Managing Emotions in the Workplace

The holiday season has arrived. And while it’s a time of year that brings plenty of good stuff to the workplace – like a steady diet of home-baked goodies and staff potluck lunches – it can also trigger negative emotions, especially in staff for whom the holidays aren’t necessarily so happy.

Emotions aren’t regulated to the holidays, but the season can amplify all kinds of feelings, be it stress, frustration or loneliness. And while the reasons behind the feelings might be personal, it’s not easy or healthy for anyone to pack away their emotions during work hours.

Dealing with someone else’s distress can be uncomfortable for many people, and some managers believe it’s too personal to talk about emotions with their employees. But says Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, associate professor of management and organization at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, “when you’re faced with a weeping employee, your first instinct should be to help. We don’t leave our humanity at the office door.”

So how do you, as an employer, deal with an employee who’s distraught, angry or tearful? Here are some dos and don’ts:


  • Figure out what’s really going on. Your employee might start crying during a performance review, but what you don’t know is that her father was just diagnosed with cancer. You don’t need to be a therapist, but you can ask gentle questions to get to the root problem. Of course, she might not want to confide in the boss. If not, pay attention from a distance, or ask another staff member she’s close with to check in on her.
  • Give them space. As they say, time heals all wounds. Maybe what your employee needs most is time and space – offer a break in the workday, a day off or try to lighten the workload for a while.
  • Be real and be human. You may be the boss but you’re also a person. You don’t need to cross boundaries but you can do what any other caring person would do (and what feels right in the relationship you have with your employee), whether it’s going for a walk, offering a hug or providing a tissue.


  • Make it about you. If you find out what the problem is, resist the urge to tell a story about how you went through something similar. Stick to simple and comforting words, like “I’m sorry” or “I know how hard this must be.”
  • Judge an employee for crying. It’s not unprofessional to let your emotions show at work; it’s human. A healthy workplace is one where employees aren’t afraid to ask for help when they need it.
  • Pretend you’re a psychiatrist. Know your limits. Some problems – like substance abuse or mental illness – require the support of a professional. In any scenario where you’re not qualified (or comfortable), refer your employee to someone who can provide the help he or she needs.

And one final “don’t”: don’t wait for a crisis to happen. An explosive meltdown in your office shouldn’t be your first clue that’s something is wrong. Create a culture of emotional wellbeing by:

1. Paying attention. Know your employees and what’s going on with them before a problem escalates into a crisis.

2. Normalizing mental and emotional problems. Taking the stigma away from depression and anxiety can help promote better communication among staff, and encourage employees to look out for each other.

3. Sending the message that it’s ok to not be ok. Let’s face it….every now and then, life is hard. Every one of us has to fumble through the ups and downs, and sometimes that means bringing your emotions to work with you. Letting your employees know that their workplace is an emotionally safe place will lead to a healthier and happier organization in the long run.


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