How often do you experience greater or lesser emotional outbursts in business organizations? I guess often enough. It comes mainly out of the blue and lasts a few minutes only. It is like an earthquake, a true disruption. We are trying to forget it and hoping it never occurs again. But it is wishful thinking. What is the reason for the emotional ‘tsunami’? How can HR leaders handle workplace trauma in a business organization?

Embarrassing outburst

I have witnessed a strange phenomenon when I have joined a company many years ago. The employees were – from the outside at least – peaceful and friendly people who liked their jobs. They argued from time to time, but I did not sense destructive conflicts. One day, an employee started to yell, let fly with insults, make rude jokes, slam the door, and left without any reason at first sight. I felt embarrassed, and I was at one’s wit’s end. A few minutes later, the situation changed. The employee came back, calmed down, and everybody – including myself – was relieved. Still, it bore on all of us – who were involved – on that day and the following week. Unfortunately, this person has repeated embarrassing outbursts quarterly.

HR leaders can experience situations I described above. Let’s take a deep dive into the background.

Dealing with negative emotions at workplace

The world became increasingly scary. Economic instability, political risks, climate change, and problems of modern society seriously influence our lives. All that has an enormous impact on the companies as well. With so much pressure to succeed, it’s easy for negative emotions to take hold in the workplace. Negative emotions can arise due to different factors such as job insecurity, workload, leadership quality, or interpersonal conflict.

Research has shown that the average person experiences more negative than positive emotions at work. Let’s see the most common negative emotions experienced in the workplace.

  • Aggression: It may be from yelling and physical aggression to micromanaging or passive-aggressive behavior. Aggression is a serious problem because it can hurt morale, productivity, and safety or can lead to violence and even sexual harassment or assault.
  • Anger: Anger is a frequent stress response. Irritation, outrage, or feeling of injustice can trigger workplace anger. Anger often leads employees to take an expulsive approach and become more destructive than necessary with their actions.
  • Anxiety: Employee anxiety may occur due to job insecurity, unrealistic workloads, conflict with co-workers, or physical environment. Anxiety can cause racing thoughts, concentration, performance, and interaction issues. Anxious employees may be more likely to call in sick or take advantage of work-from-home policies.
  • Pessimism: It is the tendency to expect the worst and prepare for it. Pessimism is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can lead to negative thinking, which impacts productivity and morale. Pessimism can be contagious, quickly spread throughout a work environment, and result in a toxic work culture.
  • Isolation: We can observe isolation if employees feel alone in their workspace and have less personal contact. Those people are feeling not valued or not a part of the company. Common causes for isolation include personal issues, toxic company culture, work setup, and demographics. Isolation negatively impacts job performance and satisfaction.
  • Depression: Depression is an illness that can have a significant impact on an individual’s personal life and ability to perform their job. It includes feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, struggling to concentrate or make decisions, and changes in eating or sleeping patterns. It can lead to job loss, financial problems, and even suicide.
  • Stress: Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. Stress leads employees into an emotional dip (lower happiness level, self-doubt, decreased confidence) when employees should do things that exceed their knowledge, abilities, and coping skills. Stress leads to sleep disturbances, headaches, gastrointestinal upset and cardiovascular disease. The employers experience lack of motivation, labile emotions, increased employee complaints.
  • Burnout: Burnout is triggered mainly by stress and causes less enthusiasm at work, emotional exhaustion, fatigue, short-term memory, reduced productivity, and feelings of being unappreciated.

HR leaders face employees’ negative emotions increasingly. HR leaders should help managers and leaders identify and manage negative emotions and develop the organization’s emotional intelligence.

Old hurt

As you can see, negative emotions are – sadly – present in all enterprises. Nevertheless, frequently repeated high emotions should not be usual. High emotions can often derail productivity and cause absenteeism, sabotage, employee turnover, and tension among employees – including leaders. So, what can be the reason for those high emotions?

Let’s revert to the original case. I had to dig a bit into the past. And there was it! The old hurt. A workplace trauma. One thing, what happened with the employee in the company a few years ago (a sudden role/responsibility change and demotion). What concerned me more than the bad memory was that the negative emotions (feelings of injustice, decreased self-esteem, frustration, bitterness, jealousy) were still there. The employee was angry not only about the demotion in the past but also because he wished he could have done things differently, and it was easier to feel anger than regret. Nobody has ever thought about the impact of that one thing. While the leaders and co-workers heavily judged the employee’s occasional emotional outbursts (anger, pessimism, rude jokes, resistance), the employee suffered silently. It was a disruptive situation without a solution and relief for the employee and the organization.

There are other causes of workplace trauma as well: job insecurity, broken promises, dehumanizing treatment, verbal/physical abuse, toxic workplace culture or workplace practices, being laid off, harassment, bullying, accidents or injuries at work, serious injury or death of a colleague, job roles that deal with tragedy and death. Work-induced emotional trauma can damage people’s self-esteem and their careers too.

Workplace trauma is real

It is inevitable to deal with emotions in the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are physically, mentally, and emotionally. An abusive boss, a racist colleague, a layoff, poisonous coworkers, overworking, and stress can make one’s lives a daily misery. We all have mental scars. Some of us can process these wounds, while others are not. It’s easy to judge people without knowing what they’ve been through and why. The worst part is that workplace trauma is largely unacknowledged.

It’s time managements to step up and support their people to relieve, overcome, and prevent these work-related traumas. They can do this by fostering a collaborative and trusting work culture, supporting managers/leaders by holding meaningful one-on-one meetings, mitigating stress, providing regular feedback, assessing employees’ personalities and how they respond to trauma, and develop emotion regulation abilities.

If companies cannot resolve high emotional outbursts – despite all measures taken – it may become necessary to remove the employee from the workplace for the well-being of co-workers and to dissolve operational risk.

Dear HR leaders, let’s not forget, “Workplace trauma is real. It lingers even when you quit and leaves emotional scars. Advocate for safe workplaces where psychological well-being is achieved.”

Inspirations: 8 negative emotions in the workplace and how managers can deal with them by Yours, Emotional trauma from your past jobs is real. Here’s what can help. by Rebecca Knight

Photo: határtalanKÉPzelet – Veres Anita Photography