Friday, 24 January 2014

Year in Review: Ill feelings and Worn-down Workers

How are you feeling? Workplace research is paying more and more attention to this question.

Last year we covered a number of papers on surface acting – effortfully managing your emotions and manufacturing the expression deemed ‘correct’ for the situation. This is common in interactions with customers, but recent research identifies this behaviour as a factor in internal meetings and shows long-term ill effects from continual cover-ups.

We discovered individual differences in how much we can weather surface acting: individuals with high levels of 'affect spin' - meaning higher peaks and lower troughs of their emotional world - find it more fatiguing. But day-to-day, we can employ techniques that defuse the emotions that we otherwise struggle to tame. One of these is mindfulness, which helps us by depersonalising the experience and interrupting thought processes that lead us into frustration.

Surface acting is best used rarely, but what other patterns habits? should we be shedding? Research uncovered a range of factors that transform work problems into vicious circles.

How are you avoiding your problems? If you’re engaging in escapist thoughts about how outside forces will fix everything, you may be letting things pile up. But if you are mentally detaching yourself from them during downtime, the psychological distance this creates is going to help you cope and solve those problems. When we don’t detach, we ruminate - and we know that keeping problems ever-present wears us down.

A recent study suggests that it’s easier to escape rumination over a conflict with a colleague if we’re able to identify a clear source of the disagreement. When we can’t, we end up worrying about whether the spat was motivated by personal dislike, and the consequences this has for the working environment. This is a perfect example of the new concept of Toxic Emotional Experiences, which argues that most negative encounters aren’t damaging to our psychological health unless they are identified as part of a pattern of toxic experience that won't go away - the persistently sarcastic boss or perennially failing database.

A further vicious cycle, and a profound one for society: a personal tendency to be hostile makes you more likely to be unemployed. And being unemployed increases your tendency to act in hostile ways.

In all this evaluation of negative feeling it’s important to remember that it can serve important functions – here are two that were identified this year.

Negative emotional displays may help you do better in negotiations. In a recent study, disappointment could signal to a counterpart that an offer is woefully insufficient and lead them to greater generosity. (But avoid insincere displays - remember the perils of surface acting!)

Contrary to general understanding, unending positivity may not be a panacea for creative tasks. Research suggests that starting negative may be beneficial, for two reasons: negativity may help you detect things that need to change, and give you an impetus to do it. In addition, the evidence suggests that the process of switching from a negative to a positive mood widens the associations available in your memory network, providing more of the connections that feed creativity.

The message from all these findings? Look after yourself! Don't rely on surface acting to get you through - use mindfulness techniques to process emotions in a more healthy way, or better yet, address the reasons why the workplace is putting you at odds with yourself. Avoid rumination, and look for the benign explanation for a spat - maybe Ted really does need the photocopier in the North-East corner. If you identify that your life has one or more toxic emotional experiences that keep rearing up, tackle them directly. But don't see negative emotions as an enemy: in context, they can even be useful. We want to be accessible to our range of feelings, but not let them, or worrying thoughts, become our masters.


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