Masking Emotions in the Workplace

Kayla Farber
Kayla Farber

Table of Contents

We’ve all heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” In the case of emotional masking, the horse insists that they just had a drink at home, and in fact, they couldn’t drink another drop. The issue is that dehydration is still harmful, even when ignored. So how can the Human Resource “cowboys” show the “horses” that it’s safe and totally okay to need water?

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What Does It Mean for Employees to Mask Their Emotions in the Workplace?

“Just as actors wore masks in the ancient Greek theater to transform into different characters and roles, we wear ‘masks,’ in a metaphorical sense, to hide our true selves, thoughts, and emotions,” states this Psychology Today article. “We excel at wearing masks. We fool our friends, our colleagues, even our loved ones with the various masks that we wear. More often than not, we avoid expressing who we really are and what we really think because we want to fit in, gain approval, and, importantly, try to minimize conflict.”

So what does this mean in the workplace? This could be an overworked employee agreeing to overtime with a smile, avoiding feelings of frustration and exhaustion to impress their boss. This could also look like an uncomfortable employee forcing themselves to laugh at a sexist joke for fear of not being accepted by their peers. Or it could look like someone with an invisible disability overcompensating and spreading themselves far too thin out of fear of being fired.

“Emotions at work don’t just happen with hidden tears in the bathroom or an outburst during a meeting. Emotions happen when a deadline gets moved or when we don’t get invited to a meeting. They happen when your boss sends a cryptic email saying ‘see me ASAP’ or when a co-worker gets credit for a project they barely contributed to (again),” explains Meghan Keane in this article. “Anger. Excitement. Frustration. Pride. Hurt. Emotions are everywhere in an office, so why do we pretend they don’t exist?”

What Is the Impact of Employees Masking Their Emotions in the Workplace?

When employees only express what they believe others want to hear, their peers gain a distorted understanding of a person’s personality, limits, and strengths. We’ve all heard of people “bottling up” emotions. This metaphor typically refers to a bottle being shaken up until it explodes. Emotional masking causes tremendous undue pressure, can prevent help being given to those who need it, cause dangerous situations, and even contribute to a failure complex and have a detrimental impact on the mental health of your workers. In extreme cases, this stunts the growth of your company, creating a toxic culture that causes employees to start looking for the door.

It Hurts Your Employees

Emotional exhaustion, stress-induced health issues (even death), and burnout (just to name a few) are all results of emotional masking over time. According to the BBC, this can be linked to anxiety surrounding your workplace. “Unhelpful attitudes such as ‘I’m not good enough’ may lead to thinking patterns in the workplace such as ‘No-one else is working as hard as I seem to be’ or ‘I must do a perfect job’, and can initiate and maintain high levels of workplace anxiety.”

In contrast, regulation of emotions (rather than masking) correlates with higher social capital gains, health benefits, and higher levels of overall life satisfaction, according to this 12-year-long study of 2,500 full-time employees.

It Stunts the Growth of Your Company

A workplace that feeds on unstated thoughts and feelings is a workplace with no opportunity to improve. This Forbes article puts it like this: “People frequently underestimate the effectiveness of having an honest conversation — especially in the workplace, where employees can often feel like their coworkers or even managers are out to get them. This can, and most often will disrupt the effective growth of a company. With everyone guarding their feelings and trying to strategically play their cards, there is an infinite number of things that could go wrong.”

It Contributes to Toxic Culture

As Human Resource professionals, we strive to nurture a habitat of comfort, productivity, and transparency. The habit of emotional masking can be dangerously contagious and can impact the kind of environment your workplace becomes. “A lack of communication between managers and workers is a leading contributor to the cultural challenges facing many organizations,” says Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP. According to this SHRM research report, one in four US employees dread going to work, don’t feel safe voicing their opinions about work-related issues, or don’t feel valued or respected at work. In addition, a staggering one in five workers have searched for a new role due to the culture in their workplace. This BBC article calls this masking effort “emotional labor” and goes on to explain its damaging effects.

It Prevents Those Who Need it from Asking for Help

According to a study headed by Disabled World, roughly 10% of chronic disabilities are considered invisible.

