A workplace trainer provides some thoughts on healthy interpersonal interactions, self-care and the elimination of bullying in the workplace
From the "Workplace Bullying and Harassment" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (4), pp. 38-40
When I was young, we were taught to be polite and respectful and to have patience and understanding for others. Since then, for some reason, the idea of being civil and respectful to one another seems to have gone by the wayside. We see bad behaviour when we drive our cars, wait in line for coffee, try to talk to our bosses about concerns and in all sorts of other day-to-day situations. Are we in too much of a hurry, too busy and tired? Are our lives too stressful for us to care about each other today? Are we all struggling from compassion fatigue? Maybe it’s a combination of all of those things.
The lack of civility I see in some workplaces often leads to very dysfunctional relationships between supervisors or managers and their staff, sometimes leading to bullying and harassment. In my experience as both a manager and a workplace trainer, I’ve heard of many bullying claims made to WorkSafeBC but ultimately rejected—not because there isn’t a serious issue, but because the circumstances do not meet WorkSafeBC’s rigid test of bullying and harassment. But if we look closely at the circumstances of the complaint, we sometimes see a supervisor or manager who doesn’t know how to lead or deal with difficult situations. I wonder if we are doing a disservice to those whom we put—often unprepared—into leadership positions.
We tend to take those who are an expert in their role—efficient, accurate, energetic and full of great ideas for the future—and promote them into leadership roles. We put them in charge of large teams of people with heavy workloads and don’t help them to develop the leadership skills to lead, manage, mentor and support their staff. We expect them to jump in with both feet, learn on the go, and we provide little in terms of expectations or support; we just sit back and expect them to be successful. That lack of guidance can take a huge emotional toll on the leader’s mental health, which then creates stressors for everyone around them. And if the team is one that is public-facing, frequent incivility by the public just contributes to the stress of the team.
The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace
To be a good leader requires a range of skills that can be learned with coaching and mentoring. But a good leader also requires “emotional intelligence,” which takes more self-analysis and work. A leader with higher levels of emotional intelligence can reduce their own stress while positively impacting the effectiveness of the team. But what is emotional intelligence? How do we know if we have it? And if not, how do we get it?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the ability to recognize and appropriately respond to the emotional distress of others. Improving our emotional intelligence can help us
- have insight into our emotional triggers
- identify our emotions and the sources of our feelings
- reduce the likelihood of making poor choices
- manage conflict more effectively
There are many things we can do to increase our own emotional intelligence:
- Build resilience by identifying your personal stressors and the barriers you face when you need to address those stressors (for more detail, see the related resources at the end of this article)
- Change how we interact with others; practise using active listening skills and be aware of our emotional responses to the other person and to our interactions
- Communicate more effectively: use empathic, supportive and non-judgemental language
Compassion fatigue and tips for prevention
I wondered earlier in this article if we might all be struggling with compassion fatigue. The term, coined by traumatic stress studies scholar Charles Figley in the mid-1990s,1 refers to a combination of symptoms, including physical and mental exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, a profound decrease in the ability to empathize and the individual’s sense of “becoming jaded.” Compassion fatigue is often the result of the sort of stress that occurs when we try every day to help others in need—and for this reason is frequently referred to as the “cost of caring.” Compassion fatigue can happen if we’re spending a lot of energy helping family members like aging or sick parents and our children, our clients or students, the general public or even our staff.
Sometimes, we are so fatigued that we reach a point where we start to blame others for our profound exhaustion, we complain to colleagues, we may work harder or longer and neglect our own needs and interests and we may even start thinking we should change careers. I have been there myself. But at that point, what we really need to do is to take a good look at what’s happening inside us and actively decide that we need to start taking better care of ourselves and start practising prevention techniques.
