University News

Workplace Well-Being: A Spotlight on the Research of Senior Scientist Mandy O’Neill

by Melissa Stiksma, Doctoral Research Fellow, and Whitney Hopler, Communications Manager

Americans spend an average of 8.8 hours working each day. It is thus of no surprise the study of people’s behavior in the workplace is on the rise. At George Mason University, Management researchers such as Mandy O’Neill, our center’s senior scientist, contribute to this body of knowledge. Mandy’s work has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous prestigious academic journals.

We sat down with Mandy to get the scoop on her research and how we can apply it to our own lives. In this research spotlight, we focus on how interactions with our colleagues in the workplace can contribute to our well-being.

Suppressing Our Human Nature

Most of Mandy’s work focuses on the expression of emotions at work. One of her first published studies found that conditions in the workplace can lead to cultures of anger, substance abuse, and absenteeism. Traditionally (even within the last 20 years), people were encouraged to leave emotions out of the workplace. Men and women suppressed, or concealed, their feelings at work in fear of being regarded as unprofessional or weak. Especially in the corporate world, the fact that we are human beings with feelings often gets ignored. However, the dangers of suppression are well-founded in traditional psychology. James Gross of Stanford University and other leading researchers have shown that suppressing emotions is related to worse interpersonal functioning and lower well-being. For too long, “there was an assumption that emotions were dangerous and irrational to express at work,” said Mandy. The opposite is true; suppression is dangerous and can lead to negative outcomes.

What’s the Alternative to Suppressing? Companionate Love

If we know that suppressing emotions in the workplace is detrimental, then how do we express our emotions at work? In a recent study, Mandy demonstrated that when firefighters felt they had the support of coworkers, they chose not to suppress but rather communicate their honest emotions. To demonstrate what this might look like, consider the following example.

Nick is an awesome firefighter – he works hard and pushes himself to be a strong teammate. For the last month, however, Nick has been late to shifts, distracted on the job, and last week he nearly forgot a child inside a burning house. His coworkers are frustrated with his performance. Some shouted angrily at him after the incident, others ignored him in the breakroom. His colleague Josh approaches him one day and asks him how he is doing. Josh calmly notes the simple mistakes Nick has been making and points out that they are not characteristic of Nick as a firefighter. Nick feels the support from Josh and explains that his wife has cancer and has just started treatment. He tells Josh that he feels distraught and isn’t sleeping at night. Josh sympathetically listens to Nick’s troubles and offers to help out when he can. After this talk, Nick apologizes to his crew for his recent mistakes, explains why he has been distracted, and takes a few vacation days to regroup. When he returns, his team has set up a system so that if he needs to be with his wife, they will cover his shift.

In this example, we see three possible options for expressing emotions in the workplace: 1) suppressing anger by ignoring Nick in the breakroom, 2) explosion of anger by shouting at Nick after a mistake, and 3) a sincere display of support and sympathy from Josh. An under- or over-expression of emotions can be detrimental to the workplace but a display of what Dr. O’Neill would might call “companionate love” results in a heartwarming show of support.        

Mandy defines companionate love as “affection, care, compassion, fondness, and tenderness” between people in the workplace. Firefighters Josh and Nick provide a prime example of companionate love. More knowledge from Mandy about concrete ways to cultivate companionate love in our work relationships:

  • Support others’ lives and especially their hardships
    • “Listen to coworkers’ stories,” Mandy said. “Really understanding people’s situations is important.” She added, it “involves getting to know the people and figuring out what they want or need.”
  • Learn to relate to others with empathy
    • She said, “empathy is not a fixed resource or a zero-sum game;” it can grow with practice.
  • Notice your own and each other’s emotions
    • “Love does not live in a culture of isolation,” said Mandy. Even mobile employees who don’t see each other in person can check in virtually on a regular basis to build emotionally healthy relationships.
  • Talk through the difficult emotions
    • Set up time for honest conversations with coworkers (e.g., schedule check-ins)
    • Give people the awareness and space to improve upon themselves
    • Politely confront at the source rather than complaining about one coworker to another, or your partner

“Pursuing companionate love at work can result in many benefits,” said Mandy, “including greater emotional health, greater job satisfaction, and closer relationships with colleagues.” “In a culture of love, people really tend to get to know each other well,” and because of that, they can experience the fulfillment of being truly known and appreciated for who they are. In response to her findings, Mandy said, she hopes people consider how they can “notice and help people deal with their pain” in their workplace. Again, we see parallels in general psychology. Love is one of the most important emotions we can experience; it impacts who we are, and how we work. Why wouldn’t the same be true for our employee relationships?

Gender Differences

There are significant differences in how men and women exist in the workplace, especially as it pertains to emotions. Men sometimes express companionate love through humor. “You’ll see men hugging, but it’s often a bear hug with a joke,” said Mandy. Women, in contrast, might express companionate love through intimate, serious conversations. Men are often discouraged from expressing vulnerability, and thus find it difficult to express feelings of sorrow. Women are less likely than men to suppress dominant emotions (such as anger), which leads to passive aggressiveness (gossip and backstabbing). This topic is one area that should be addressed further in research – what are potential repercussions of expressing emotion in the workplace, especially in terms of gender?

Drawbacks to Companionate Love?

Some argue if a workplace focuses too much on being kind and accepting, that the work may suffer. Does “dog-eats-dog” competition breed productivity? A key question Mandy said she wanted to explore through her research was: “Can you have love, but can you also have an environment that’s performance oriented?” Her research revealed you can.

Moving Forward

Through her research, Mandy hopes to continue to “open the Pandora’s box of emotions in the workplace.” From fire stations to technology companies, it’s important for people to understand and express their emotions. She also hopes people will learn how to “bring the comfort, joy, and fun of family and friends to their work relationships while doing productive work together.” With more companies focusing on how workplace environment influences employee well-being and production (e.g., Google), emotions in the workplace are increasingly important to anyone on a payroll.

Mandy O’Neill’s Webpage