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Escaping emotional traps in the workplace

23 May 2017

Silhouette of stressed office worker

The emotional traps facing employees in the workplace have been identified by a Cardiff University academic in a new publication.

In his analysis of workplace emotions, Professor Dirk Lindebaum of Cardiff Business School identifies two different pathways - or emotional traps - that can lead to emotion repression at work.

As well as supressing emotions such as anger because of fear of sanctions, employees are also subject to emotional exploitation - shaming workers into better performance is just one example.

Both paths lead to negative health consequences for workers and, ultimately, have repercussions for organisations.

Professor Lindebaum said: “Emotions are often used by organisations to manipulate and repress workers. So what? you might say... Are organisations not supposed to explore ways to control the behaviour of their staff so that it supports the bottom line of the organisation? To some extent, of course, but there are considerable costs to workers in the form of adverse psychological, physiological and social consequences as a result of that repression...”

“By identifying two pathways – one in which the social function of emotions are exploited, and one where the talk about emotion override its social function – the aim of my work is to help workers see through emotional repression at work, and to offer emotion regulation as a means for workers to emancipate themselves from that repression.”

As a response, Professor Lindebaum suggests that emotional regulation can help workers escape emotional traps in the workplace.

He added: “Individuals are able to influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions. For instance, in the case of shame, I suggest the use of re-appraisal (e.g., “this doesn’t affect me”) to protect workers from the consequences of unjustified attributions of shame. In the case of anger, if anger is motivated by moral concerns, I suggest it should be genuinely and constructively expressed.

“These strategies may work in the short to medium term but, in the long term, workers may eventually change jobs due to the accumulating costs that both pathways entail for them. In both cases, if staff turnover becomes unsustainable, the organisation may seek to change the social structures causing the repression of workers in the first place.”

The research is detailed in Emancipation Through Emotion Regulation at Work, published by Elgar publishing and available now.

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