It was her first day at work, and Jane* was already feeling stressed out. The 27-year-old had accepted a new gig in television journalism, trusting that the specific details of her employment would be sorted out after she started. But the contract that Jane had been promised never materialized. In its place was one that stipulated she could be fired at any time without just cause. Sitting across from the HR woman in a small, windowless office, Jane was staring at the contract in front of her when she felt it begin: Her lower lip quivered, her throat constricted. When the tears finally broke, Jane willed as much dignity from her sobs as she could. “I should’ve known it was a bad omen,” she says in retrospect. “I’m not a crier.” The HR woman placed a consolatory hand on Jane’s shoulder. And then she said that without a signed contract, Jane would have to leave the building.
Unable to return to her old job and still resolved to be excited about her new one, Jane eventually signed the contract. But things didn’t get better. She was increasingly worn out by the demanding work and an uncaring office environment. To her horror, the crying continued, practically without warning. On one occasion, seeking a private moment in which to call a friend, she wept on the street outside her office, in broad daylight. “By month four,” she says with more than a hint of sarcasm, “I was comfortable enough to cry at my desk.”
Jane can rest assured that she is not alone. Tears in the workplace are more common than you might think. But this puts many workers in a difficult position. Because, let’s face it, nobody wants to be known as the “office crybaby.” Sure, you get first dibs on Kleenex for your cubicle, but who wants to be remembered as the one who cried at a missed promotion? Or, worse, when the fax machine broke? And while most people realize that crying at work is generally not a good idea, health-care professionals now suggest that there may be more serious consequences for tearful types than simply being singled out as the sensitive one.
The most common reason we cry at work is stress, says Louise Hartley, a Toronto-based executive at Family Services Employee Assistance Programs, one of a growing number of corporate counselling and support providers commonly known as employee assistance programs, or EAPs. While there are no documented statistics about crying at work, Hartley says women typically cry more than men. Age plays a role, too: Researchers at San Diego State University have found that people in their twenties and thirties are far more open with their emotions – and more likely to shed some tears in the workplace – than their parents’ generation.
Hartley says crying is often a normal reaction for some women in frustrating situations. “Tears are more acceptable from a woman than anger,” she says. “Women have not been socialized to be angry, so they cry instead.” And they cry because tears send a powerful message: “Tears say, ‘Back off, you’ve come too close.’ ”
But crying isn’t without its risks. According to the self-help genre – notably Lois P. Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and Gail Evans’s Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman – overtly female displays of emotion, such as crying, won’t get you the promotion. As Nice Girls warns, “Acting like a girl gets in the way of achieving your career potential.”
Louise Hartley and Karen Seward, a senior vice-president at the EAP provider Shepell.FGI, disagree with this theory, but they do acknowledge that crying can be dangerous when it becomes a habit. Constant crying, and the depressed moods associated with crying, can ultimately have an impact on your emotional health and your ability to work, which in turn can put your job at risk. “If you’re going into your office, closing the door and having a cry, I would be concerned,” says Hartley. “It’s a sign that you might be in pain, that your ability to cope has been challenged and you might need assistance.”
Seward and Hartley both note that employees and their managers share responsibility for resolving emotional outbursts in the workplace. Shedding a few tears on the job isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but employees need to assess their own behaviour and not be afraid to take corrective action if they need to. (In Jane’s case, she left her job and found a new one that doesn’t make her cry.)
But before you start clearing out your desk, Hartley recommends that, as a first step, employees should check to see if their benefits package includes an EAP (most large companies have one). Barring that, consult a family doctor for advice; Hartley says that people may be unaware that crying can be symptomatic of serious problems such as anxiety and depression, and that crying is every bit as worthy of medical treatment as a sprained ankle or a migraine. “To use a physical analogy,” she says, “we go to a doctor when we’re in physical pain. But for crying, we don’t.”
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This means knowing your triggers and removing yourself from potentially volatile situations, instead of hiding in the bathroom or relying on a sympathetic co-worker to pick up the pieces after the fact. You can diffuse the stress of a tough presentation or a meeting with a meddlesome boss by simply calming yourself down ahead of time – by going for a walk or making a cup of tea, says Seward.
Better yet, she says, a manager can learn to identify the signs that an employee is struggling. Many managers now undergo emotional-intelligence training, where they’re encouraged to get to know their employees better, and are taught to be understanding when an employee bursts into tears in front of them. “Prevention makes business sense,” says Seward, “because recuperation takes longer to manage than if the problem were prevented in the first place.”
Zoe*, an established creative director at an advertising firm in Toronto, says she has wound up in tears at work so many times over the years that she has lost count. She tends to cry when she has to fight for something she believes in, or when she’s made to feel undervalued. “I’d love to be tougher,” she says, “but it’s almost physical how I take things personally when I feel like I’m not getting my just rewards, and not just financial ones.”
Crying hasn’t hindered her career, she says; she’s at the top of her profession. And, like many people in office environments, she’s always had the support of close colleagues when she needs to vent. But being prisoner to her emotions hasn’t been any fun, either. Zoe worries about looking weak, and at times her crying has felt like a handicap. The upshot, she says, is that it feels good to release the tension.
There’s hope for women like Zoe and Jane due to growing attention on emotional health in the workplace. But don’t expect things to change overnight. You might be able to get away with jeans at work, but a relaxed attitude around public displays of emotion isn’t yet in the cards. And that is something to shed a tear over.