Bottled-Up Emotions at Work Lead to Burnout

You can’t tease out solutions to problems like employee burnout and dissatisfaction without first acknowledging something is off kilter. The core mindful practice — noticing and labelling thoughts — could be key to navigating high stress workplaces.

opticaltech/Adobe Stock

In many ways, figures like Mad Men’s Donald Draper still reign in the professional world: unsmiling suits, grabbing the next crisp white shirt from a desk drawer after pulling an all-nighter. Many leaders embody the always-on professional robot — that is, until fatigue, stress, and burnout strike.

Research suggests that if we attempt to repress how our work affects us — how our work affects our emotional health — it can lead to increased stress, less productivity, heightened depression and anxiety, and may even lead to a greater risk of heart disease. There’s even some recent research to suggest that emotion suppression is connected to an increased risk of breast cancer.

To say the least, not metabolizing our emotions is making us sick. That’s not how we should be spending the 90,000 hours that we work in a lifetime. For example, it’s okay to feel offended when a coworker crosses a line — it’s the first step to developing healthy boundaries. It’s also okay to feel over-utilized and underappreciated — it can result in finding more empowering solutions. The important detail to recognize is that when issues crop up, you can find the root of the problem and address it in a way that you can feel good about, that allows you to thrive and find routes to well-being instead of becoming mired in obstacles.

How to Recognize Bottled-Up Emotions

One of the simplest ways to notice things aren’t alright is to note how you’re feeling Sunday night. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you dread walking into work the next day?
  • Do you hate the thought of turning on your computer and getting started?
  • Have you noticed that you aren’t motivated to work on projects or simply don’t put the same amount of time and energy into things as you once did?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a good chance that these feelings stem from attempting to stifle angry, upset, hurt, or other negative feelings.

But it’s not always this obvious, either. It’s entirely possible to love the work you do, look forward to Monday mornings, and find yourself in a slump midday or mid-week. When this happens, it’s a good idea to stop what you are doing and go through a quick body scanto see where you’re feeling physical pain or tension.

A Body Scan Practice for Burnout

Start by focusing your attention at top of your head and slowly move down your body. Make sure to stop at every major intersection, from the head, face, neck, shoulders, fingers, and so on. Is your jaw sore? Your neck or shoulders tight or hunched? Is there pain in your back or hips? Where else might you feel discomfort or tension in your body? Stop and investigate the tension: it’s location, it’s texture (tight, hot, cold), and see if you can direct your breathing to that location in order to dissipate some of the stress.

Using Mindful Awareness to Curb Difficult Emotions

Mindfulness doesn’t have to happen solely during meditation. Mindfulness can happen at any moment (in any moment). We can begin to recognize our emotions and physical sensations, trace them back to moments during the day, and develop a habit of paying more attention to how we are feeling.

The truth is that many of us are uncomfortable expressing our emotions at work. We’d rather say nothing and reap the physical or emotional consequences. But this takes a lot of energy. Consider how difficult it is to “keep up an act” with a coworker. If you are in the habit of never discussing your emotions with your coworker, you will constantly be forced to navigate this difficult terrain in order to keep playing the nonchalant part.

If you are in the habit of never discussing your emotions with your coworker, you will constantly be forced to navigate this difficult terrain in order to keep playing the nonchalant part.

Teamwork, communication — these are integral parts of work life that are sometimes prone to emotional spillover. Mindfulness training can help us navigate the boundary between keeping our emotions on even keel and getting our needs met.

Explore this three-step practice to recognize, note, and name feelings. This can be done daily as part of your routine or in moments when you are feeling particularly anxious.

  • Give yourself an emotional play-by-play: In other words, narrate your emotions. How are you feeling? Write down your emotions as you notice them (angry, sad, upset, let down, etc.). If you’re at the water cooler or in a meeting, notice any strong emotions that surface.
  • Notice the mental clamor: What’s the context for the strong emotion? Did someone say something that upset you? What feelings or personal narratives were triggered? Write down what was said, how you interpreted the interaction, what emotions surfaced, and specifically how you are experiencing those emotions in your body. Once we become used to how our feelings manifest in our bodies — and the scenarios that trigger them —we can develop a habit of noting and recognizing them and gain a foothold in deciding how to respond to them.
  • Coach self-kindness: Think about what you might say to another person — a friend or colleague who is upset for a similar reason. How would you approach their situation? What advice would you provide? What kind of attitude would you have toward them? You can visualize this or write it out. The  next step is to apply it to yourself.