10 Oct 2022
13 min

At work and in many other aspects of social life, we are asked to leave our emotions at the door. The word "rational" is often a complement and portrayed as the opposite of "emotional", a word that is often not complementary. However, science shows the contrary. The neuroscientist António Damásio wrote in his book Descartes' Error: "We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.

For Paulo Carvalho, facilitator of the EDP University psychological safety course, we can go further to understand emotions as structural in human life and he quotes the behavioural economist Dan Arieli: "he says that we make emotional choices and then tell a story to justify them. What we believe to be rational thought is actually a rational articulation of an emotional choice. That creates lots of problems, because if we're not aware that there are emotions affecting our decision, we make bad choices."

Having as a reference the World Mental Health Day, which is celebrated on 10 October, EDP promotes throughout the month a set of initiatives that aim to encourage the sharing of tools and experiences and help reflect on how each one can contribute to a truly safe, healthy and balanced workplace.

This is the Mind Your Mind Campaign, which for the third consecutive year demystifies and raises awareness about the importance of mental health. This is a month for us to become aware of the importance of emotions in human well-being, the adoption of preventive behaviour, a month of reflection that promises to bring benefits all year round. As part of EDP's global well-being strategy, the central theme of this year's campaign is psychological safety in the workplace.

The reflection is launched among employees, because everyone builds EDP's culture of well-being with their personal experiences, without right or wrong, as the video captures.

Mental Health is health

Published in 2022, the World Mental Health Report (WHO report) highlights why and where change is most needed and how it can best be achieved. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says: "Investment in mental health is an investment in a better life and future for all." It is for these reasons that the motto of World Mental Health Day this year is to make access to mental health and well-being a priority worldwide. This is, for WHO, a right and means much more than the absence of mental disorders.

According to the WHO definition: "Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development."

WHO declares that there is no separation between physical health and mental health, countering the stigma created by attention being focussed for centuries solely on physical health, which is visible and, therefore, more easily treated: both form part of human well-being. "We have a tradition that there is a bodily reality and a mental reality, which has been demystified. This separation does not correspond to reality and is made for convenience. When we speak of mental health, we are speaking about health – full stop. It has been proven that there are issues that we think are physical, but are actually induced by thinking," said Paulo Carvalho. 

The pillars of well-being

On questions of well-being, the keyword is consciousness. Consciousness of an emotional and cognitive system, of its importance for human health. And consciousness of the signs indicating an imbalance. Paulo Carvalho identifies three fundamental pillars to which we must pay attention: relationships with others, self-esteem and the existence of space to free the mind from control.

Firstly, it is important "to recognise that we are social and emotional beings." Feelings of loneliness and isolation are worrying; and, on the other hand, self-esteem operates "as a type of thermometer measuring our emotional well-being. Very low self-esteem may be a worrying sign – hence the importance of us being in an environment where we are valued."

A third pillar, very much motivated by the social organisation of today, is based on balancing high-performance activities that demand productivity and high levels of brain attention – work – and others "where thinking does not dominate what is happening in our system." The latter activities are things such as engaging in sport or mindfulness.

It is from the consciousness that we do ourselves good as individuals and the capacity to explore the signs that something is wrong with us could construct a "collective mental health".

Transcending the transactional relationship

"In a professional context, we favour fundamentally transactional relationships," says Paulo Carvalho, referring to the relationships between two people that are defined by an exchange of interests: someone interacts with somebody else because they want something in return and vice-versa. However, this type of relationship does not create an emotionally positive environment.

It is necessary to understand that there is no real separation between the personal life and the professional life. "This separation is only an illusion. From a psychological point of view, it is a contrary force and unsafe. If I am worrying about something, I will worry about it all day long," explains Paulo Carvalho. Emotions lead to reactions – for example, anger leads people to raise their voices, to want to argue, even if the feeling is not connected to the situation where they shout at someone. Making these emotions visible is a healthy way to collectively perceive and manage the reactions that they may generate. It is the path to making everybody visible.

The challenge is that the situations that hurt us have to become visible so that we can eliminate them.

Making emotional challenges visible

A psychologically safe environment is that in which a team is a safe space for expressing problems, questions and emotions, for taking risks and making mistakes, without punishment and humiliation. This concept was defined by Amy Edmondson, of Harvard University, directed principally at organisational environments, with the objective of promoting psychological safety, not only to improve the well-being of employees, but also to create better motivated and productive teams, which are more creative and with a true passion for the values of the company.

Parallels can easily be drawn with the physical safety of employees, for which companies and organisations have in the past century created tight standards and rules. Now, it is essential not to hurt that invisible and substantial side of human well-being: mental health. "The challenge is that the situations that hurt us have to become visible so that we can eliminate them", warns Paulo Carvalho.

Awareness, reflection and verbalisation come into play once again. One of the practices recommended by Paulo Carvalho to build a psychologically safe environment is what he calls Check-In. With this practice, at the beginning of a meeting, or a day's work, for example, each person expresses their emotional state, if some event before arriving there has provoked a change - for better or worse - in their state of mind.

With this, the group as a whole can manage the events in light of this information, and benefit from it. "My ability to verbalise gives me a valve so I can breathe and manage the emotion and perceive its origin. It gives me the opportunity to act not in a standard, unthinking way, but in a way regulated by me," explains Paulo.

Psychological safety is a collective power

This and other practices – such as practising non-violent communication, liberating structures or pro-social behaviour – need to be normalised, sustaining each element to effectively create a culture. Trusting environments can only be achieved by collective effort and consciously.

It is true that a hierarchical position of power has the ability, sometimes, to impose certain standards of reaction on a team. "There are standards and dynamics that are more influential when we are at the top than when we are at the bottom. If I am not aware, as a leader, of how I am behaving, what standards produce and the result they generate, I will continue to generate these same results, for good and for ill." However, the construction of a psychologically safe environment is, for Paulo Carvalho, intimately connected with the perception each one has of their own boundaries and, accordingly, this ideal environment is not only the responsibility of a leader or hierarchical superior, but of everybody.

The role of ethics

For the EDP University facilitator, "I, as an individual, have to be conscious of where my boundaries are. I have to be aware, because there are things that affect me: where they affect me, how they affect me." A healthy relationship with another person, at the end of the day, comes from profound self-knowledge, as stressed by researcher Brené Brown. One of her studies shows that people who are better at showing compassion are simultaneously those who have a clearer notion of their boundaries. Hence, they can place themselves in situations where they are exposed, but primarily are protecting themselves.

These boundaries are very close to an idea of ethics, that is, in accordance with the values each one has, if you can or cannot do something, but also the ability each one has to handle a dilemma – to act on values to make a choice. For Paulo Carvalho, once again, it is self-knowledge that is key: "If we are free of worries and centred on ourselves, we have an excellent ethical barometer. We know what is right, even though it might not always be easy." 

Being able to verbalise what affects us and the values that are in play is, for Paulo Carvalho, "an incredible power." Self-awareness is a pathway to this power.

Mental health is directly linked to our wellbeing, whether physical or emotional, influencing how we face challenges, how we overcome obstacles or even how we relate and feel safe to be ourselves in the workplace.

Caring for ourselves and those around us, using our energy and heart to drive a better tomorrow for all, is essential to preserve our mental health.