Developing emotional resiliency at work

Is your job taking a toll on your health? You can learn emotional resiliency skills to help you navigate the pressures at work.

Have you noticed that you feel stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed or disengaged a lot at work? Is your job taking a toll on your health? Many of us find ourselves working in organizations that expect high quality, high volume work with tight deadlines—and it’s not uncommon for people to feel like there’s not enough time to get everything done. The reality is that the day-to-day demands and pressures of balancing work and family can present very real challenges for many people. In addition, the culture and climate of our workplaces has an impact on us. Research shows that bosses behaviors impact employee health – for good or for ill. For example, when workers experience their leaders and supervisors as authoritarian, harsh, dishonest or distant, they get sick more often, take more sick leave and are a higher risk for having a heart attack.

Whether you are the leader, supervisor, boss, employee or front-line worker, you can develop emotional resiliency skills to help you be healthier in your life and more successful in your role. In their book Work without stress: Building a resilient mindset for lasting success, authors Derek Roger, Ph.D. and Nick Petrie offer suggestions for developing a healthy perspective that can help you cope with adversity, change and challenges. Based on their research, they offer several measures or characteristics that can be barriers or opportunities to developing a resilient personality:

When we experience chronic anxiety it’s usually because our thoughts are rapid, spinning and churning and we may be reliving painful, challenging situations over and over again in our minds. The authors emphasize that rumination is stress—so noticing when we’re swept up in this pattern can help us to come back to the present moment by focusing on our senses and sensations in our body and paying attention to what’s right here, right now, in this moment. The practice of mindfulness can help break the uncomfortable and unhealthy pattern of rumination.     

Emotional Inhibition
Emotional inhibition is when we stuff, deny and suppress our feelings. And rumination coupled with emotional inhibition is a very damaging pattern for people. The bottom line is that expressing emotions is a key to health and wellbeing. Too often people believe the stereotypes about feelings including that showing emotions means yelling and screaming at each other or crying uncontrollably. Some think that expressing emotions is a sign of “weakness” or is inappropriate in the workplace. These ideas tend to scare people away from talking about emotions. When we learn to express feelings in healthy ways and at the right time for us, there are benefits to us personally and to our relationships. Research shows that being willing and able to say how we feel is actually a protective factor in part because it can lead to the resolution of difficult and painful emotions. And people who are willing to disclose their emotions in healthy ways—rather than inhibit, deny or stuff them—actually live longer.

Toxic Achieving
Managers and workers who use impatience, shame, anger and manipulation as weapons against themselves and each other are participating in toxic achieving. These kinds of behaviors may contribute to people “getting the job done” but it’s often at a high cost to the person exhibiting these actions as well as those who are on the receiving end. As is true with feelings, stereotypes abound here as well with many people believing that if you’re not “tough” on people then you’re a “weak” and ineffective leader. Interestingly, people actually perform better if their drive to succeed is not expressed or experienced in a toxic achieving manner.    

Avoidance Coping
Sometimes people try to cope by avoiding boring, unwanted tasks (which we all have in our life) or by evading difficult, painful and challenging situations. When we avoid, we are not resolving or moving with the flow of life in healthy and productive ways—and our avoiding behaviors may have a negative impact on other people and teams that we work with. The key is to notice when your “go to” emotional response is to avoid. Notice if you say “I’m too busy to take care of that” a lot of the time because that can be a signal that you’re justifying your avoidance coping behavior. Find ways to check in with yourself, your manager or your team members if you need support to move forward and get tasks you’re avoiding completed.

Perfect Control
Do you strive for perfection and are you never quite satisfied with your work? If so, you may be stuck in perfect control. Perfectionism is a major reason people are unhappy at work because it contributes to high levels of anxiety. Try to do your best and contribute high-quality work given the circumstances you face. Remember that there are things you can control and many things that you cannot—and focus your attention on what you do that adds value to the task or project you’re working on. Notice when you’re caught up in perfectionist thinking and practice doing your best (given the situation) without being attached to the outcome.

Authors Roger and Petrie describe additional measures and characteristics that can lead to developing emotional resilience at work including Detached Coping, Sensitivity and Flexibility. According to the authors, all of these characteristics interact in important, connected and complex ways and can be strengthened, learned and unlearned (if necessary).    

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and educational sessions focused on social and emotional health and wellbeing including RELAX and Stress Less with Mindfulness.

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