In recent times there’s been a lot of public education about mental health. This is a good thing since it has reduced the stigma surrounding people experiencing mental illness.

A recent article by Helen Rook, senior lecturer at Te Herenga Waka -Victoria University of Wellington confirmed for me that managing emotions in the workplace is a job for everyone.

In her article, ‘We need to stop labelling all our emotions as mental health problems,’ she points out that the so-called mental health crisis is not a crisis of fragile individuals, rather it is a crisis of a fragile health system. Most individuals do not need to engage with mental health professionals if they, and those around them, know how to respond to emotions in a ‘good enough’ way.

How words have changed

As Dr Rook points out in the article, one result of increased mental health awareness is that the words used in everyday conversations have tended to be ‘psychopathologised’. That is, normal feelings are described in the language that mental health professionals use. This results in ordinary feelings sounding like some kind of mental illness that needs professional help and even medication.

Once there was sadness; now there is depression.

Once there was shyness; now there is social anxiety

Once there was worry; now there is stress.

It’s true that sometimes professional help is needed. People do get severely depressed, anxious, or stressed; and help from mental health professionals is essential to get them through the worst of those experiences.

However, for most people strong feelings are a normal part of life. For instance, You are sad when a friend leaves for overseas; you are worried about an upcoming interview; you are uncertain about going to a party where you don’t know many people. These feelings are normal and not usually pathological.

But normal feelings do require some acknowledgment. Talking about them with friends or family members who will listen and simply ‘be there’ is a healthy part of living. The challenge is to keep listening to the other person, and being there, especially when their feelings make you feel uncomfortable. It’s good to remember that the feelings won’t harm you. In fact, sharing feelings can strengthen friendships.

What does this mean in the workplace?

Workmates or customers might reveal their feelings at any time. They may do this in a careful measured way over coffee, or their feelings may come out as an angry outburst. Either way, it is good to acknowledge those feelings. Yes, they will affect you. You will feel something of what they are feeling. You might even feel attacked or criticised.

Acknowledging positive feelings is easier. The challenge is to find a way to acknowledge the distress that the other person is experiencing, to be with them, even if you feel uncomfortable. Avoid moving away from them or trying to fix them.

Feelings help a person identify something about their values and what’s important in their life. They don’t need fixing; you just need to acknowledged them.

Let’s consider some examples:

  • a customer is critical of you because they are under time pressure and need your service
  • a colleague is sad when a friend leaves because they were fond of them and will miss them
  • your friend is nervous about an interview because it is important for their career
  • your partner worries about going to a party where they don’t know many people.

Every response will be similar. There is real power in simply listening and being with the other person. You can trust that by telling you about their feelings they are, in fact, processing them for themselves. They are coming to terms with the situation they are facing, and what they are feeling. Most often these feelings are not a sign of illness. They are a sign of life, passion, and energy.

Acknowledge that 🙂

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