If you are feeling emotionally drained or empty, or if you are feeling like you want everyone to leave you alone, or if you are feeling like you want to run away on your own, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Here are a few things you can do:
- Start to honour your own emotional needs and practise self-compassion. Find time for yourself every day, develop strong social support at home and work and ask for help when you need it
- Set emotional boundaries: keep your ability to empathize with others’ situations but don’t get pulled in completely so you start feeling their pain and stress. Develop outside activities and hobbies and put your own health and wellness at the top of your priority list
- Use positive coping strategies (don’t sublimate what you’re feeling by drinking alcohol or using substances, or by otherwise ignoring it). Try the following:
- Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night (shut down your devices two hours before bedtime, and practise mindfulness to help you fall asleep)
- Eat a healthy diet; limit junk food and set aside time to eat rather than eating on the go
- Practise deep, regular breathing (see the related resources at the end of this article)
- Practise work-life balance. Prioritize your personal time, learn to say no, shut down work devices when you go home and do more of what you love
- Always try to end your day with a positive experience—talk to a friend about a fun activity, make a plan for a holiday, go to the gym or cook a meal or work in the garden or play music if you like doing those activities
- Seek support from co-workers, family and community (many of us give support but rarely ask for it)
- Take breaks during the work day: we exhaust ourselves if we work all day without taking time to rejuvenate
- Take time during the work day to physically relax your body: let your shoulders lower, feel the tension drain from your muscles
- Walk, and if you can, do it in nature, which has a calming effect
- Treat yourself when you need a boost: go for a walk on the beach or have dinner with a friend, go to a yoga class or have a massage or mini-holiday—whatever makes you feel better
- Try mindfulness or meditation practice—either of these can help you become calm and stay that way
- Talk about difficult situations (tell a co-worker or supervisor about a tough call or a difficult interaction; others can support you and possibly reframe the experience to help you put it into perspective)
- Seek professional counselling if the above do not work
Self-care and the four aspects of self
Another way to look at coping skills is to think about our four aspects of self from a prevention perspective. How can we address our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being in a way that ensures we stay healthy even when we may have to deal with stress in our home and work lives? What are you doing right now to make sure each of these aspects of your life is healthy?
- Physical. What are you doing physically to regularly renew and recharge? Do you walk? Run? Play a sport? Go to the gym? Garden? If you are not doing this today, start now.
- Emotional. What makes you feel valued and appreciated for your contributions? If you are not receiving that validation at work, tell your supervisor what you need for that to happen.
- Mental. How can you change your work day so that you have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on your most important tasks and define when and where you get your work done?
- Spiritual. We each have our own definition of “spiritual.” Often, it’s the way you bring peace, purpose, connection, love, beauty and meaning into your life. Do more of what you define as spiritual. That might include being out in nature, meditating or listening to music or poetry. If that means getting someone to help babysit a few hours a week so that you take a full lunch hour so you can go for a walk instead of eating on the run, then do it.
If we all learn to stay emotionally and psychologically healthy rather than rushing through life without caring about ourselves or others, we might reduce incivility in our lives. Being civil and kind to others begins when we have made the time to be civil and kind to ourselves. When we treat ourselves with respect, we naturally start to treat others with compassion and kindness. When we do that, we may be able to eliminate bullying and harassment from our lives as well. We would all be much happier.
For more information on emotional intelligence, including an emotional intelligence skills assessment, see www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/psychological-health-and-safety/emotional-intelligence.
For information on mindful breathing techniques, visit ca.ctrinstitute.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Exercises-for-Emotion-Regulation-1.pdf.
For more information on developing effective strategies to help you bounce back after a crisis and build resilience, see www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/employee-resources/plan-for-resilience.
For more information on compassion fatigue, see www.tendacademy.ca/resources.
About the author
Lucette is a CMHA workplace trainer with 40 years of experience in management. She has seen the toll that psychological struggles and stigma have taken on people’s lives and has learned that we need to practise regular self-care to stay well. She promotes early intervention whenever she facilitates a workshop
Figley, C.R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Routledge.