Phoebe Gavin is a life coach and author of The Workplace Guide to Time Management.
Humans run on emotions. We can’t turn off our feelings any more than we can turn off our heartbeats. You have emotional reactions to work, just like you do to every other aspect of life.
No one minds when work makes you feel thrilled, proud, hopeful or grateful. But when work inevitably causes difficult feelings like frustration, anger, envy or sadness, you feel pressure to ‘leave your emotions at the door’.
This long-standing, pervasive professional norm causes far more problems than it solves – especially as it relates to work-life balance.
One particular workplace emotion is a driving factor of overwork: anxiety. Some anxiety is healthy and even helpful. If you have the jitters before a big presentation, putting in extra time to rehearse might be the right response. But most overwork isn’t healthy. Think of the last time you came in early, stayed late, skipped lunch or hesitated to take a holiday. Something drove that behavior and it was probably anxiety.
You might have been nervous about how difficult a task would be. Or concerned about hitting a deadline. Or worried about whether your work is good enough – if you are good enough. So you compensated by overworking.
Simply working more isn’t the best solution to any of those problems. But in the moment, when that anxiety is nagging (or screaming) from the back of your mind, you simply want to do something to reduce the pressure.
While putting in some extra hours or postponing that vacation gives you relief in the short term, it wrecks your lifestyle in the long term. This is why – despite all those platitudes about feelings having no place at work – emotional regulation is one of the most powerful professional skills you can develop.
Difficult emotions like fear and anger are generated in the most primal part of our brain, the limbic system, which protected our hunter-gatherer ancestors from scary things like sabertooth tigers. When the limbic system senses a threat, it spurs you to take immediate action.
But at work, we don’t live in a world full of dangerous predators, hazardous terrain and rival clans. We live in a world of emails, deadlines, conniving co-workers and demanding bosses. But your limbic system can’t tell the difference between a client and a cliff. It only sees threats and non-threats.
Emotional regulation is about being able to switch to the most advanced part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, to respond in a constructive way that’s aligned with your values and supports your long-term goals. It’s about calling on your executive function, the cognitive process underpinning self-control, even when you’re feeling under threat.
So how do you break the anxiety-overwork connection? Mindfulness.
Get comfortable with the fact that you will have emotions like anxiety at work. Learn to label it as anxiety, identify its triggers and switch out of your limbic brain and into your prefrontal cortex.
‘I feel anxious because of X. My instinct is to do Y. But, before I do that, I’m going to make sure it supports my long-term happiness. What’s another action that could resolve the underlying problem without overworking?’
Nervous about a difficult or time-consuming task? Make a plan. Concerned about hitting a deadline? Ask for help. Worried about whether you’re good enough? Ask for feedback.
Sometimes following the caveman brain’s cue to work more makes sense. But, most of the time, there’s a better solution hiding in the advanced brain.