to day life, you may find working life far easier to cope with.

Managing stress

Although Hillary Clinton’s health issues during her campaign may demonstrate disadvantages to bottling up your emotions during time of stress, her hospitalisation was a very extreme example.

She was running for president in one of the most vicious campaigns, of course this is going to be unavoidably stressful. However, a lot of work stress can be avoided or easily managed.

When people I work with say they can’t handle a problem, I ask how many times have they fed their child three meals a day, to which they often respond, “years, as long as I’ve had children”.

This is an inevitability; they need to feed their kids, so they do. If progressing at work becomes a real need for you, you will.

Distinguishing between want and need to avoid becoming stressed and overwhelmed is important.

Much like a fire alarm which minimises the impact before the fire takes hold, a problem should be dealt with before it escalates to extreme emotion.”

What can employers do?

From an employer’s point of view, it owes staff a duty of care by facilitating their wellbeing and supporting their emotions.

This can be achieved by encouraging open communication. If an employee has concerns or issues, they need to know they can approach a manager to discuss these problems.

There should be wellbeing checks and strategies in place to prevent employees becoming overwhelmed or stressed in the first place.

Much like a fire alarm which minimises the impact before the fire takes hold, a problem should be dealt with before it escalates to extreme emotion.

Using a life coach can give employees the tools they need to overcome problems and handle their emotions both in and out of work.

By doing this, people also learn how to deal with personal problems before they bring them into the workplace.

The Social Market Foundation found that when staff are happy in their jobs they become 12% more productive, so it is in employer’s interest to look after employees’ wellbeing.

Ben Edwards

About Ben Edwards

Ben Edwards is a life coach, motivational speaker and NLP practitioner.
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