Emotional Co-Regulation Can Help Employees Dealing With Unwanted Stress

By Dr. Bill Howatt

Unwanted stress response refers to how an individual reacts to a situation, not the actual situation itself. It sneaks up on us and can cause us to say and do things that we later regret. COVID has increased unpleasant and unwanted stress for many of us, and sometimes, it can be difficult to manage these emotions.

Stress drives fear and can lead to counter-productive behaviours in all of our interactions, including those in the workplace. Employees may not have the skills needed to self-regulate and, in this state, may make knee-jerk decisions and choices under stress. If left unchecked, it can manifest in behaviours such as tardiness, theft, fraud, sexual harassment, bullying, absenteeism, substance abuse, workplace aggression, and sabotage.

Psychology Today defines emotional regulation as “the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. It may involve behaviours such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.” If employees aren’t able to do this on their own, you can help them through co-regulation.

Co-regulation is a micro-skill that leaders can develop to support employees who are extremely stressed and negatively charged. It involves talking to the other person in a calming fashion to help de-escalate their emotions. It can be very challenging, particularly if the other person is feeling powerful or aggressive emotions. However, when done right, you can help your employees stabilize and avoid negative behaviours and thinking.

Tips for facilitating emotional co-regulation

This skill requires a high degree of self-awareness and self-regulation. Ideally, it should occur just before or after an employee has lost their composure. The following five-step approach aligns with core principles of a psychologically safe workplace for removing fear.

  1. Look inward — When you observe an employee projecting unpleasant emotions, take stock of your own emotions. And, if possible, tap into those that are more supportive (e.g., being open, thoughtful, curious) to help the other individual shift their mindset and emotional state. Remember, this is about helping and supporting the other person versus correcting and disciplining. You may need to self-regulate to avoid reacting to their behaviour.
  2. Provide space for an employee to settle their active stress response — When an employee is stressed out, their fight-or-flight fear response is engaged. In this state, they can be emotional and may not be rational, and their body will generate more cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that impacts the part of the brain that controls mood, motivation, and fear. When you are calm and relaxed, and allow or silence, there is a greater chance that the other person will feel less threatened and will see you are there to support them. A safe social connection can help lower cortisol levels.
  3. Problem-solve — Approaching an employee with a calm demeanor, warm greeting (e.g., I’m here to help), and projecting a pleasant emotion can help lower their cortisol levels, calm them down, and enable them to think more clearly. If you are mindful of your body language, tone, and emotional state, you can create a secure and non-judgemental space for the other person to start to self-regulate. Once the employee is in a calmer mindset, the leader can guide them towards appropriate options.
  4. Decide and implement action — Model a calm emotional state to help the other person shift to the same mindset. In this state, they will be able to make more informed decisions and implement actions to help them move forward. Once you've generated reasonable options through questions and conversation, support the employee in deciding what they will do next.
  5. Follow up — Always follow up to see how employees are doing and show them how much you care about their experience. Your genuine concern is an important factor in their emotional well-being.

We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Leaders who recognize this and avoid taking things personally can help employees get back on track and find emotional balance without causing them to feel bad or embarrassed. This will help your team feel safe and supported, and employees who feel safe in their workplace are more likely to thrive and flourish.


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