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Bringing your emotions to work (even rage) is suddenly in vogue

November 10, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

When Kea Tull’s daughter didn’t pass an exam to complete her vet tech training, she told Tull she was so angry she’d “pay to break something.”

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’” recalls Tull. “Who pays to break stuff?”

The idea nagged at Tull for days. So much so, she needed to find out if anyone actually might. Tull, a Philadelphia resident, quickly found several rage rooms throughout the country, where people pay to break anything and everything from household objects to electronics to cars and more. Philly didn’t have one, so Tull opened her own in 2018. Within a year, she had outgrown her space. By July 2020, she’d moved again. Since then, demand has been nonstop. Couples, small businesses, nurses, therapists, prison guards, first responders, families, and groups of friends have all come to Rage Philly to literally beat, bust, and break their way through feelings of anxiety, anger, disappointment, frustration, and rage. “It’s all associated with a feeling of, ‘I just got to let this out,’” says Tull. “People come in here, hit stuff, and are screaming. It’s a big relief.”

That relief is precisely what Heart Williams was hoping for when he leveraged a mobile rage room for the Wellness Week he organizes as fitness and wellness coordinator at Salem Health in Salem, Ore. Employees at the hospital were invited to write whatever grievances and difficult emotions they had on plates, and then smash them against the wall. “It’s similar to a burning ceremony where you write down what you’re willing to let go of and then burn it,” he says. “A lot of nurses said this was something they needed. Our employees are going through a lot. We felt this was appropriate given the circumstances. Because of COVID, we’ve had to adapt. It’s an unusual way of doing leadership work, but it is also brilliant.” Alyssa Gaiser, a health educator at Salem Health, says the rage room gave her time to reflect. “It ended up being symbolic, allowing me to let go of some mental challenges, giving myself more grace, and looking to the future,” she says. “I even felt nervous to physically let go of the plate as I went to smash it. It reminded me that we can be our own worst critic, rather than allowing for forgiveness and growth.”

It’s no great revelation that if we’re sad at home, we’re sad at work. If we’re frustrated and angry at work, those difficult emotions will inform our lives outside of our jobs. This year, SilverCloud Health surveyed more than 2,000 employees at American businesses on the state of their mental health. It showed that 84% of those included don’t actually mean it when they respond “Okay,” to the question, “How are you doing?” The pandemic has obviously accelerated an awareness around cultivating balance and addressing emotional and mental health. And while rage rooms may be an extreme example, and not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing mental health at work, they are certainly indicative of a greater trend that’s long been percolating even apart from the pandemic’s sweeping effects.

Organizations are increasingly creating space to foster, develop, and support leadership skills around empathy, vulnerability, and sound mental health practices. There’s been plenty of coverage on businesses throwing time and money at the problem: Nike, LinkedIn, Bumble, and others closed their doors to give their employees paid time off to take a beat without the stressors of work. Some banks, like Jefferies and Credit Suisse, have gifted their employees Peloton bikes and sizable cash bonuses to counter burnout. Still others offer employees unconventional workshops or trainings leveraging virtual reality or time spent with therapy animals to build “soft” leadership skills, as well as free access to Headspace, Calm, Modern Health, or similar apps and services in the mental health space.

“This is about understanding that people are not robots,” says Shola Kaye, who consults with Fortune 500 companies to build empathy, leadership, and communication skills. “People need time and the ability to be heard and understood.” Kaye, who is based in the U.K., says her work in the past few years has shifted some from one-to-one coaching to helping organizations foster listening skills and an overarching sense of empathy across a team. It is difficult, says Kaye, for some organizations to see vulnerability as a strength, often considering it a characteristic that will open them to scrutiny, minimalization, or marginalization: “I have this concept of the brittle leader. I talk about this brittle rigidity, and how much freer you can be if you’re not constantly afraid that there is a chink in your armor, and if you can say, ‘I don’t know.’” Chrissy Carter, who left her job as an institutional sales trader in Jersey City and has since been teaching yoga and mindfulness in studios, privately and to corporate clients in and around New York City. “Sensitivity is often seen as a soft skill, but it is a superpower,” she says. “When we read the room, we’re often reacting to what we see. You have to be receptive enough to sense what’s going on without getting hooked by a reactive mind. It’s about reading a room without reading into it.”

Unconventional meetings

But suggesting that we be allowed to be a bit more “human” at work is a bold step outside of historical corporate norms. For Lisa Carraway, bringing humanity to work is something she’s fostered on a circa 1776 horse farm. As senior director of internal communications at Qlik, which provides data analytics software to businesses, Carraway and her team have completed several equine leadership workshops through an organization called WorkHorse based in Malvern, Pa. “It is experiential learning,” she says, noting that the programs are designed to have participants working directly with the horses. “It’s immediate, in the moment.” A day spent with WorkHorse founder Kristen de Marco and her team can unfold in any number of ways, but it generally starts in a horse barn or an arena with a few 1,100-pound horses. There are no reins (that is, the horses are walking around freely and so are you) and there’s no hard-and-fast agenda. De Marco says the idea is to use the arena and animals as a parallel for our interactions at work, whether that means encouraging a horse to move from one point to another or simply taking stock and reading the arena like you would a conference room. “With a horse, you have to work at the relationship,” she says. “They don’t offer it like a dog or a cat. Horses help us regulate emotions, set boundaries, and establish respect.”