These disabilities include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Mental illness
  • Chronic dizziness

A more complete list can be found here.

“People with some kinds of invisible disabilities, such as chronic pain or some kind of sleep disorder, are often accused of faking or imagining their disabilities,” the study goes on to say. With that kind of track record, it can become quite natural for those invisibly suffering to overcompensate in any way they can to hide the fact that they’re suffering at all.

It Can Cause Hazardous Situations

It’s easy to see why it’d be dangerous for someone with chronic dizziness to move a box of paper from one floor to another. But how can masking feelings allow hazardous situations to continue? In regards to safety standards at the workplace, an employee may not be certain what conditions are severe enough for them to raise a complaint. Even more people hesitate to alert authorities of potentially hazardous conditions or practices, masking their discomfort out of a desire not to “rock the boat.” This Forbes article highlights this issue.

Sexual assault happens more often in the workplace than you’d think, and is one of the most profound examples of how dangerous masking is. Assault victims may mask their true emotions out of fear for their safety, concerns about being believed, and shame surrounding the abuse. If a workplace fosters a radical level of transparency—one that empowers all workers to be heard no matter the concern—how much safer would that workplace be compared to a company with a culture of emotional masking.

Examples of Employees Masking Their Emotions at Work

As we’ve seen, there are a multitude of different situations and scenarios where the masking of emotions is common in many of today’s workplaces. Here are the most common reasons why employees may feel the need to mask their emotions in the workplace.

Physical Limitations

With up to 40% of American workers experiencing chronic pain, it’s highly unlikely you aren’t currently close to one of them. The question is, how many have openly told you they have chronic pain? “Even so, chronic pain is often an invisible condition because employees usually go to great lengths to conceal it. It may also be an unstable condition, with employees being pain-free on some days and completely debilitated the next,” says this Harvard Business article. “…many leaders report feeling uncomfortable or ill-prepared to discuss chronic pain and pain disability with their employees, and employees themselves may also feel reluctant to talk about it due to the fear of stigmatization, discrimination, or job loss.”

Harassment or Abuse

Shame, fear of safety, self-doubt and not wanting to cause problems are just a handful of reasons victims mask the emotional and psychological wounds that come from abuse. And with abuse coming in so many forms (emotional, sexual, physical, psychological, financial, etc.), it’s not a stretch to see why so many victims suffer from self-doubt.

Poor Communication

Kara’s eyes locked onto the report which contained the red pen note. In all caps, “WHY IS THIS LIKE THIS?” the note demanded. Being the highly sensitive person she was, it was easy to translate these actions of her manager as the blame falling on her for the accounting error that wasn’t even her department. To maintain what she thought was professionalism, she stuffed down the anger and allowed it to seeth under her mask of calm.

Kara’s manager is clearly not leading with empathy, but the main problem is the lack of proper communication. This manager’s natural handwriting was always in all caps. The red pen was the only one he had in reach upon printing the erroneous report. Kara was away from her desk when he went by her cubical to see if she knew anything about the issue. With poor communication comes a plethora of opportunities for strong emotions begging to be masked.

Social Pressure

It’s no secret that all workplaces have unique social norms. Not every new employee adapts naturally, and it may not be healthy to do so. This is a particularly damaging issue if there isn’t an established culture of trust, open communication, inclusion, and emotional intelligence—for example if a workplace has rampant sexism, coarse joking, or harsh language. In order to avoid social confrontation, it’s not uncommon for those put in these awkward positions to mask their discomfort, offense, frustration, and so forth. It likely appears to the worker to be a path of less resistance to mask and make a quick exit rather than confronting the deep-seated work-culture issues.

Mental Health Issues

There is a slang term in the mental health community: “smiling depression.” Though it isn’t a recognized condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it’s a prime example of how emotional masking (and masking of symptoms) comes naturally to those struggling with mental disabilities and illnesses. Some other examples include:

  • A worker with ADHD saying what they think you want to hear rather than asking you to repeat the information they missed.
  • An employee with social anxiety avoiding the water cooler, pretending to be on the phone or keeping responses short in an attempt to end a conversation.
  • A colleague with depression making excuses for why they missed work and using humor as a shield.

