As businesses return to offices and prepare for work post-COVID, creating a calm working environment for your staff is of paramount importance. Annie Kane sits down with conversational intelligence practitioner and professional people whisperer Anneli Blundell to discuss how emotions can be infectious and how to be “emotionally hygienic” at work.
Wash your hands. Cover your sneezes. Sanitise frequently. Keep your distance.
By now, we all know the hygiene rules in place to ensure we’re reducing the rate of transmission of COVID-19.
But as social distancing rules ease and more people return to their offices and navigate the new working environment, it isn’t just physical hygiene we should be keeping on top of, but emotional hygiene too.
In a recent webinar titled “Emotional Hygiene for Leading in Times of Crisis”, author, speaker and communication expert Anneli Blundell outlined what this all means.
“The work I do is really around helping people understand and decode the behaviours of others so that they can make their communication more compelling, and their influence more far-reaching. Then they can have the impact they want to have with the people that they work with, and lead.
“This whole idea of emotional hygiene really comes to the heart of people dynamics, and how we affect and infect one another with our emotional states, our attitudes and even our word choice.”
Ms Blundell outlined that the coronavirus pandemic had created an additional layer of fear and stress in people’s lives, which means that emotional care is crucial at this point of time.
“Emotions are running high right now, and there’s a lot of stress and hysteria. You only need to turn on the news to see the latest example of people in a highly heightened emotional state. We also know that in that state, your emotions can be overwhelming. And what we know about emotions and people’s emotional states – whether they’re good, bad or indifferent – is that they are contagious.
“We currently have a health issue, a virus that is spreading around the world, and everyone is talking about the contagion levels of this virus. But it’s really fascinating to me that what is being spread even more quickly is this heightened sense of hysteria or overwhelm. Because emotions are just as transmissive and just as sticky and spreadable as this virus.”
Ms Blundell gave the example of walking into a room where two people have been arguing, and feeling the tension in the room. “You walk into the room, the hackles on the back of your neck rise and your blood pressure goes up and you just feel anxious… your blood pressure goes up to [mimic] their stress levels. So, what we’re all spreading is this exaggerated experience of this heightened emotional state.”
She said that team leaders or group managers therefore need to be particularly aware of their “emotional tone” in this environment, particularly around co-workers or mentees, given that humans are particularly susceptible to the emotional cues of those they know well.
Speaking to The Adviser, the speaker and co-founder of Broker Essentials said: “It’s even more infectious when you’re in a small team and you’re working together with those people every day. People will know you really well and they will know your signs of stress. You can’t hide in a very small office with a small team, so it’s going to be even more important for those leaders of small teams to take care of their emotional hygiene.
“We’ve got 17,000 brokers in the community, and most of them are a micro business, so this is particularly important for them,” she added.
“Broking is a reactive job that involves high activity with heightened emotions most of the time. Brokers are used to running busy schedules. They survive on what we call eustress, which is heightened levels of stress, but it’s positive. That’s opposed to distress – negative levels of stress that we can’t handle. So, while the broking industry thrives off fast-paced work and stress, it isn’t used to running like this when we are in fear.”
As well as creating a stressful working environment, being in distress rather than eustress also leads to poor decision making and poor working output. Therefore, being aware of your emotional state and controlling the stress levels of the office can improve performance too.
She explains: “Fear doesn’t only kill your own capability, but it kills every single reason you hire the people in your team or organisations. It kills compassion, creativity, calm, critical thinking, connection, courage, the list goes on and on.
“When your brain state is relaxed, when you are emotionally relaxed, comfortable, happy, or when you’re in a positive emotional state, you are in your best mind and able to use your executive centre, your prefrontal cortex. You have access to all these things that make you perform at your peak.”
The professional people whisperer adds that being emotionally hygienic is not only important for offices, but also for interactions with clients.
“People are turning to their brokers for help right now, because they are already stressed. So, brokers need to be calm and in control and giving them the practical actions that they need to take. Whether that be someone about to go to auction, or about to refinance their loan, or selling their house – they need practical things they can do now, from a leader who is spreading the voice of reason to the market.”
She concludes: “We’re all spreading something all of the time through our words, messages, tones or emotional states. Whether it’s chaos and criticism, or calm and kindness, you set the emotional tone. The question is: ‘Do you know what tone you’re setting?’
“So, what we really need to do is we need to take care of our emotional hygiene. What are you spreading? How are you spreading it? This is not about social distancing. This is about social sensitivity.
“So, be the person who chooses kindness, who chooses calm, who speaks with clarity and consideration and certainty about who you are and how you’ll get through this together.
“Make deliberate decisions and give people something certain to hang on to.”
HOW TO UNHOOK YOUR EMOTIONAL STATE
- Deep breathing
“Deep breathing actually is something that’s really helpful as it unhooks the hijacking of the brain. By taking a pause to focus on deep breathing, it gives you the opportunity to make a deliberate response. When we don’t pause, we go to default, reactive responses. And if we’re in fear, those responses aren’t always useful. In fact, it could be damaging.
“So, just by taking a few deep breaths, or pausing, you increase the space between stimulus and response, which means you are able to make a deliberate choice about being the best version of yourself and making a better choice for everyone else.”
“The brain cannot light up the parts that control fear and love at the same time. So, if you are in total fear, you are in distress and less likely to make productive decisions. But if you shift your thinking and focus on all the things you are grateful for (even if it is how grateful you are to still be alive), you turn off the fear section and light up the part of your brain that controls love. Again, that takes you out of fear and distress and means you can make more productive decisions.”
“This is a long-term practice, but if you can meditate each day and be in touch with your feelings, you can shift from one emotional state to another very quickly. It does take practice, but the results are immediate, and it’s a very useful skill to have in times of stress.”
How to become emotionally hygienic
- Recognise your own or your staff’s emotional state (are you doing anything out of character, losing temper more quickly, feeling more upset etc).
- Seek or direct help where needed – whether from a friend, HR, EAP services or private support.
- Utilise unhooking techniques (see above) to re-centre your emotional state when needed.
- Validate and understand the emotions – if you or someone is stressed, acknowledge their feelings first, then try to understand the root cause.
- Do not try and rush into a “fix” – ask how you can help instead.
- Stay connected. Build time into team meetings to share how you’re feeling or hold one-on-one meetings to see how they are faring.
Anneli Blundell’s webinar Emotional Hygiene for Leading in Times of Crisis can be viewed via anneliblundell.com/webinar
[Related: How to build a ‘heart team’]