Jun 29, 2020

What Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ has to tell us about emotions and mental health at work right now


… We’re knee-deep into an Unleashed content meeting (this is our third newsletter, of COURSE, we have content meetings now. We’ve all changed our zoom backgrounds to resemble old fashioned newsrooms. Just imagine you’re right here with us. It’s the 1970’s; you’re working in an office that smells of stale cigarette smoke and the only dress code is tortoiseshell glasses… that’s the kind of rock n’ roll journalism we’re all about at Unleashed!)

Anyway… whilst chewing on our metaphorical cigars in said zoom newsroom, we get to talking about newsletter themes past and present… and we realised that this month we’re looking ahead to World Emoji Day on 17th July.


I surreptitiously google this auspicious celebration in another one of my tabs (or not so surreptitiously, given my tendency to look like a bear at the dentist when my attention is elsewhere — a bit listless, a bit concerned). The official website says ‘we use emojis every day, so why not celebrate them?’


We start spitballing. Emoji’s… emotions… and all of a sudden, my train of thought pulls rapidly into imagination station. ‘INSIDE OUT’ I cry!

So that’s how I ended up writing the piece that you’re reading now. To be honest, I’d had some wine. I wanted to rewatch Inside Out. Honestly — if that’s all this piece motivates you to do — fab — it is a fantastic film (although do have tissues at the ready — my poor partner can attest to the fact it had me full-blown sobbing before the midway point)… But, as luck would have it, Pixar does have some lovely little gems relating to insights around how our emotions and mental health are being affected by the pandemic and impacting how we’re showing up at work right now. Honest.

N.B. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers here but having some knowledge of Inside Out’s plot and core themes will be helpful — so if you haven’t watched the film but you’d like to — this article will be right here when you get back. If you don’t want to (who are you?!) here is a review that will give you some useful background.


Inside Out’s protagonist is an 11-year old called Riley and the film conceptualises aspects of her identity as islands, which slowly fall away after her parents make the decision to relocate the family. Change and the uncertainty that it brings is a central theme.

Uncertainty about the future is a potent force right now. As is a galvanising sense of unfairness at the injustice of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of colour, women and other groups who were already vulnerable. We are in this together, but the impact is not the same. Certainty and fairness are two fundamental emotional needs for us as human beings and when we feel that these domains are threatened, our brains revolt, going into threat mode and enabling our fear to take the reigns of our brain control panels.

Our other core needs are autonomy, relatedness and status — it is easy to see that we may also struggle with meeting these right now too. When we’re under threat, our amygdala or ‘lizard brain’ is triggered and burns through oxygen and glucose, meaning that other parts of the brain are left deprived of energy. This temporarily impairs our ability to reason and creatively problem-solve — just when we’re most in need of these vital tools.

The takeaway: certainty and other emotional needs are generally underserved right now given the global situation. This may impact cognitive capability. Leaders should recognise and accept this, whilst trying their best to serve their teams core emotional needs — enhancing autonomy, setting clear goals and expectations, and treating people equitably goes a long way.


I was chatting to a friend the other day who commented that at their work, tension around the pandemic was just kind of hanging in the air. ‘It’s like no-one wants to be the first one to admit that they’re kind of falling apart!’ they mused.

Whilst, presumably, not everyone is falling apart, emerging studies so far report a significant and generalisable worsening of mental health (by an average of 8.1%) as a result of the pandemic — more for groups that were already vulnerable.

The takeaway: the impact of the pandemic on wellbeing and emotional health is real — being obligated to put a brave face on it, whether it’s one with eye shadow or not just adds to the strain. Leaders need to openly acknowledge that impact and invite people (without forcing them) to talk about what it looks like for them as individuals. It’s only through truly understanding what someone else’s experience is can we better support them.


Joking about not knowing what day it is might be the new Brexit chat (remember Brexit?!)… but the pandemic really is impacting our short term memory. At the root of this is the fact that our brain is stimulated by variety and in the interest of efficiency, simply prefers to stash away momentous moments over monotonous ones.

The lack of variety also means that we have increased headspace to ruminate on small things — such as that late night slack message, or what the hell it meant when the CEO mentioned that there were ‘rocky times ahead’. Perspective is harder to gain when we have fewer distractions in our lives.

The takeaway: Thoughtful and consistent communication is vital. The old adage that if you’re not bored of saying something as a leader, then your message probably hasn’t landed has never been more important. At the same time, we need to keep a close eye on our digital body language. We need to invest the same care we would take in crafting a thoughtful question and giving context to a colleague in person, over slack.


At the heart of Inside Out is the idea that emotions, both positive and negative are useful to us. Emotions are powerful information that impact how we look at the world and give us the tools to deal with it on our own terms. Emotions are what make us human. They can motivate us into action and expressing them, in the main, is healthy, bringing about greater self-awareness, and making us feel closer to our loved ones. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in Inside Out, the first ‘island’ to be reestablished, heralding a more secure identity for Riley is ‘family island’ (spoiler: it all works out at the end. ’Tis a Pixar film after all!)

I’m sure that if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that community and our family (in all forms and whichever definition of family is meaningful to you — born, chosen or found during a global pandemic on a Whatsapp group or via your local Mutual Aid group) are essential.

The takeaway: whether you like it or not, if you’re a leader or a colleague or a human, you are part of someone’s support network right now. Don’t shy away from emotion. Showing vulnerability and holding space for emotion is one of the most powerful and important things we can do as human beings.


OK, sure, we admit that we somewhat shoe-horned this blog post into the ‘Emoji Day’ theme for this issue of Unleashed Thinking, but the message needs zero shoe-horning.

Stripping everything back to the core fundamentals of what connects us and what makes us human is a worthwhile endeavour all the time; especially for business leaders, and especially now. Trust Pixar to help us get there! Inside Out is a beautiful film — and one that reveals some surprisingly true to life insights about how emotions work (perhaps thanks to the film’s producers working closely with emotion experts Paul Ekman and Dachner Keltner.) A rewatch is as good a use of time as any right now. (I did mention having that box of tissues to hand, right?)

Written by Unleashed’s Managing Partner Hannah Keal.

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