*An important note: these are generic examples and are not true for everyone struggling with their mental health. Offer a shame-free policy for those who wish to disclose their disorder(s) and stick to it. Make treatment options publically and readily available to your workers, especially ones that offer anonymity. If you know someone struggling, SAMHSA is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service that can help.

How Can a Company Encourage Employees to Not Mask Their Emotions In the Workplace?

The workplaces that don’t see the negative results of masking are ones that have an overall culture of radical honesty, inclusivity, and community. With this being the ultimate end goal, what are some definitive action steps we can take to build toward this kind of employee culture?

Don’t Despise Meager Beginnings

Changing a culture is always challenging, but don’t dismiss the value of small, incremental actions. Any way you can get people interacting in an atmosphere of safety will help. Some suggestions from Forbes include Develop a program where employees in different departments can get to know each other, offer up a forum for people to discuss world events and happenings, reward employees with one-on-one time with the executive of their choice to pick their brains and ask for advice — these are all small examples to make impactful opportunities for employees to connect on a personal level.

Create a Comprehensive Communication Strategy

Having a communications strategy in place safeguards credibility, creating a work environment that enables trust to be built. Where there is trust, there is less reason to mask emotions, which creates employee loyalty and lower turnover. The best communication involves saying the same thing in different ways for all to understand. Have proactive communication (group meetings, one-on-ones, communication training, etc) and passive communication (billboards, team chats, newsletters, etc.) in every way possible and as often as possible.  SHRM advocates that leadership build communication strategies that include being consistent, credible, listening actively, asking all stakeholders for input, providing direct feedback, and training managers. Where there is effective communication, there are less misunderstandings and more chances for constructive criticism. This directly translates to greater opportunities for growth and transparency.

Build a Community of Trust

In order for trust to become established, leading with authenticity and empathy are key. According to SHRM, performance is about three times higher in empathy-based environments. Let disciplinary measures be a last resort when you see a worker struggling to meet the expectations set. Rather, seek first to understand and share in their struggles.

There is a balance here. Respect your employee’s boundaries while supporting and encouraging them to share whatever they’re comfortable sharing. At every opportunity, show your workers that you value them as humans before employees, with a strong emphasis on their emotions, safety, input, and health.

This starts with leadership and trickles down. It is up to management to start the important conversations. This can be done by simply asking the right questions while leading with transparency. Questions like “How can the workplace help with any pain-related or safety concerns?” or “In what ways can the company as a whole improve on work/life balance?” can spark key conversations while sending a strong message of authenticity and empathy.

Build a Community of Inclusion

SHRM’s definition of inclusion is the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.

Inclusion, then, is having an understanding of diversity, embracing diversity as an essential, and making sure everyone feels valued as a team member. It leads to more engagement, and therefore a stronger bottom line. An inclusive workplace means that colleagues demonstrate cultural competence: the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people different from themselves.

Build a Community of Emotional Intelligence

What is Emotional Intelligence, or EQ? To put it simply, EQ is the ability to use emotions effectively—obviously a skill that decreases the need to mask them. Training your workers to become resilient “deep actors” starts with empathy and understanding. Many programs (such as Take Flight) teach your employees not only how their personality affects the way they process emotions, but also how to effectively read others’ personalities. Programs such as these enable them to communicate successfully and unmask emotions in a healthy, constructive way.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Masking Emotions in the Workplace

If we define masking emotions as the unhealthy suppression of emotions without empathy, then no. There is no time an employee should mask their emotions. By definition, it is harmful. There is a time, however, when employees should internally and privately process emotions with the intention of externalizing them in the proper setting in a beneficial way. From the outside, this can look similar to masking. The key difference is the intention.
Since the definition of masking is inherently damaging, then no. This is why having a strong emphasis on emotional intelligence in the workplace can be so beneficial.
Kayla Farber
Kayla Farber

Kayla is the Chief Innovation Officer at Hero Culture, where the passion is to create company cultures of retention using the power of personality.

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