Stories, and Emotions at Work


Worker disengagement is at extraordinary levels - in Australia, according to Gallup, over 75% of the workforce is disengaged, worldwide the figure is 87%. 

While the causes and solutions for this epidemic in lack of workplace engagement are no doubt many, varied and complex, I want to suggest one cause/solution for this problem, relating to emotions.

Emotions are not welcome at work, and it is an annoying inconvenience that despite this, they show up there anyway, unwanted and often without warning. As a result much is written, designed and developed to help us ‘manage’ our emotions at work. 

A quick Google search of the term ‘emotions at work’ brings up a list, most of which have one of the following words in the title: cope, control, manage or handle. At the bottom of the Google page is a list of suggested search terms. They include: 

  • how to separate emotions from work

  • how to control emotions at work crying

  • managing frustration at work

  • managing emotions in the workplace

  • what is emotional management

  • managing emotions at work 

You get the picture. Expressing emotions at work is not professional. So we shut down, swallow, ruminate, suppress, numb, paper over and pretend we are not feeling anything or if we are, we are ‘fine’. This is the unspoken, accepted culture that is ‘work’.

Yet the evidence is clear - suppressing or numbing of some emotions, leads to the suppression or numbing of all emotions. We don’t have the ability to selectively suppress, we have one emotional gateway, and any barrier on it affects the flow of all emotions.

This means joy, delight, inspiration and engagement are all suppressed in the name of ‘professionalism’.  And that leads to emotions showing up in other ways - in our bodies, vented at home, or in mental ill health. 

Even workplaces that embrace a well-being culture usually do so with the idea of increasing the happy, positive emotions. This can inadvertently create a culture of ‘happiology’ - where if I’m not happy all the time there is something wrong with me. The cultural expectation becomes ‘happy happy joy joy’, leaving even less room to indicate that all might not be so rosy in my inner world. 

There is of course a host of reasons the workplace has evolved to keep emotions at bay - emotions are messy - they are hard to predict, process, or express. They reverberate in unexpected ways, they can be overwhelming and destructive.

And yet despite all our attempts to eliminate them, emotions come with us, and need our attention - wherever we go. 

Mental health issues are rampant in society and therefore they are rampant in the workplace. But because we aren't meant to bring our emotions to work, we don't have the skills, processes or tools, to deal with our own or anyone else's human struggles. So we siphon common garden human emotion off into something done somewhere else with a stranger through an EAP program (Employee Assistance Program) or a private counsellor. And so the cycle or dehumanising our workplace and our relationships at work continues. 

But there is a simple tool, combined with a simple process, that can have a profound impact. I am talking about story, ritualised personal story sharing, and crafted, reflected story telling. 

No one wants work to become a therapy session, but story is how we make sense of our experiences whether we are over the moon with joy or working our way through a trauma, its how we integrate our emotions, thoughts and action, and the more we give voice to our experiences and listen to each other, the better we are.

Stories are the heart beat of an organisation and creating time and space to tell and listen, is to enable our organisations, and ourselves, to be the change we want to be in the world. 

Interested to hear more about how story works to humanise the workplace, join us for our first StoryWorks event. 6pm, June 12, Melbourne.