Mixed feelings: 1 in 3 UK workers hide their true emotions at work

  • A third (33%) of all UK workers conceal their real emotions with “a positive face” at work.
  • New figures reveal men are more emotional in the workplace than women, with men twice as likely to shout or even quit their jobs because of their emotions.
  • Working with Dr Terri Simpkin of University of Nottingham, Totaljobs has taken a detailed snapshot of how UK workers express ‘The Big Six’ emotions in the workplace: joy, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust and fear.
  • 59% of UK workers have felt emotions at work that they didn’t feel that they could freely express.
  • People over projects: a third (33%) of people find workplace emotions are triggered by their co-workers, rather than work itself.
  • More information: totaljobs.com/advice/emotions-at-work


London (UK), 13 January 2020 – Leading UK job board Totaljobs has published new figures looking at the emotions UK workers are experiencing, and how we manage them in a professional environment. 

Emotions are part of being human. They’re proof that we’re experiencing the richness and complexities of life, meaning it’s normal that they come with us to work.

However, as many as 59% feel they’re unable to freely express their true feelings in the workplace. 

Freedom of expression

The majority of workers are choosing to deal with emotions on their own. In particular sadness, which 60% chose to handle themselves rather than asking for help.

This emotional suppression is concerning, but for many employees, it may seem a pragmatic consideration.

It’s not surprising many of us feel we can’t be emotional, as 30% of line managers consider the expression of emotions at work to be a sign of weakness. Over half (51%) believe that emotions should be suppressed altogether in a professional context.

“Workplaces are environments of social expectations,” says Dr Terri Simpkin of University of Nottingham. “There are ‘display rules’ associated with when, where and how much emotion can be shared and by whom. This is one reason why people will suppress their emotions in the workplace: they fear being judged.”

Emotionally triggered

However, Totaljobs is happy to report that of ‘The Big Six’ emotions we experience, joy has topped the overall results with 9 in 10 (91%) experiencing this key emotion over the course of our careers*.

Surprise (90%), anger (85%), sadness (82%), disgust (71%) and fear (61%) follow to form a complex emotional story we all experience over our working lives.

So what is it that’s making us all so emotional? The results show that the most common cause isn’t the work itself. It’s those we’re working with.

A third (33%) of emotional events in the workplace are triggered by our colleagues, whereas only 1 in 5 are sparked by tasks themselves. 

Sadly, co-workers aren’t always bringing joy into our working lives either. 1 in 10 workers felt emotional at work because they had been bullied by a colleague.

These emotional encounters can end up developing into something much more significant. Previous research conducted by Totaljobs found that, worryingly, 6 in 10 workers consider a colleague a ‘work enemy’**. 

It’s been emotional 

The research shows that a clear divide remains between how men and women express their emotions in the workplace. 

There’s evidence that women are more than twice as likely to cry in the workplace compared to male colleagues (41% vs 20%). In turn, men are twice as likely to start shouting (43% vs 26%) and it doesn’t stop there. 

Men are also twice as likely to get emotional because their ‘ideas weren’t heard’ or because they ‘were criticised’.

Men also seemed to be more emotionally invested in their projects. They were almost three times more likely to get emotional because a project went over budget, missed a deadline or got cancelled.

In fact, it’s men who are most likely to take the definitive career step and quit a job (20% vs 11%) when triggered by their emotions.

“Men and women are socialised to display emotions differently, especially at work,” says Dr Simpkin. “Men are more likely to report experiencing emotions associated with power, such as anger or pride.”

“In fact, emotions and power are inextricably linked. Not being heard is congruent with lacking in status. Similarly, sadness is associated with a lack of power in social settings such as the workplace.”

Things can only get better (with age) 

Whilst men and women may differ, everyone’s emotions evolve as we get older. 

For instance, Millennials undergo a particularly emotional ride as figures reveal they’re the age group most likely to experience sadness (91%), anger (91%) and disgust (80%) in the workplace.

However, over time workers begin to express ever more joy and surprise as they grow older. They also get less sad, angry, disgusted and fearful as they age.

Overall, experiences of workplace fear falls from rates of 77% amongst millennials (23-38) to just 45% amongst workers aged between 55-73. 

“It can be challenging for young people to develop an identity that’s congruent with their professional role,” says Dr Simpkin. “They may experience fear of failure, fear of success and fear of not fitting in.”

At least in data terms, this story is one of happily ever after. As we become more experienced, developing greater status, experience throughout our careers, our fear of failure also subsides. 

Commenting on the findings of the survey, Dr Terri Simpkin, Associate Professor, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at University of Nottingham, and Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, says:

“Emotional intelligence is a key professional capability, particularly for leaders and managers. Our emotions are what make us human. They give us our capacity for collaboration, innovation, creativity and connection.

“Traditional attitudes which taught us to leave our emotions at the door should be long gone. 

“Emotions are designed to communicate something to us. Recognising the message rather than suppressing it is key to dealing with emotions effectively.

“It is this human-ness within organisations that will set them apart as we move further into the fourth industrial age. As workplaces are becoming more and more digital, the ability to lead with an understanding of how to integrate emotionally aware people into them will be key to success.”

Lynn Cahillane, Head of Marketing at Totaljobs, says:

Whether you’re an employee or an employer, the results of Totaljobs’s latest research shows just how important it is to understand how to manage our emotions in the workplace. 

“Expressions of sadness or anger point to the fact that someone is probably overworked, stressed or frustrated in their role. Rather than seeing tears or emotions as a sign of weakness, employers should take them as a cue to listen, learn and understand the underlying issues.

“Emotions can help reveal problems at work which need solving, as well as enable managers to understand how their teams react differently in certain situations. This gives employers the opportunity to adapt and show more compassion. In this way, emotional employees aren’t problems, they are a chance to help us learn how to create a better workspace.”

– ENDS –

Research methodology: survey of 2,000 UK workers and 250 line managers conducted in October 2019.

* Basic Emotions, Magda Kowalska & Monika Wróbel (2017)

** The World of Work Enemies, Totaljobs (2019) https://www.totaljobs.com/insidejob/work-enemies/

About Totaljobs

Totaljobs offers employers of all shapes and sizes access to the Totaljobs network. With a mix of generalist and specialist job boards, crossing the breadth and depth of the UK workforce, the Totaljobs network consists of Totaljobs, Jobsite, CareerStructure, City Jobs, eMedCareers, Just Engineers and RetailChoice. These brands provide access to 19 million searchable CVs, and record over 4 million applications from qualified job seekers every month.

With a head office in London and offices in Birmingham, Havant, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Glasgow, Totaljobs Group also consists of Caterer.com, CatererGlobal, CWJobs and Milkround. Together these brands are the UK division of StepStone Group, one of the world’s largest e-recruitment businesses.

Visit the Totaljobs website: www.totaljobs.com