These are all skills that come in handy in a boardroom, on a team, or in any deal negotiation. At Qlik, Carraway found her work with de Marco incredibly profound. “It helped me understand some things around boundaries and trust and also the importance of nonverbal and verbal communication,” she says. “I’m a communicator by trade, but most of your communication is 70% nonverbal. With horses, you need to be congruent because they are prey animals. They need to know if you’re angry and hungry. People are always good at being incongruent with each other. They can say they’re fine, but underneath is a real you-know-what show. The horses will pick up on that. They’ll let you know that you’re not good.”

As professional development and leadership training has evolved, de Marco has worked with myriad organizations such as Google and Wharton Leadership Ventures to help their teams cultivate receptivity, listening, compassion, empathy, and more. “Sometimes human relationships are too confrontational and overwhelming,” says de Marco. “Working alongside these powerful yet vulnerable animals looks different than how we as humans operate. Being on a farm, in the elements and the weather, takes people out of their own fight-or-flight mentality and invites them to a level playing field. Most of them haven’t been around horses. They can’t talk their way out of this. They have to be in it. If we asked them to move the horses from one place to another, they have to figure out how to do that. It is about enabling them to work in the moment with the horses and build that back into how they will operate at work.”

Tapping into technology

Unconventional problem solving is a big part of this kind of work. At Walmart that has taken the form of virtual reality training through a company called Strivr to help employees better understand what they bring to interactions with customers. These workshops play out with a customer avatar and a VR headset, allowing the employee to experience the conflict in real time and also play it back to reflect on their own emotional temp, what they brought to the interaction, and how that may have been received by the customer or contributed to the way it resolved. “We ask our employees, ‘How are you empathetic when it isn’t convenient or easy?’” says Kate Kressen, senior manager, learning content design & development immersive content at Walmart. “You have a line of customers; everyone is in a hurry and you have a customer that maybe doesn’t have enough money to pay for their groceries. How do you make the customer feel supported, but also deal with the rest of the customers in the line?” Kressen says feedback has been tremendous and that giving employees the ability to drop into a scenario and immediately learn from it in an immersive, visceral way has proven invaluable.

Forced rest

Nike’s decision earlier this year to close its offices for a full week garnered a fair amount of media coverage and maybe spurred others to consider a similar move. As a company firmly rooted in wellness and sport, it seemed to make a lot of sense as it falls in line with several other policies the company holds to promote leadership skills around self-care and mental wellness: free sessions with therapists for employees and their family members, mindfulness and meditation classes, on-site employee assistance program support at Nike distribution centers. Mostly, though, says Nike EVP and chief human resources officer Monique Matheson, the decision to close was at the core about communicating to employees that time off for “meaningful rest and recovery” is both necessary and healthy. This kind of leadership, says Matheson, is about building an “empathetic culture where every employee can be their most authentic self—and that means creating a safe place where we can be vulnerable, ask for help, and admit when we’re not okay.”

WorkHorse’s de Marco points out that thanks to the COVID pandemic and kitchen table video conferences, we’ve already been inviting more of ourselves into the work world. But of course boundaries can be important to consider too. “Developing a practice of self-reflection and perspective-taking is what underscores our ability to maintain boundaries,” says de Marco. “We can then begin to discern what needs to be hashed out at work and what needs to be processed with a licensed mental health professional. ‘Work norms’ are unrealistic and just make us feel isolated and alone. If we want to create a work culture which imbues creativity, passion, and loyalty we need to invest in this skill set and normalize it.” Kaye agrees and adds that at the core of it all lies mutual respect, bringing our best selves to work, not necessarily our whole selves. “People need to be encouraged to bring their best selves to work with the understanding that they need to be respectful of their colleagues and create an environment where everyone can do their best work and feel they belong,” she says. “I think this is where training on how to have ‘challenging conversations’ becomes important so people can have those difficult discussions and express their preferences without it becoming overly heated or divisive. A simple framework for these conversations is, ‘This is how I feel about your behavior; this is how I’d like that behavior to change; this is how I’ll feel afterward.’”

At Salem, the rage room initially sparked some reticence too. Arielle LeVeaux, a registered nurse who works as a quality administrator in Salem’s network of hospitals, says the idea gave her some pause at first. “I was worried that the idea would be perpetuating and intensifying anger and forcing us to focus on the bad, rather than the good,” she says, noting that she decided to trust her employer (who pledged to made a mosaic with the broken plate pieces after the event) and give it a try. “I began to think of what I wanted to write on the plate and decided rather than think of what made me angry, to think about breaking down barriers and which ones I’d like to smash or defeat. COVID was the first and obvious choice. Honestly, lining up to throw that plate and hearing the satisfying smash of an intentionally broken plate was awesome! It was definitely more exhilarating than I thought it would be.”  

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This story is part of Fortune‘s Leadership Report on the issues and trends reshaping the C-suite now.