Crying At Work Happens. Here's How To Handle It, According To Experts

"Crying isn’t sign of weakness, it’s simply an emotional reaction to work and life.”
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The last place you want to cry is at the office. Still, given how much time we spend there, it’s bound to happen sometimes.

Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and Lean In evangelist, has admitted to crying at work and called for it to become less of a workplace taboo.

In an interview with India’s Mint newspaper, Sandberg said, “I don’t really believe that we are one type of person, Monday through Friday, 9-to-5, and then a different type of person in the nights and weekends. I think we are, all of us, emotional beings and it’s okay for us to share that emotion at work.”

That sentiment isn’t necessarily shared among all women. According to a survey in Anne Kreamer’s book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, 41 percent of women have cried at work at some point in their careers, compared to 9 percent of men surveyed. Those women are also more likely to worry that their tears cost them credibility at the office.

“In spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test,” Kreamer wrote. “[Women] feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.”

Still, even the most stern boss should understand that crying is a natural responses to stressors. If you got word that you lost your grandfather or received bad news about your health, you’re bound to get emotional, even if you are in an office huddle room.

“Luckily, crying in response to an emotionally charged situation or altercation is typically accepted and understood by coworkers and bosses,” Teresa Marzolph, founder of Culture Engineered, a human capital consulting firm in Phoenix, told HuffPost.

“Of course, if you are a person who has frequent breakdowns, coworkers may be a bit desensitized to the situation,” she added. “If you’re the crier, you have to ask yourself, is this a common occurrence or something out of the norm for me?”

If you are judged harshly for crying when it’s entirely warranted, it might be a sign of a toxic work culture, said S. Chris Edmonds, a human resources expert and founder of The Purposeful Culture Group.

“Having a work culture that appreciates the stresses that leaders and members are going through is an indication of a healthy environment,” he said. “Appreciation doesn’t mean you encourage crying, but it does mean you don’t discourage it, either. Crying isn’t sign of weakness, it’s simply an emotional reaction to work and life.”

Below, Edmonds and other experts share what you should do if you’re on the verge of crying at work ― and how to respond if you encounter a crier at the office.

What to do if you need to cry:

Step away from your desk.

“For unforeseeable incidents, get comfortable with the phrase ‘I’m upset and need a moment to gather my thoughts.’ Allowing yourself time to be upset is a common coping tool for anger management, but it can really be applied to any emotional response. Turning off emotions is not an option for any of us. Instead, learn to manage the time and place you release emotions, returning to the conversation or situation when you can communicate effectively. Spending all of your time fighting back tears will leave you with little energy to construct and express your thoughts.” ― Marzolph

If you’re going through a trying time, allot some breaks for yourself.

“If you’re experiencing hardship, try to mitigate as many factors as you can where you’ll be vulnerable. If you’ve just had a big breakup or personal crisis with family or friends, see if you can reschedule meetings or phone conferences. Consider taking personal time off for a couple hours or for the day, depending on the situation’s severity. You know your limits best.” ― Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior & Thrive in Your Job

If you’re a natural crier, prepare in advance for emotionally charged moments at work, like performance reviews.

“If you’re an emotional person, plan for what you can anticipate. If you are not performing well at work and suspect a performance discussion is in your near future, practice the discussion ahead of time. One of the most frustrating aspects of being emotionally reactive is the emotion often limits our ability to verbalize our feelings and thoughts. This frustration then causes more tears, creating a very upsetting, taxing cycle. Practicing your reaction will help.” Marzolph

What to do to do if you encounter a crier at work:

Try to match their mood.

“Do not say ‘cheer up.’ Express concern in a low-key tone. Validate their concerns by saying things like, ‘I can see how you might feel that way.’ And then just offer assistance. Say ‘Is there anything I can do?’ or ‘Would you like to be by yourself, or would you like me to stay?’ Again, tone matters here: you want to be low-key and sincere.” ― David R. Caruso, management psychologist and co-author of The Emotionally Intelligent Manager: How to Develop and Use the Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership

Respect their need for space.

“How you handle the situation depends on if this is a close confidante at work or not. If you run into a crier in the bathroom, they probably want their privacy, otherwise they likely would have approached you. If you want to help a trusted colleague who’s a friend, a better approach might be to have lunch with them and, if asked, offer some solutions to the core issues they’re having.” ― Taylor

If you’re a boss or manager, model an understanding, sympathetic attitude.

“If you’re the boss, train colleagues to be unafraid to engage and to listen to what’s going on with others, especially if you have workers dealing with health or financial issues. Give a sympathetic ear if a worker is having a momentary emotional reaction. ― Edmonds

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