Crying At Work Can Be Even Worse Now. Thanks, Zoom.

There's a captive virtual audience, and your crying face is on display.
Crying at work is not new, but crying to your co-workers on a video call adds a whole new layer of vulnerability.
Crying at work is not new, but crying to your co-workers on a video call adds a whole new layer of vulnerability.

Jill Vanderhoek hit a new low in pandemic life one morning in September. She cried on Zoom.

Vanderhoek was facilitating a board meeting over video for the nonprofit community partnership she runs in Macon, Georgia, when her 10-year-old daughter, who was struggling to follow her virtual school lesson, had a crying meltdown beside Vanderhoek’s desk.

It was already a busy day for the family: Vanderhoek’s husband was in a mandatory training for his job and the couple were juggling their full-time workloads, three kids’ school routines and their eight-year-old daughter’s birthday.

“Here I am trying to shush [my daughter] while I run this board meeting, and then she lost it and then I lost it. It was just this cascade of emotion,” Vanderhoek said.

She recalled how she felt as she cried on camera. “It was tears of anger, and it was tears of embarrassment, and it was tears of sadness. I’m really angry that my kids are having to do [remote learning]. I’m really angry that I continue to have to do this. I’m sad that this is where we still are after seven months of a pandemic. And I’m embarrassed because we’ve been told that crying is a sign of weakness.“

Crying at work isn’t new, but now it’s online.

Many workers have endured the ordeal of crying at work. One survey of 700 people found that 41% of women have cried at work, while only 9% of men admitted the same. In a separate survey of 13,000 workers around the world, 10 percent of respondents (6% of men, 14% of women) admitted to crying in the bathroom at work.

But for those now working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, gone are the usual hideaways for getting to cry in peace: restroom stalls, partially private cubicles, and meeting rooms with the door closed.

“I’ve cried in my workplace before, but it’s been in my bathroom stall or the privacy of my office,” Vanderhoek said. “This one was different. Even though I was isolated in my home office around my family, I felt like there was more to see. I felt definitely much more vulnerable.”

Crying at work may actually be easier for some remote workers in large groups who can mute and turn their camera off without notice. But in smaller remote meetings where everyone is expected to show their face, “everybody is sort of equally visible,” said Kimberly D. Elsbach, a University of California, Davis, management professor who researched the consequences of crying at work. Whereas, “if you’re in a [in-person] meeting, you can sort of step to the back, or use your hands or other props to hide yourself,” she said.

In formal work meetings, the expectation is often that everyone keeps their face in frame and on camera. Ad Vingerhoets, a crying researcher and psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, told HuffPost that in situations where you must have a camera on, “you are optimally visible in some way, and your tears are, also. That’s different in real life, where you can turn your head away.”

Elsbach pointed out that when there is an expectation to be on camera in a smaller group, “If you turn your video off, then right away, you’re noticed. People will want to know why.”

“People can’t just pop by and say, ‘Hey just wanted to check on you’ ... All those kinds of informal social cues and ways that we check in with each other are lost or require a lot more effort to achieve.”

- Kimberly D. Elsbach, management professor at University of California, Davis

This struck Vanderhoek, too. She didn’t feel she could quickly turn off her live feed and mute herself once she started to cry. “Even if you turn off your camera and your microphone, [people will think], ‘Oh gosh, what just happened?’” she said.

On top of all that, there’s the unsettling fact that your emotions could be replayed, depending on the meeting settings. “Often on Zoom you’re being recorded, so that you have in many cases a permanent record of the incident, which people can view again,” Elsbach said.

Vanderhoek said her colleagues were supportive in the moment.

“A lot of them who didn’t have their cameras on and could see that I was upset, turned their cameras on [and said] ‘It’s OK, take a breath, this is hard for everyone,’” Vanderhoek said. But the experience did leave her feeling uneasy.

“Maybe that was completely off the rails,” she worried. “I did follow up with some of my other board members and they were all very understanding.”

Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma over crying at work.

While the response Vanderhoek received was a best-case scenario, there is reason to be worried if you cry at work: It’s not always viewed charitably.

Elsbach’s research found that although co-workers find it forgivable to cry over severe personal hardship like a divorce or death, they find it less forgivable to cry over troubles like work-life stress.

The extent to which the crying interrupts the workday also matters. “If you’re actually in a work meeting that people have set aside time for, and you’re crying in that meeting, and that’s taking away time from that meeting, that can be seen very negatively,” Elsbach said.

Unfortunately, it can be harder to learn over video how your tears affect your reputation at work. “People can’t just pop by and say, ‘Hey just wanted to check on you,’ or you can’t pop by [and say] ‘Hey just wanted to apologize, I hope I didn’t ruin the meeting for everyone,’” Elsbach said. “All those kinds of informal social cues and ways that we check in with each other are lost or require a lot more effort to achieve.”

If you do cry at work, don’t bottle up your feelings. “Find those people that you can confide in,” Vanderhoek advised. And even if your co-workers are less than forgiving of your emotions, you can forgive yourself and extend yourself a little grace for working and living through an already stressful time.

Vanderhoek hasn’t cried at work since that morning in September.

“There was this cloud of, ‘Oh gosh, we just hit bottom,’” she said. “Luckily, we had cupcakes to eat at the end of the day to celebrate my daughter’s birthday.”