Is It OK To Cry At Work?

Will resorting to tears in the office ever lose its stigma? And should it?

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In the May issue of ELLE Marisa Meltzer makes a confession: she never cries. But, Marisa thinks crying is having a bit of a feminist moment - online, women are reclaiming their tears, and feeling all the more powerful for it. So why does everyone now seem to be embracing a good cry?

Below, writer Emma Masters gives her take on the crying debate by asking the question: is it ever OK to cry at work?

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'Embarrassed. Sheepish. Like an over-emotional, hormonal woman. Displays of uncontrollable emotion don’t go down well.' This is how Hannah, a 31-year-old lawyer, says she felt the last time she cried in the office. Why the guilt? We spend so much time in pressured work environments, our emotions are sometimes bound to get the better of us, aren’t they? Is this just more evidence of women refusing to cut themselves a break?

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When I began my career a decade ago, tears in the office were still seen as verboten. If there was any crying to be done (and let’s be honest, many workplaces are a hive of crying creativity) it happened decently, discreetly, behind a closed cubicle door. Giving in to tears in front of colleagues was a career-killer, an admission of your inability to cope with your job.

These days, though, it seems outbursts of emotion have become acceptable by stealth, welcomed even, as a sign of how passionate you are about your job and how caring and sharing we all are – why hide your distress when you can bond on the stairwell with colleagues?

Researchers put this change down to the proliferation of Generation Y-ers in workplaces. Many women in their twenties and thirties have lost their stiff upper lips and see reining in their emptions as old-fashioned. Crying in the office is becoming a way of getting issues out into the open. Modern offices have flexible working policies, organic herbal teas and break-out areas – surely a few tears is just another example of how the divisions between home and work are being broken down? We’re at work for more hours than ever before, so bosses have to accept that some of our home behaviour will spill over into the office.

The Human Resources response to crying at work is fairly lenient. It’s not something you can be disciplined over. The politically correct method of dealing office waterworks is to take the employee into a meeting room, find out what’s wrong and send them back to work with a reassuring smile. 'Having a good cry can actually make an employee more productive,' argues Gemma, 29, an HR manager. 'Crying is natural, particularly in stressful work situations – you wouldn’t want to be working with robots, would you?'

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Personally, I like to think of myself as a fair, compassionate boss (co-managing a team of 15). When an employee comes to me with a bad break-up story, I’ll tell them to take the rest of the day off and come back tomorrow in a calmer (and yes, more productive) state of mind. If someone weepily tells me their workload is causing them sleepless nights and cold sweats, I’ll work out how to ease the pressure through prioritising or delegation.

But in truth, I personally have no tolerance for tears. The office is no place for histrionics, be that raised voices, blatant backstabbing or tearful outpourings of emotion. We’re here to work and if something’s getting on top of you, I’d rather you took a 10-minute walk around the block. Tackling unpleasant or frustrating situations before they – or you – reach breaking point is all part of doing your job well.

I will admit, though, there are a few instances when crying at work is OK, a natural and understandable reaction. I’ve even done it myself once: it was a family bereavement and I made it to the Ladies before the tears really started to fall, so I’m giving myself a free pass on that one. Deaths, divorces and unexpected redundancies are all viable reasons to reach for the Kleenex, no matter where you happen to be.

Seeing a colleague crying does nothing other than evoke sympathy in most of us, but, whether you mean well or not, the minute you become the rescuer to someone else’s damsel in distress, you have the power and they don’t. You’ve helped them, even if all you did was offer a tissue and a word or two of comfort, and now the relationship between the two of you will never be the same. Whether the tears were due to a maniacal boss or a badly behaved boyfriend, their display of weakness and your show of strength has tipped the balance of power in your favour. Sam, a 36-year-old marketing director, once gave in to tears after a dressing down from her MD.  She soon found herself being comforted by her department deputy.

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'Tara was sweet and caring, just when I needed it. I didn’t go into details but we spent 20 minutes complaining about our egomaniac MD before I felt calm enough to go back into the office. Two days later, I got a text at 10am, an hour after Tara should have been at her desk, to say she’d been held up waiting in for a delivery and would be in as soon as she could. That may have been true, but ordinarily I would still have rapped her on the knuckles about contacting me so late. This time, though, I felt I couldn’t’ do that since she’d been so supportive to me. It was an unpleasant feeling not to be able to deal with the situation how I wanted. It took me months of careful detachment to reassert my authority and I’ve made sure never to get over-emotional in front of someone who works for me again.'

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The exception to this power-shift rule is the professional tear-jerker – a drama queen who’s not adverse to squeezing out a tear or two if it means she (I’m not being sexist here, the professional tear-jerker is always a woman. If a man tried it he’d be laughed out of the boardroom) gets what she wants. Crying is just another part of her skill set and one that she uses to pull the power in her favour. 'In our weekly sales update meeting, one of the other team leaders read out one of my biggest prospects on her list,' says Anu, a sales director. 'I was furious, I knew she’d stolen the contact. I called her in on it in front of everyone and instead of braving it out, or even apologising, she burst into tears. Ten minutes later the meeting was over. My (male) boss has told me to back off and she left the room with the sympathy card and my hot prospect.'

It’s not just men who’ll take the easy way out when it comes to dealing with tears. Although a woman is less likely to give you whatever you want just to get you out of her office, in most cases if someone we work with has been known to cry we’ll take steps to avoid upsetting them. And that can mean taking on extra work, so they’re not under too much stress, or not confronting them about poor performance because we can’t face a scene. True, these women will probably never make it to the top of their career ladder, but then that was never their goal anyway, they’re just out for the easiest possible ride along the way.

It seems to me that the acceptability of tears in the office is a gender issue – but not in the way we think. The women I spoke to told me that while they didn’t see anything wrong with giving in to their emotions, they felt 'embarrassed, soppy and inferior' doing it in front of  male colleagues. Men, however, seem more sanguine. Bank manager Alan Dickinson, 59, has been managing teams for almost four decades. 'In my last role, I was responsible for 45,000 people. They all have pressures, and sometimes it gets too much. I remember a senior bank manager who worked for me breaking down in tears. He’d been hiding a situation – just because he wanted to help people and not hurt anyone. It all poured out. In the end, he became a better manager because of it and became my best friend. Crying at work happens. I just try to understand why.'

A little understanding is something we could all do with more of in the workplace, as if a few (genuine) tears help to bring down professional barriers, that can only be a good thing. I’ll learn to live with the crying game, then. All I ask is that, if your emotion just has to come out, do it with dignity. Quietly, respectfully and followed by a conversation to tackle the frustration you’re feeling. If you can do that, I’ll bring the Kleenex Ultra Balm. It’s a deal.

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