Workplace Culture

The do’s and don’ts of handling emotions in the workplace

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Feb. 24, 2020

Emotions in the workplace can range from outbursts among coworkers due to daily stressors but can also include mental health conditions and outside factors that people bring to work with them. These struggles can make it difficult or uncomfortable to ask for help due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. While breaking the stigma encourages people to seek help and discourage discrimination against them when they do, sometimes the implementation of these efforts cross too many lines. Mark Kluger, founding partner of employment law firm Kluger Healey, spoke to Workforce about what is and is not appropriate when it comes to developing workplace policies that address emotions at work.

stressed out employees at conference table


Workforce: To what extent does an outburst at work due to negative emotions end up resulting in discipline or determination? 

Kluger: I look at it as three different levels. Human emotions, or workplace emotions, can include anything as simple as an argument at work. What I would look at as a potential disciplinary issue could involve an outburst from an employee to another coworker or somebody losing their temper. From a policy standpoint, this can justify discipline or termination, depending on how bad it is. Sexual assault or sexual harassment can also obviously create conflict at work and result in discipline. 

The next level are issues that border on mental health problems that manifest themselves at work, and those two things can bleed into each other. Obviously, somebody with a mental health problem at work can also have outbursts that can result in there being discipline. So, that’s one set of policies that revolves around how people just behave at work toward one another — essentially a civility code — and that kind of civility code, from an employer’s standpoint, can result in people losing their jobs or being disciplined or counseled. 

Another level is the mental health aspect. Employers have to be careful about having policies that specifically address mental health issues because the Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees from being discriminated against on the basis of mental health issues. So, employers have to be very careful not to have policies that delve into people’s medical conditions. There is protection against discrimination for employees who have mental health problems at work where employers do cross over into having to meddle in people’s mental health problems, where those mental health problems cause a disruption at work or cause an employee to not be able to perform their job effectively. There are also times when employers are obligated to engage in what’s called an interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act where they essentially ask employees what’s going on and whether there is something the employer can do to accommodate them. 

Workforce: How do organizations ensure that their policies are respecting and accommodating employees’ needs and privacy while also being effective and not crossing any lines?

Kluger: Employers have to be really careful not to intrude into areas of potential mental health problems or even just people having a bad day. But of course things like anxiety and depression are associated with mood, so when an employer starts asking questions like, “Why are you in a bad mood today?” or, “What’s troubling you?” employers may be crossing that line into areas not only that they shouldn’t be but that they don’t want to be because it can lead to actions by the employer, while maybe unintended, that could appear to be discriminatory. 

Workforce: Does the nature of the workplace culture determine what is deemed appropriate or inappropriate behavior?

Kluger: It depends on the environment, of course, but from an employer’s perspective, it almost doesn’t matter because you can’t have people who are being insubordinate or screaming at their bosses in front of everybody else because it totally breaks down the respect for the authority figures. I mean, in an advertising agency you can maybe have a little more leeway with people being argumentative with one another, but in a police department or a fire department you can’t. There are those kinds of environmental factors to take into consideration, but when people express their emotions at work, it can lead to legitimate reasons for terminating them regardless of what the origin of the emotion is, so I think it’s important to keep that in mind.

Workforce: What role do EAPs play in these situations?

Kluger: EAPs are very common these days, usually as part of a health insurance plan and they’re conducted by outside mental health professionals. I think they are an excellent resource for employers to make available to their employees. The privacy is protected with EAPs because although someone in HR may know that an employee is taking advantage of it, they ultimately don’t know why or what it’s about. So, it is private in a sense that the professionals are outside of the organization and it is a great way for an employer to provide a benefit for employees who need some counseling or guidance. Since so many people need those kinds of resources today, the fact that employers are able to make it available is a real asset to most workplaces.

Workforce: How can workplaces start breaking the stigma against mental illness/coping with that in the workplace?

Kluger: I think it’s probably as much a societal problem as it is a workplace problem. The stigma has been there for a long time, but I think the definition of what a mental health problem is has broadened so much today that I think that most areas of society are starting to loosen up on that stigma, including in the workplace. Because so many people report issues of anxiety and depression and are far more open about it than ever before, I think that stigma is slowly melting away. 

I view it as a generational issue as well. I think that the baby boomer generation may be the last of the generations that attach that stigma. As millennials and Generation Z become more ingrained in management among employers the stigma will all but disappear. I think millennials and Generation Z are far more comfortable and open about anxiety and depression being part of most people’s lives, unfortunately, and less of a problem. So, I do think over time the stigma will disappear and people will feel more comfortable revealing that they’re having mental health problems.

Workforce: What is some advice that you give when counseling HR managers or developing these types of policies?

Kluger: I tell HR professionals to listen and be careful what you ask because you may not want to know. Ultimately, the employer’s job is to get the job done right and if somebody can’t come to work, whether it’s because they’ve got a substance abuse problem or a mental health problem, is sort of irrelevant to the employer. So, while many employers are generous about providing people with time to heal and to get better — obviously there are laws that protect them as well — policies need to be geared to comply with the law but to also be cognizant of the fact that too much information is a dangerous thing for the employer.

Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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