Can emotional transparency at work reduce burnout?

Tired businessman working late on laptop while sitting at illuminated desk in office
Many of us do our best to hide our emotions at work but that may not be very healthy. Photo: Getty

Many of us feel like we have to hide our emotions at work. Whether we’re feeling angry, sad or stressed, it can seem easier to adopt a ‘keep calm and carry on’ attitude and leave our emotions at the door. But according to experts, being open and honest about our feelings – or emotionally transparent – can benefit us more than we realise.

Emotions are a part of being human, yet it’s still a taboo to show how we feel at work. According to research by TotalJobs, a third of all UK workers conceal their emotions with a positive facade and 30% of line managers consider the expression of emotions at work to be a sign of weakness.

Men are more emotional in the workplace than women, the research suggests – and are twice as likely to shout or even quit their jobs because of their emotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a third of emotional events in the workplace are triggered by people rather than the work itself.

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However, covering up our emotions can lead to problems. Often, feelings of sadness, anger or frustration point to an underlying problem such as being overworked or burned out. Rather than seeing tears as a sign of weakness, it’s more useless to use emotions as cues to understand and address underlying issues.

“Discussing emotions can help build relationships between colleagues, create a more positive work environment, and even improve productivity,” says Life Coach Directory member Kaidi Bowen, a careers expert. “If employees are happy, they are more likely to be productive and are less likely to burnout. The work gets done with their emotional wellbeing intact.”

The act of ‘expressing your feelings’ can help people feel more in control, Bowen explains. Emotional transparency can lead to a positive atmosphere of understanding and respect, while improving communication and understanding. This can reduce stress and anxiety which can lead to burnout.

“Being transparent is always important, but even more so when it comes to negative emotions,” adds Bowen. “These can fester if they’re not exposed and cleared through open dialogue.”

However, being honest about your feelings can come with pitfalls. “One potential downside of being honest about how you are feeling at work is that it can lead to conflict,” says Bowen. “If you are honest about your feelings, it can be difficult to remain professional and not take things personally.”

Additionally, an emotional outburst – while sometimes unavoidable – is rarely a good thing. It may come across as unprofessional, so if possible, it’s better to arrange a conversation about how you’re feeling before things boil over.

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So how can employers encourage an emotionally transparent workplace environment?

Firstly, employers need to create a culture where vulnerability is accepted and understood as a part of the human experience. “Communication is key so that all voices are heard,” says Bowen. “People need to acknowledge that emotions exist at work and people’s lives and work are no longer separate, but closely intertwined.”

Leading by example is paramount. Leaders need to be willing to be vulnerable and open about their feelings to build trust, so employees know they can share their emotions without fear of retribution.

Regular one-to-ones stop the build-up of anxiety when things aren’t going well, but often, these are more of a tick-box exercise than a productive experience. Rather than being a cursory task, employees should be able to use these meetings to be open about any issues that they may be facing.

One-to-one meetings are only worthwhile if managers are able to stay calm and accept criticism without becoming defensive.

“Regular, honest feedback helps build trust and reassures employees they are doing a job well, preventing additional stress about how they are performing,” says Bowen.

Creating space for colleagues to chat is important too. “This is essential, especially where people work remotely or in different locations as it will encourage staff to be more open with each other,” says Bowen. “Employers also need to create an anonymous feedback channel to give themselves insight into how people are feeling, so they can listen and respond.”

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