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Ping-pong is cool, but emotional health is even better

Can we reframe how we approach mental and emotional health at work? Some ideas and a look at companies tackling this issue.

Stress ball with smiley face

I knew it was going to be a heated and intense meeting, so before it started, I grabbed a toy from my coworker’s desk. I tried to stay calm while furiously rubbing its cheesy grin underneath the table. I had hoped it would help calm my nerves; it wasn’t working. I could feel the sweat going down my back as I focused on taking deep breaths.

This wasn’t a job interview or a negotiation. We were meeting to de-escalate an argument — one that had blown up from an unfortunate choice in wording during a meeting into tense emails between our teams. I was at the epicenter of it.

Seeking to end the conflict, and end it quickly, I uttered an apology to the other party as soon as I had the floor. Who was right or wrong didn’t matter. I just wanted it to be over.

After an hour and a half, the meeting ended, mercifully. On my way out that day, I was pulled aside by one of the department heads. His words of wisdom to a young 20-something manager: “Leave your emotions at the door when you come in; it’s just business.”

Thinking, feeling beings

There’s a reason I began with that story, and it’s not to air my grievances five years later. It’s to communicate a feeling. In marketing, the message that resonates the most with people is built on emotions and explained with reasoning. We lead with an emotional hook. The best communication makes us feel something first.

We are built that way. Effective communicators know this.

Treating work as “just business” goes against how we are wired. We are feeling beings. Our emotional and mental health walks in the door at eight a.m. right alongside us.

We do not have the flexibility to schedule our emotions outside working hours. Thus the issue isn’t to block emotions from happening; it’s to create tools and structures to deal with them in a healthy way.

Giving tools, resources, and training to leaders and their teams for dealing with emotions in healthy and constructive ways is crucial. Done right, it can build better working relationships, create empathy, and bond teams.

Conflict protocol needs to evolve

The employee handbook handed to me when I started included the following protocol: To deal with conflict, first try and resolve the issue with that person, then their manager, then HR.

Dealing with an issue head-on might be a challenge. Power dynamics and personalities can make it hard to resolve conflict with the person. Reporting the issue to their boss, although a logical step, carries negative emotional baggage and may not happen until the issue reaches boiling point.

Hence, workplace issues that can create an emotionally toxic environment are underreported and unaddressed. Nevertheless, they still cause damage. That’s when people do leave their emotions at the door, and send their resumes out.

Modernizing workplace conflict resolution

In an era where relationships are made from apps, and people across the world are connected, perhaps more than ever, modern solutions for emotional and mental wellbeing at work exist.

Bravely democratizes emotional therapy by providing on-demand coaching with a professional to employees. Thrive Global offers live and online training to increase emotional resilience. Whil, a digital training platform, offers science-based online training for mindfulness and emotional intelligence skills. Lyra matches employees to personalized mental health providers and programs. Neuroflow helps employers provide 24/7 mental wellness resources to employees. In the UK, BetterSpace provides personalized suggestions and resources that help employees with mental wellbeing.

Organizations like ebay, Lyft, Zillow, and Chipotle have adopted programs like these. For this essential practice to become more widespread, companies and teams need to see the issue. It takes one person having a bad day to derail a meeting. It only takes one person lashing out to derail team dynamics.

Outside of the yearly assessment on work and performance, there needs to be more frequent check-ups on mental and emotional health at work. These evaluations should also connect individuals to the right resources for their needs.

Therapy isn’t a luxury

Life deals us difficult-to-process stuff. Social anxiety, illness, relationship trouble, death, miscarriage, depression, addiction, or lingering childhood trauma all affect how a person feels and behaves. Add to this the stress of working in an always-on, always-connected world, and increasing job demands take their toll.

Left without a healthy outlet, family members or coworkers become the outlet. I’ve witnessed this manifest into difficult employees and hallway screaming matches.

When I had to seek out emotional therapy, my workplace insurance would only cover 25%. The rest I had to bear on my own. Thankfully I could afford it at the time, but it certainly impacted how many sessions I scheduled.

There is no standard for health insurance plans, but the fact that mental health isn’t just as important as the doctor’s office makes it harder to seek and find therapy which can help with mental or emotional issues. Dealing with these issues can help employees manage stress in a healthy way.

We’re hip, now

From ping-pong to washing machines and exercise rooms, modern workspaces are hip.

As we advance our workplace, the next innovation should prioritize employee mental and emotional health.

We won’t get there by periodically jostling employees into a room to get lectured for three hours by a Carnegie-esque speaker in a suit — a poor albeit well-intentioned effort. Catchy phrases and powerpoint slides are soon forgotten once the presentation is over. Emotional and mental health is hefty work that needs continuous evaluation and reflection.

Building emotionally-aware teams and leaders

Building a workforce that enables people to value their emotions, take stock of their wellbeing, and productively deal with their health will make for better teams.

More transparency and visibility between leaders and their teams, and open discussions about the feeling-side as much as the business-side, will remove the shroud of shame around how we feel.

We’re supposed to bring our best selves to work. If we’re not our best selves outside of work, we won’t magically transform come eight a.m.

Photo credit: Okundi Nyabuto, Lindsay Henwood, Kari Shea

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