You’re not really ‘stressed’… It’s something else

Benjamin Kluwgant · 27 Jan

Experiencing negative emotions at work is something that happens to everyone. Understanding what these emotions are and recognising the difference between them is crucial in dealing with them properly.

People spend a huge portion of their adult lives at work. During that time, they will experience many ups and downs, busy periods and quiet periods, and work with a range of personality types that they may or may not get along with.

When the going is good, employee morale really peaks. But when the going gets tough, employees can experience a range of negative emotions that cause them to underperform and even dread coming to work.

Negative emotions are hard to articulate

Emotions are provoked by the different types of circumstances that take place, but sometimes, it can be hard to recognise a specific emotion while experiencing it – especially when the negative emotions are experienced at work.

When it comes to positive emotions, it’s normally quite easy for the person experiencing them to recognise and articulate what they are feeling.

For instance, if an employee receives a compliment from their manager, they tend to feel ‘encouraged’, and when a salesperson signs a new deal, they’ll be able to tell you that they’re ‘excited’, or ‘happy’.  

Negative emotions can be quite different. If an employee receives criticism from their manager, they get let down by a colleague, or don’t have the time or resources to get through their workload, there are a wide range of emotions that they might be experiencing ­ – each requiring its own remedy or therapy in order to be overcome.

However, when people experience negative emotions at work, they often simplify their emotions and refer to their feelings as ‘stress’ or ‘anxiety’ – when in truth, their feelings are far more specific than that.

What ‘I’m stressed’ really means

While experiencing negative emotions at work is completely normal, not dealing with those emotions properly can put careers in jeopardy and do a lot of damage to all facets of a business.

The first step of dealing with a negative emotion is understanding what the emotion is and referring to all negative emotions experienced at work as stress or anxiety is doing the exact opposite.

When someone says that they’re stressed, they are describing a symptom and reaction to a feeling they have experienced (most of the time negative) – without getting to the root of the issue of what it is that they’re reacting too.

Books have been written about ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Meditation, exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and many other methods have been tried and proven to work.

But to truly deal with the negative emotions that people experience at work, the person needs to look beyond the stress and identify the root of the issue.

Three common expressions of negative emotions at work

Among the many different types of negative emotions people can experience at work, there are three in particular that relate to some of the more common work-related challenges and are notoriously confused or simplified as stress or anxiety.

They are:

  • Disappointment
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling under supported

Each of the above occurs when very specific events take place – and recognising which emotion is being felt makes dealing with it much easier.


Put simply, disappointment is an emotion that is felt when a person’s expectations don’t align with the reality of a situation – something which happens all the time in the business world.

As a manager, disappointment can occur when a team doesn’t meet its targets. For employees, it can happen when they don’t get the promotion or raise that they had hoped for.

In both of those instances, if the emotion isn’t recognised as disappointment, it can almost instantly turn into stress. The manager will start stressing about what they are going to relay to their superiors, and the employee might begin worrying about the strength of their position at the company.

Dealing with the emotion of disappointment doesn’t have to cause stress. A great way to overcome disappointment is to reflect on what happened and work towards constructively managing future expectations.

As Sigmund Freud once said, “Expectation is the root of all heart ache”, so taking a more realistic approach to what your expectations should be is a sure-fire way to deal with disappointment.

Feeling overwhelmed

Ever felt like you’ve got too much to do and not enough time to get it all done? When the work keeps piling up, the responsibilities broaden and the intensity builds and you feel like you can’t pull through – that’s not ‘stress’, that’s feeling overwhelmed.

But, just like with disappointment, stress can be a reaction to feeling overwhelmed – so being able to recognise the emotion and deal with it accordingly is paramount if you’re trying to avoid spiralling into the stress zone.

The key to dealing with feeling overwhelmed is positive self-talk. Talking through what it is that you have to get done, how much time you have to do it and how you intend to get through it all can make a big difference in how overwhelmed you feel about your current workload.

Feeling under supported

Many employees need active support in order to thrive at work. They need to be shown appreciation, given guidance and be provided with the infrastructure they need in order to succeed. If employees don’t receive an adequate amount of support, it leads to neglect – which (when it isn’t dealt with properly), can also lead to stress.

Coming to terms with the fact that you’re feeling neglected can allow you to do what it takes to receive the support that you need – rather than cope with the neglect by stressing out.

Irrespective of the emotion, if you can think critically about what it is that is causing you to feel negative at work, the pathway of working through it can be paved with more solutions, rather than more stress.