Better out than in?

Posted on March 24, 2012


Have you ever cried in front of your boss, marched past a crowd of colleagues with your skirt tucked into your knickers, or accidentally said ‘penis’ to a client? If, like me, you can answer with three yes’s, then you’ll be very familiar with this boardroom juggling feat – being professional, while also being human.

As a teen, I remember when hitting 20 seemed so far away, and so grown up. I also recall making the vague assumption that leaving University and getting a ‘real job’ would mark a significant milestone in my life – leaving the petty squabbles of student days behind, for the serene, conflict-free vista of office life.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself lurching between serious meetings, and having soft toys chucked at my head, with a great manager (You Know Who You Are). The picture of decorum, it was not, but we got the work done. Upholding professional gravitas also gets tricky when you have to cycle to a shower-less office on a sweaty summer’s morning, and reek like a rancid dog all day. Not quite the sophisticated, professional dream of my teens.

One shred of wisdom I’ve picked up along my 26-year journey, is that age doesn’t always beget wisdom. Unfortunately getting older doesn’t mean we experience any less anger, irritation or irrational jealousy towards the people we spend time with; we just try to be mature about it. Cloaking ourselves in a veneer of professionalism at work, in theory, allows us to control our wayward emotions better. But in fact bottling up negative feelings can simply push us closer to boiling point. Or it can push that colleague you hate down the fire escape.

Nicollette Sheridan, better known as Edie from Desperate Housewives, recently became embroiled in an off-set cat fight with the show’s creator Marc Cherry, when she brought a lawsuit against him for unfair dismissal. Sheridan alleges that her character was killed off from the show after she complained that Cherry had hit her on set, which he denies. Cherry then listed a catalogue of unprofessional actions, including punctuality, forgetting lines and being rude to a prop worker, that lead to Sheridan being let go.

Unlike Edie, you probably won’t be killed off if you act up at work, but you could find yourself having to resolve serious office politics, which have come as the result of pent up emotional outbursts, in an employment tribunal. The Ministry of Justice recorded 831,000 cases received by the Tribunals Service in 2010-2011, which marks a 31% rise since 2008.

We spend so much of our lives on the employment hamster wheel, often seeing our colleagues more than our own families, so it’s hardly surprising that things can get a bit tense in the workplace. And yet the traditional paradigm, that home is our realm for emotion and work a space for rational thought only, still seems to rule office life.

Work stress getting too much?

Which leads me to that ultimate career kiss of death – weeping at work.  Nobody wants to break down into tears during a meeting, but it happens. Yet losing control can still be considered a weakness in corporate culture, and a fast-track to losing the respect of fellow employees. Author Anne Kreamer, in a study of 700 Americans last year, revealed that 41 per cent of women had shed tears at work, compared with just 9 per cent of men. This could be down to social conditioning that leads men to react to stress with anger rather than tears, and also that women actually have much smaller tear ducts than men, so it’s physically harder for us to hold back the waterworks. Whether or not this dispels any myths that more frequent crying episodes make women weaker than men (it does), it seems pretty archaic that displays of emotion in the office should be treated with disdain.

Over the last decade the world has been undergoing a wellbeing revolution. Ideology on how to look after mental health, fit relaxation into daily routines and better express emotions has permeated our hectic schedules, and the only facet of modern life that has yet to really catch up with this is work. If we’re all meditating before breakfast and finishing the day sipping green tea in downward dog yoga poses, the notion that behaving like a robot in the office is preferable to the occasional display of real human emotion just doesn’t make sense anymore.

It seems an old adage might still hold true, and as my Gran used to eloquently put it, some things are just: ‘better out than in, dear’.