Workplace Contagion: Bleeding Out Emotionally at the Watercooler

One of my favorite movies is The Shining.  This may result from an inordinate amount of time spent in creepy hotels while traveling for business, often overcome by the urge to scream “Redrum!” as I wait for the elevator in a hotel hall that is a close approximation of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel while fully expecting the elevator doors to open and disgorge a flood of blood (famous scene).  Rather than some morbid obsession with blood (I actually suffer from a reverse hemophobia, the irrational fear of blood, resulting in my blood pressure dropping even if I see a particularly bloody scene on television, which makes it particularly tricky to watch my favorite vampire shows like Buffy or The Vampire Diaries (a guilty pleasure)—typically, hemophobics suffer increased blood pressure, resulting in perceived anxiety—I just had to be different, didn’t I?), I find this particular scene meaningful in the world of non-profit management.  Despite my particular hangup, I’ve been flashing back to that scene lately, and came to the recent revelation that it has applicability to the world of non-profits.  All work and no play make’s Psychologistmimi a dull girl.  Wait, that’s not where I was going with this.  Not yet, at any rate.

Perhaps the phenomenon is not recent, but it certainly seems to have been exacerbated in the current world of non-profits.  I’ve termed the phenomena “workplace bleeding-out”.  Of course, I am talking about “emotional” bleeding-out, as if you encounter actual physical bleeding-out at work, you should probably be on the phone the hospital.  Perhaps I’m becoming a grumpy old person, although a girl resents the implication that she is getting older, as I believe an increase in emotional outbursts at work is closely associated with the latest generation to enter the workforce—the Millennials (born in the 1980’s).  Emotional hemorrhaging at work seems to be characteristic of this generation, and if you are in non-profit management these days, it is a reality you have to contend with.

A number of characteristics have been associated with the Millennial generation (cruise any human resources website and you’ll find lots of articles on managing Millennial employees):  (1) expectations for instant gratification, (2) short attention spans, (3) still growing up, (4) have never existed in a world without computers, (5) everyone expects to be famous, (6) multiple personalities (see my previous blog on social media).  I suspect all these qualities are present in any generation, and are simply a function of the media sneering at the next generation that’s coming up in the workforce.  And I think they miss the point.  The only new quality I see that differentiates the Millennial from other, older employees is the extreme tendency to “bleed-out” emotionally at work.  The notion of behaving “professionally” seems these days to extend only to how people expect others to treat them (and even that has little relation to the idea of being calm, cool, efficient, and respectful, rather requires others to celebrate their mediocrity).  There are certainly plenty of life events that merit emotional crises, and no doubt it is very hard to prevent calamitous, significant, or devastating personal events from affecting one’s work.  That is not what I’m talking about.  Bad things certainly happens, and a good working environment rolls with the punches and understands that it is often impossible to form the level of detachment necessary to not let the occurrence of bad things influence you.  This is also not what I’m talking about.

The newest trend in the workplace is to allow every emotion to bleed over into the workplace in the name of “keeping it real”.  Not a day goes by at my workplace where an employee isn’t busy having an emotional breakdown, rolling their eyes, talking back disrespectfully to a supervisor, crying uncontrollably, or poisoning the collective well with a stream of negative emotions.  And these things aren’t about deaths in the family or awful divorces, rather minor offenses against self-esteem or a feeling that they are not valued.  Very little effort is made to check one’s emotions at the door, since “keeping it real” seems to entail saying whatever one feels like, whenever one feels like it.  I’m all for free expression, but when it amount to one person being able to behave or say whatever they want with no repercussions while those around them are expected simply to bear the brunt of an emotional flood, tirade, or rant.  It’s nice to want to be yourself, but I live in society, where living together involves curtailing the desire to “keep it real” in the interest of getting along with people.  If you truly want to keep it real, get yourself a cabin off the grid in Montana and write your manifesto.  Otherwise you’re just taking advantage of other people’s tolerance.  And why is it that is often the most disingenuous person that insists they are just “keeping it real”, as they spill out a tirade of insults, and that others listen to them in the name of professionalism or an imagined quest for “authenticity”.  If I hear the phrase one more time, I may indulge in a primal scream.  Just because you have strong emotions about something, does not mean (1) the level of emotion is merited by the cause, (2) that expressing the emotion openly has anything to do with being authentic, (3) you have a God-given right to inflict yourself upon others, regardless of circumstance.

Now, I’m a psychologist.  I understand humans have emotional states that often can govern our thoughts and actions.  You can’t just turn your emotions off as you step out of the elevator and face every work day with a cold, hard logic like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock.  But there is a significant difference between feeling emotional and bleeding-out.  Emotional outbursts happen.  We all have them.  This is normal.  Bleeding-out on the other hand is when a never-ending stream of emotions erupt into the day-to-day work, uncensored, unbridled, and unpleasant to be around, turning work into a minefield for your co-workers.  This is the kind of emotionality that turns a workplace environment toxic and starts affecting all of those around you, the emotional equivalent of a biohazard.  At this rate, we will all have to wear hazmat suits just to do an office deskjob.

