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Are you guilty of masking your emotions in the workplace?

Putting on a front while on the job could be affecting your mental health. Here’s some professional advice on how to deal with that emotional labour.

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faces of man going from happy to sadMost employees today tend to feel the pressure of having to maintain a particular facade while on the job. In fact, 47 per cent of Canadians cite work as the most stressful part of their daily life, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (Photo illustration by Kevin Pudsey/CPA Canada)

Ever felt like you had to bite your tongue or fake a smile to mask your real emotions while dealing with a colleague or customer at work? You’re not alone, according to Alyusha Maharaj, a performance and success coach, master wellness facilitator and and associate with Interpersonal Wellness Services. Inc.

“My clients have been in situations personally and professionally where they felt they had to suppress their true feelings or remain silent,” she says. “They just don’t know that the pattern of politeness is something that has been identified as ‘emotional labour’.” 

UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONAL LABOUR

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild is credited for the term “emotional labour”, which appeared in her book The Managed Heart back in 1983. While Hochschild’s research focused on the airline industry, other studies have found that employees in specific service occupations, such as restaurant workers, nurses, counsellors, and so on, often had to adopt a pleasing external persona when dealing with others—regardless of how they felt inside.

“There are a number of different definitions [for emotional labour], but for organizations it’s more about managing and expressing emotion in alignment with organizational expectations,” says Maharaj. “Ultimately, you are trying to achieve the goals of the organization and there are certain ways of doing things and certain cultural norms, and you have to manage your expectations in that way in order to achieve those goals.”

So whether in an office or waiting tables, most employees today tend to feel the pressure of having to maintain a particular facade while on the job. In fact, 47 per cent of Canadians cite work as the most stressful part of their daily life, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). And with 60 per cent of working adults spending two-thirds of their day on the clock, their mental health is being impacted.

“It can lead to depression and anxiety,” explains Maharaj. “And there is a physical impact as well: sleepless nights, conflict at home, substance abuse, etc. People experience burnout in the workplace resulting in them being disengaged, absenteeism, short-term disability and sometimes people just leaving the organization.”

UNMASKING THE PROBLEM

According to Megan Rafuse, a clinical therapist and founder of Shift Collab, we’re taught at a young age that it’s unprofessional to show our emotions at work. “When we don’t share how we feel we do ourselves a disservice,” she says. Along with her partner Jordan Axani, Rafuse is working to change that mindset. 

She points to “What’s Your Big Lie”, an anonymous texting platform built by Axani, which is used in their corporate workshops. In real time, a screen displays responses to prompted questions like “What is it you wish your boss knew about you?” to “What did you wish your colleagues knew?”. Texted answers have ranged from “I had a miscarriage” to “I wish I wasn’t faking it all the time.”

“The whole room is in silence,” says Rafuse about delivering the platform to corporate audiences. “You hear: ‘It’s not just me? Other people feel this way?’,” The program works to close that gap. It’s about how do we ask for what we need? What tool do we use to communicate and support our needs that will help us feel empowered?” [See Starting today, make your employees’ mental health a priority]

The answer seems to lie in creating psychological safety. In a Google-led study called , the internet giant found that psychological safety—the ability for “team members to feel safe and vulnerable in front of each other”—was the number one factor that drove the success of its most effective teams.

“We believe that we shouldn’t bring our emotions to work, but we actually perform better when we do,” adds Rafuse.

Developing a psychologically healthy and safe workplace has also been the goal of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace since its launch in 2013 by the MHCC. The Standard outlines a framework that organizations can follow to protect their most important asset—their employees.

WHAT EMPLOYEES CAN DO 

Most companies offer workers access to the Employee Assistance Program, which provides counselling services at no cost. Aside from seeking professional help, both Rafuse and Maharaj believe that connecting with colleagues is also important.

“We are wired for connection and that includes work,” says Rafuse. “We can’t just turn it on and off.” Here’s what employees can do to be more open at work:

PUT IT INTO PRACTISE 

Rafuse suggests conducting a simple experiment. The next time a colleague says they were up all night, instead of saying “Me too!”, ask them what was preventing them from sleeping. “This extends the vulnerability,” she says.

Think about how you might feel—for example, “Am I prying?”—by asking a colleague a personal question, then write down what you think might happen. “Usually our predictions don’t match the outcomes,” says Rafuse. “When you bring your emotional self to work you will learn to take more risks.”

TRACK YOUR EMOTIONS

Depending on different times in the business cycle, emotions and stress levels will vary. “It’s always helpful for employees to pay attention and become aware of when and where they are experiencing that emotional labour,” says Maharaj. “It’s a good idea to formally track what is going on and what you are feeling at that time.”

FIND A MENTOR 

Having someone you trust, such as a mentor, counsellor or adviser, who you can talk to is important. It allows the person to share what they are experiencing, which helps validate what they are going through, says Maharaj. 

“The more objective that person is, the better for giving validation,” she adds. “Also, having a mentor or adviser who is a little different from you helps add a perspective that you normally wouldn’t have.”

DON’T BOTTLE UP

Realize that suppressing your feelings doesn’t make them go away, says Rafuse, adding that it could lead to higher levels of stress, difficulty coping, and so on.

“When we have trouble expressing emotions, we feel isolated and have difficulty connecting with others because we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to test it if we don’t talk about it,” she says. “If you are really struggling with trying to decide if and when to address the emotional, ask yourself what you would tell the person you love the most if they were feeling this way.”