How to cope with emotional situations at work

When a staff member loses control of their emotions, it’s cause for concern, but managers often do not feel confident enough to tackle it.

If someone comes into the office sobbing hysterically, it is obvious to everyone that they are upset. However, not everyone shows emotions in the same way, so it is important to recognise the less obvious markers too. Emotion does not have to involve overt signs such as crying or anger. 

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If somebody is normally very chatty, and they become withdrawn and unwilling to speak to anybody at work, it could be a sign that something’s wrong. Take notice if there is a change – if anyone becomes very negative in team meetings, or working standards slip suddenly.

One of the reasons why managers lack confidence to deal with distress or upset moods is a worry that they might be considered to be interfering.  However, it can affect the surrounding team, too. It can be hard to cope with proximity to emotional behaviour. If it is noticeable to the manager, then it’s relevant to work and so a manager will not be ‘interfering’ if they handle the situation in the right way.

So how can we help managers to deal with emotions at work?

Focus on the difference

The first challenge is how to broach it with the team member. Rather than asking ‘are you okay?’ Or ‘is anything wrong’, focus on the changes that you’ve noticed. Do not ask if they are okay, because it is obvious they are not.

Using a standard phrase like “is anything wrong?” sets you up for an “I’m fine”. Those questions can imply that you’ll start doling out advice, often the last thing they want – and why they shut the conversation down. Instead, tell them that you have noticed the difference: “I’ve noticed you’ve been crying”, or “I’ve noticed that you are not as positive as you usually are.” Mentioning what you have seen or heard makes it more difficult to brush you to one side and explaining that you are concerned about the difference you have observed is something they cannot argue with.  

Deal with it promptly

Encourage managers to trust their judgement: When you see behaviours that worry you, trust your judgement. Your gut is telling you something is wrong because you have noticed that difference in the individual. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to raise it, and you don’t want somebody suffering for months while you decide whether or not to act. When too much time has passed, your approach will not seem as supportive, either.

Give the opportunity to talk

After you have broached the subject, give them the opportunity to talk about it. Say something like “There is a quiet room free and I’d like to chat.” They might not want attention drawing to them, so keep it simple and make it clear that you’re treating them with dignity, not getting them out of the way.

When you can talk privately, sticking with that rule of talking about the difference will help you avoid an impression you are trying to give advice or assuming what is wrong: Inviting them to tell you about the difference you have seen gives them chance to tell you what is happening without suggesting you have already concluded that you can help.

Be consistent – to a point

Managers worry that by ‘getting involved’ they are showing favouritism or not being consistent across their team. You achieve consistency by responding promptly and in the same way, in the first instance. From there the similarity ends, because everyone will be struggling with, and therefore need, different things. If anything, sometimes simply acknowledging that the employee is dealing with something can be all they need.

Ask what they need

Often a manager responds to a display of strong emotion – particularly tears- by inviting the employee to go home. The employee is likely to take you up on the offer; however, this can create or increase a sense of isolation. Instead of suggesting solutions such as this, keep it simple by asking the employee what they need: They will soon speak up and say they need to go home if that is what is needed. If they do, ensure you make arrangements to be in contact the following day when they start work. The focus should be on what your team member needs from you in order to continue to function effectively at work.

The key to developing managers’ skills and confidence to deal with displays of emotion is to help them to describe the difference and focus on offers of support on any impact on work. In this way the dilemma of ‘whether to mention it’ becomes a simpler issue to resolve.



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