In part I like to think this is a result of the younger generation having been coddled and continuously told they were great despite obvious mediocrity. In our effort to build up individual and collective self-esteem we created workplace biohazards.  Individuals now come to the workplace thinking they can emotionally vent whenever they feel like it, whether at the water cooler, coffee station or photocopier.  When I feel the need for a coffee I really do not want to be subjected to hearing about how sad, angry or disappointed someone is in their boss, mother or sexual partner.  I just want coffee. I don’t need a side order of bitter with it.  When I am photocopying, it is bad enough that the machine is likely to tear my paper up and send it into oblivion and I’ll have to wait another two weeks for it to be fixed. I don’t need to worry about someone detailing everything they hate about their job, but saying that what they are saying is unofficial, off the record. Really? If it is unofficial, take it elsewhere–like home for instance and maybe consider quitting.  If you cannot afford to quit immediately, take a chill pill then.

If you’ve never had to manage people, and are about to argue with me…consider this.  I’ve been an employee and an employer.  Just like there are bad bosses and good bosses, there are bad employees and good employees.  Hating your job.  Check.  Done that.  Hating your boss.  Check done that.  Feeling the work is demeaning.  Yes.  Been there.  Wondering why you get up in the morning and make the commute?  Been there, too.  I may burden close family and friends with my doubts and feelings, but the workplace is not the proper venue.  It’s a captive audience.  It’s like being forced to make small talk at a party with someone you can’t stand out of politeness.  Other people at work can’t get away from you and exacerbating the toxic nature of the environment you have created.

Not all emotional bleeding is full of bitterness and anger. Sometimes we get subjected to outright mania as well. The overly jubilant employee who kind of reminds you of the Joker and how underneath that etched-in smile is a cauldron of maliciousness and venom waiting to boil over and spill out. It is amazing that some people put on an emotional show over very minor things (e.g. feedback on a written document) while people undergoing a traumatic life events such as cancer or the death of a loved one  can keep their emotions in check. Sometimes you wouldn’t even know that those in the midst of heavy trauma are going through something life-changing. They’re probably being drowned out by someone who feels their job title doesn’t adequately reflect their as of yet unproven, but assumed genius.  God help us if the prima donna, emotional biohazard chips a nail. Ok. That is a bit of an exaggeration. But you know what I am talking about. As you are reading this, you can probably point to one these emotional workplace toxic spills. Hopefully, you are not one of them.  Of course, when you point out to these emotional bleeders what they are doing, they may feign understanding. But what do they immediately do? They immediately run and bring down other people with them. Infect others with their emotions.  And of course, decry you as “unprofessional”.  If you are overwhelmed with emotion at everything in your life, find an outlet that isn’t work.  Write an anonymous blog, for instance.

The question becomes at this point, is the workplace an appropriate place to bleed out?  Many of us are, at minimum, stuck for at least 8 hours in the workplace. We may actually spend more time with our work colleagues than our family members.   Of course, when you work in a non-profit there is the claim that the workplace constitutes a family.  But do we really want to try to bond with our workplace colleagues as if they were part of our family and friends network? At the end of the day, you get paid to produce a product.  Whether that product is a report, a service or an event. Just because you hang out together after work for happy hour (or even if you get a drink together during the day) does that mean you can just insert your emotional outbursts into any part of the work day production?  There is overall a sense of entitlement that these bleeders exude, feeling that they have every right to spill their emotions wherever they walk.  They claim to own their emotions, but what they really are engaged in is making everyone else own those emotions.  My advice?  Put a Band-Aid on it and save it for your loved ones, the people who will value your emotions.

American author Daniel Goleman observed, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”  And for heaven’s sake, don’t have a hissy and then harass those around you who are trying to set your personal problems aside until the deadline is met.


3 replies »

  1. Thank you, thank you from this (grumpy older) social worker and senior manager in a nonprofit. There has been much wailing, gnashing of teeth, and general poisonous spewing since our agency received a less-than glowing (though fair) audit from our primary funder. While I can’t speak to the corporate world, this emotional hemmorhaging is too often encouraged in the human services arena, under the mistaken notion that ‘venting’ is ‘healing’.
    A side note – attending a recent professional meeting, I stayed in a place that carried a different association – Barton Fink.


    • Haha. Thanks for sharing. Absolutely agree with you in that venting is put forth as a healing process. If i have to sit through one more “process” meeting i may need several primal screams a day.


  2. i understand what you are saying and also Daniel Goleman’s advice.
    But does your article, opinions and thoughts apply when at workplace colleagues have clearly breached the company’s code of conduct and local legislative requirements for a safe and friendly workplace environment i.e. harassment (sex, racism, religion, gender ) and bullying/mobbing ?


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