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Emotional Intelligence

The Quest for Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Toxic workplaces are a leading cause of mental health challenges.

Key points

  • Nearly 60 percent of employees have experienced at least one mental health-related challenge in their lives.
  • Emotional intelligence can improve mental resilience.
  • Anxiety plagues almost all of us to some degree. How we deal with it matters.

According to a recent McKinsey survey across 15 countries, around 60 percent of employees have experienced at least one mental health-related challenge at some point during the course of their lives. In fact, those same employees were three times more likely to be subjected to toxic workplace behaviors and four times more likely to express a desire to leave their organization altogether.

It is clear. Mental and emotional hygiene are needed more than ever. In the wake of our post-COVID, hybrid workplace, we may feel more separated from one another than ever before. Human beings are wired to connect with one another. Raising our emotional intelligence not only helps us; it can help others too.

When you think of the phrase emotional intelligence (EQ), you may have images of a person whose compassion, empathy, understanding and listening skills are off the charts. And while these characteristics are also evidence of a high EQ, it is also associated with how well we understand ourselves and the origins of our emotions. It is not only about how we treat others, but how well we know ourselves. We’re not talking about revealing every horrible thing that happened to you as a child at your Monday morning meeting and then explaining why you are triggered, but having a robust internal management system that helps guide you when you start to feel intense feelings such as sadness, anger, and yes, even rage.

Anxiety is another overwhelming emotion that plagues us all to some degree. While some seek the thrill of a roller coaster ride to channel their fears, others avoid such situations at all costs. On the anxiety spectrum two groups emerge: the overachievers and the underachievers. The overachievers attempt to hide their imposter syndrome by going the extra mile or, according to Morra Aarons-Mele, author of The Anxious Achiever and host of the leadership podcast of the same name, overachievers often go the extra marathon to ensure all their angst-riddled ducks are in a row. Underachievers suffer equally, dodging the weight of responsibility by avoiding anxiety-inducing tasks. They are, nonetheless, just as anxious, expressing it in a different form.

So what are we to do? It appears avoidance and, its opposite, overworking does not help us sustainably achieve our goal of calm. Social media adds to the conundrum as, in the words of I, Human author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, it places our digital narcissism front and center, yielding a never-ending spiral of envy, fear, depression, and anxiety. Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at a pompous LinkedIn post by someone boasting of their latest work achievement?

According to the American Psychological Association, adolescents are particularly vulnerable to social media’s effects. In a recent health advisory, the panel of experts suggested limiting exposure to age-inappropriate content as well as monitoring social media use to help youngsters maintain a mental health equilibrium. Anyone with a teenager knows how difficult that task can be. But even for fully mature adults, the social media universe continues to nibble away at our confidence and exposes our very human need for real-world connection.

Gretchen Rubin recently penned Life in Five Senses, which addresses how we can harness the five senses for more serenity, energy, creative, adventure, connection and joy — even at the workplace. We all have our natural leanings toward one sense or the other. She encourages readers to identify the so-called “neglected” sense, or the one we rely on the least for comfort, to create more connection with others. In a recent interview, she claimed that “when we dial into the neglected sense, we can experience so much joy, creativity and well-being.” It heightens our awareness of our surroundings and invites new experiences in surprising ways. The best part is it doesn’t have to cost anything. In fact, the cost of not doing it may be higher than we think.

Imagine a workplace in which emotional intelligence was on par with the intellect required to do your job. Toxic workplaces — and the mental health crises that stem from them — would become a thing of the past. Emotional intelligence provides us with a stability that no online world can. Developing an understanding of ourselves and the world around us is essential for maintaining good mental hygiene. The airbrushed metaverse is not real, even if our fears of not keeping up are.

We need to remind ourselves that our feelings of inadequacy are normal and that we have control over what we consume so as not to reinforce that false belief. It starts with awareness and perhaps a good chat with a friend offline and in life.


Aarons-Mele, M. (2023). The anxious achiever: Turn your biggest fears into your leadership superpower. Harvard Business Review Press.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2023). I, human: AI, automation, and the quest to reclaim what makes us unique. Harvard Business Review Press.

Rubin, G. (2023). Life in five senses how exploring the senses got me out of my head and into the world. Crown.

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