How to Handle Crying at Work

An employee cries at work.

There’s no shame in crying at work. It might even be good for business.

Shedding tears can make you feel better emotionally and physically by:

  • Bolstering your immune system.
  • Releasing endorphins.
  • Cleansing your body of toxins.

Meanwhile, suppressing the urge to cry has been linked to:

  • Increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Higher rates of employee burnout.
  • Decreased productivity.
  • Interpersonal conflict with coworkers.

So, if crying at work is such an effective way to process negative emotions and restore mental clarity, why is it still taboo to cry at work?

For too long business leaders have equated the expression of emotion with irrational, unpredictable decision-making. Research shows that workplace cultures that allow employees to feel comfortable expressing a wide range of emotions are more successful. The trick is knowing when and where it’s OK to have a good cry.

What Emotions Are OK at Work?

The average U.S. worker spends 39% of their waking hours on the job, and for professionals and managers that number is often much higher. Working to keep our emotions at bay for a significant proportion of our lives isn’t healthy, or even realistic. Yet, many employers still view tears as a sign of incompetence. More than 50% of workers report feeling pressured to express only positive emotions at work.

If you work in an environment where negative emotions are frowned upon, especially as a manager, what do you do if the tears start flowing?

You’ve Cried at Work—Now What?

Imagine you’re halfway through a presentation that includes a touching anecdote, and you suddenly find yourself unexpectedly moved to tears. How should you handle it?

First, don’t apologize. This will only lead your direct reports to conclude that you don’t approve of crying at work. Instead:

  • Pause and take a deep breath.
  • Squeeze a stress ball.
  • If there is water nearby, take a sip.

These simple actions will help your body slow your tears so that you can speak again. Once you can continue speaking, acknowledge what you are feeling to those around you, by saying something like “As you can see, I am feeling some strong emotions surrounding this issue,” or “This has prompted an emotional reaction for me.”

If appropriate, you can then briefly explain why you think the tears have come. For example, if you are reporting on the failure of a new initiative, you might explain that you are upset because you know how much time and effort your team has devoted to this solution and what it could mean for your organization, customers, or community.

When to Take a Break and When to Power Through

There are times when “powering through” is the worst option. If you find yourself welling up when you know it won’t be helpful or acceptable, try to extract yourself from the present situation. Exit a meeting as inconspicuously as possible, or if you’re running the meeting, find a way to adjourn.

Get out of the office, take a walk, and breathe some fresh air. If possible, talk things through with a therapist or trusted friend. (Your company may offer an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides a set number of free, confidential sessions with a therapist.) Self-care is essential when work situations bring you to tears, or when personal issues are so powerful that they begin emerging during your workday.

When You Cry In Front of Your Team

If you find yourself choking up in front of your direct reports, don’t panic. Try not to admonish yourself for showing genuine emotion. Be as gentle and kind with yourself as you would be with a direct report or mentee.

Seeing you tear up lets your employees know it’s OK to show their emotions without fear of retaliation. An empathetic leadership style, one that not only welcomes a wide range of emotions but models them as well, can increase innovation and retention rates. Workers with empathetic managers are more likely to report that their workplaces are innovative, engaged, and inclusive.

Assuring employees that their tears do not affect how their competency is viewed can help increase retention. Women, particularly women of color, are more than twice as likely to remain in an organization they believe respects their life circumstances and understands that there are times when their obligations need to outweigh their professional responsibilities.

In addition, when managers model vulnerability, it can:

  • Strengthen relationships between leaders and employees.
  • Inspire a meaningful sense of commitment to your organizational mission.

How to Manage Your Employees’ Tears

You’re walking past a cubicle occupied by one of your most valued employees when you hear a stifled sob. Your first instinct may be to respect your direct report’s boundaries and privacy. But is that the best approach? Probably not.

A better option is to:

  • Gently knock at the entrance of their office or work area and ask if they’re OK.
  • Let your employee know they’re under no obligation to share anything they feel uncomfortable talking about with you.
  • If they want to share, invite them to talk in your office or another private area.
  • If possible, give them the option of leaving work early.
  • Give them information about mental health wellness resources, such as quiet spaces, EAPs, mental health or personal days, stress reduction seminars, or health club memberships.

When to Worry About Crying at Work

There’s nothing wrong with occasional tears, but if you find your employees crying at work frequently, it may be a symptom of a larger problem, such as:

  • Frustration over working conditions or a lack of resources.
  • A lack of work-life balance.
  • A company culture that is more competitive than collaborative or where mistakes are not tolerated.
  • A toxic work environment due to a problematic employee or manager.

How to Create an Emotionally Healthy Workspace

Transparency and open communication are integral elements of a healthy and supportive workplace. Create space and permission for employees to express their emotions at work. If you have an open workspace or shared offices, create safe spaces where employees can be alone if they need to be.

Encourage community involvement. When employees feel disconnected from others, a volunteer opportunity that allows them to feel like part of a team helping others can be just what they need.

When Not to Cry at Work

Of course, there are still times when it might be better to refrain from tears. If you’re announcing layoffs or wage freezes, or letting someone go, especially if you had a hand in making that decision, tears can seem disingenuous, or even like you are making their misfortune all about your discomfort.

Steer away from tears by focusing on how much a departing employee has been valued. If appropriate, emphasize that they will be welcomed back if economic circumstances change.

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