by Mona Maria Winkler und Danja Schuster
What do you think of when you talk about mental health?
No matter where we turn our gaze – be it the flourishing range of literature, workshops on personal development or stress management, or even the findings of positive psychology – everywhere we look we find evidence that happiness, contentment and positive emotions in general seem to be the ultimate goals we are supposed to achieve in our lives. The recommendation to “do what brings you joy” is by no means only valid for private life. The “pursuit of happiness” now also applies to the choice of workplace, at least in our cultural context.
Conversely, employers also want happy employees. Positive emotions have already been linked in empirical studies to a wide variety of desirable aspects: they increase job satisfaction, motivation, commitment, organizational citizenship behavior and also employee performance. Thus, in recent years, there has been an increased focus in science and in guidebooks on how we can generate and promote positive emotions, i.e. how we can succeed in the “affect shift” towards more positive emotionality 1,2,3,4.
Perhaps also because positive emotions are so much more pleasant, more welcome for each of us than their so unpopular siblings of the negative emotional world of experience. Who likes to feel sad, angry or helpless? We all prefer to feel content, confident and successful.
Controlling unwanted emotions and their outward signs is considered an indispensable skill for professional success. And to a certain extent, emotional regulation ability is that too – essential for professionalism and successful cooperation with other people. Nevertheless, expert opinions and study results are increasingly coming to light, suggesting that we should not overlook one important point: What regulating our own emotions costs us.5,6,7
Anyone who has had to regularly push aside “undesirable” emotions in their professional or private life in order to suggest confidence, friendliness and self-assurance, at least on the outside, knows how tremendously frustrating this can be: Always being overly friendly and courteous in daily customer contact, even though the team is chronically understaffed and your own health or relationship is suffering at the moment. Being enthusiastically motivated for the new project in the team meeting, even though you hardly get enough sleep between home schooling and home office. Emotional labor is the appropriate name for this conscious control of unwanted emotions in a professional environment. After all, it’s really hard work, especially when one’s own corporate culture or professional tasks leave little room for emotions that don’t radiate positivity, while everyday life is characterized by uncertainty, pressure and hectic activity.8,9
Many may now rightly ask: But isn’t that exactly why it’s called work and not pleasure – because it requires effort and self-regulation over and above personal difficulties and feelings to keep appearing professionally and to perform? The problem here is that it has been shown repeatedly that actively moving away from what we actually feel towards emotions that are desired or expected in the context is not only associated with short and long-term costs for the individual employee, but also with costs for the organization. The “emotion work” towards desired feelings that are so different from what we actually feel leads to the exact opposite of productivity: more emotional exhaustion, lower work performance and counterproductive behavior towards colleagues and superiors – mostly quite unconsciously! Ongoing emotional labor thus appears to be a major risk factor not only for sick leave, but also for the work climate and unfavorable dynamics between employees. 10,11,12,13
So what do we do now with the realization that we cannot expect ourselves and our employees to regularly display emotions that they do not feel at all without negative consequences? Do we need an organizational culture in which all emotions may be acted out without restriction and at any time? That is probably not very realistic either.
Do we only employ people who are continuously happy, confident and motivated? If that were our premise, we would probably have to dismiss 99% of all employees – including ourselves, presumably.
The good news is: we are not completely at the mercy of our emotions. Healthy emotion regulation without long-term consequences for people and organizations is possible. The secret is to find ways to authentically feel more positive emotions over the long term. This includes, first, mindfully noticing all the small positive moments and celebrating small successes. In addition, we can train ourselves to recognize needs and values, and to respond competently to difficult emotions – without simply pushing them away or distracting ourselves from them. This set of skills is called “emotional competence.” These skills actually lead to the previously mentioned and multiple positive effects on job performance and job satisfaction, as well as a decrease in burnout and emotional exhaustion.14,15
So how to learn them? And even more exciting: how to enable your employees to do so? This is exactly what we deal with in our multimodal seminars on Mental Health and in our coaching offers. Just get in touch with us!
1 Colquitt, J. A., Scott, B. A., Rodell, J. B., Long, D. M., Zapata, C. P., Conlon, D. E., & Wesson, M. J. (2013). Justice at the millennium, a decade later: A meta-analytic test of social exchange and affect-based perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 199–236. 2 Todorova, G., Bear, J. B., & Weingart, L. R. (2014). Can conflict be energizing? A study of task conflict, positive emotions, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 451–467. 3 Bledow, R., Schmitt, A., Frese, M., & Kühnel, J. (2011). The affective shift model of work engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96, 1246–1257. 4 Yang, L. Q., Simon, L. S., Wang, L., & Zheng, X. (2016). To branch out or stay focused? Affective shifts differentially predict organizational citizenship behavior and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 831–845. 5 Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self-Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 115–128. 6 Grandey, A. A., & Gabriel, A. S. (2015). Emotional labor at a crossroads: Where do we go from here? Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2, 323–349. 7 Scott, B. A., Awasty, N., Johnson, R. E., Matta, F. K., & Hollenbeck, J. R. (2020). Origins and destinations, distances and directions: Accounting for the journey in the emotion regulation process. Academy of Management Review, 45, 423–446. 8 Grandey, A. A. 2003. When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-related service delivery. Academy of Management Review, 46: 86–96. 9 Grandey, A. A., & Melloy, R. C. 2017. The state of the heart: Emotional labor as emotion regulation reviewed and revisited. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22: 407–422. 10 Hulsheger, U. R., & Schewe, A. F. 2011. On the costs and benefits of emotional labor: A meta-analysis of three decades of research. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 16: 361–389. 11 Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., DeChurch, L. A., & Wax, A. 2012. Moving emotional labor beyond surface and deep acting: A discordance-congruence perspective. Organizational Psychology Review, 2: 6–5 12 Scott, B. A., Awasty, N., Johnson, R. E., Matta, F. K., & Hollenbeck, J. R. (2020). Origins and destinations, distances and directions: Accounting for the journey in the emotion regulation process. Academy of Management Review, 45, 423–446 13 Frank, E. L., Matta, F. K., Sabey, T. B., & Rodell, J. B. (2021). What does it cost you to get there? The effects of emotional journeys on daily outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000908 14 Offermann, L. R., Bailey, J. R., Vasilopoulos, N. L., Seal, C., & Sass, M. (2004). The relative contribution of emotional competence and cognitive ability to individual and team performance. Human Performance, 17, 219–243. 10.1207/s15327043hup1702_5 15 Schlegel, K., Mehu, M., van Peer, J. M., & Scherer, K. R. (2018). Sense and sensibility: The role of cognitive and emotional intelligence in negotiation. Journal of Research in Personality, 74, 6–15. 10.1016/j.jrp.2017.12.003 https://www.zukunftsinstitut.de/artikel/siegeszug-der-emotionen/