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Practice Emotional Inclusion at Work, Not Toxic Positivity

"Faking happy" makes us sick. Emotional inclusion helps healing and belonging.

Key points

  • Demands to only display positive emotion at work can make us sick in the long term.
  • Toxic positivity does not create true optimism; it creates denial and distortion, which can make negative emotions grow and intensify.
  • Emotional inclusion means not judging emotions and checking our cultural, organizational, and personal biases.
Source: Vectorbro/Freepik
People mask emotions at work.
Source: Vectorbro/Freepik

Authenticity. Well-being. Belonging. Without emotional inclusion, these are empty words and empty commitments.

I spent a substantial portion of my early life "faking happy" because that was the only emotion deemed acceptable and the only way to be accepted. Well, accepted-ish, because deep down, when you know you are only accepted because you mask who you are, you know the real you is not acceptable. The real you is not safe. The real you does not belong.

And "faking it till you make it" when it comes to workplace emotion just does not work. In fact, in the long-term, the emotional labor of faking happiness at work can make us sick.

The minimization of our feelings by others—"Oh, just look at the silver lining"—or the expectation that we minimize them ourselves, regardless of how we actually feel, is toxic positivity. It robs us of authenticity. It guilts and shames us when we need support. Toxic positivity does not create genuine optimism; it creates denial and distortion. And denial and distortion prevent us from truly dealing with and addressing our situations.

Grief, anger, confusion—bottling these up is worse than ineffective. Suppression can make negative emotions grow and intensify. The harder we try, the worse we feel.

We don't need faking and suppressing. We need safe ways to process and deal with our emotions.

Of course, many a boss has told us to "process outside of work." But meeting that demand is often made impossible by many factors. The long hours we work, low pay, insufficient insurance, and loneliness outside of work are all parts of the self-perpetuating cycle of unaddressed pain. To make matters worse, the work environment in itself—be it moral injury from unethical decision-making, abuse from customers, or coworker gaslighting—is often the main culprit of our suffering.

But even for those with relatively good work-life balance and resources to support coping, the non-linear nature of emotion throws curveballs. Grief and pain resurface inconveniently, in utter disregard for our meeting schedules and workplace functions. They can show up as quiet grief or loud grief. Crying grief or frozen grief. Angry grief or scared grief. Overachieving grief or confused grief. In the morning, one can commit to overachieving grief, and by noon, the crying grief takes over. Throw in some judgment or toxic positivity or broken air-conditioning, and there is angry grief.

How to support emotional inclusion at work?

No, we can't all be therapists. Yes, we all have our issues, and there are many reasons why seeing others' emotions can make us uncomfortable. But demanding suppression is not the answer. Emotional inclusion is.

  • Emotional inclusion means normalizing emotional truthfulness and honest answers to questions like "How are you?"
  • Emotional inclusion means checking the knee-jerk reaction to say the same old "You will be OK" and instead asking how the other person would like to be supported. Some may need space. Some may need a listening ear. You don't need to agree with everything to be a good listener—but you do need to care. And some may even need to hear that story from your life that you think is relevant. But make sure to ask them first.
  • Emotional inclusion means not judging emotions and checking our cultural and personal biases. People can be sensitive and professional. People can be emotionally intense and highly productive. People can be quiet and committed. People can be grumpy and giving. People can also be truly positive and optimistic and not "hiding anything." People are emotionally diverse. If you feel yourself judging someone because they don't process emotions the same way you do, check yourself.
  • If you design talent management systems, emotional inclusion means ensuring that cultural and power-based preferences for emotional expression are not embedded in systems for high-stakes decisions. Few jobs truly require a specific emotional profile that can be empirically validated.
  • In workplace design, emotional inclusion means creating physical spaces to process emotion. Private and soundproof work spaces, preferably—these are better for our performance and well-being than open offices anyway. Rage rooms or crying rooms can help, too. Flexibility in when and where we work can make a difference. The availability of meaningful, timely, confidential help can make a difference.
  • Emotional inclusion means the prevention of emotional distress caused by work, be it from overwork or from ignoring concerns about bullying. It means providing training and resources for emotional understanding and inclusion. It means systemic transparency and psychological safety.

Sure, there are behavioral manifestations of emotions that can be destructive. Workplace envy and jealousy, for example, have damaged many careers and lives. Allowing harm is not the same as emotional inclusion. But there are better ways to deal with the behaviors of the few than requiring everyone to bottle their emotions.

Belonging at work is essential to our well-being. And emotional inclusion is a major element of supporting that sense of belonging.

A version of this post was also published in the Best Work for Your Brain newsletter in June 2022.

References

Duke K. (2006). Faking happiness at work can make you ill. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 332(7544), 747. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7544.747-b

Oommen, V.G., Knowles, M., & Zhao, I. (2008). Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments?: A Review. Asia Pacific journal of health management, 3, 37.

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