Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Crying at Work

Time Magazine recently published an article about the benefits of crying at work.  This article resonated with me because I have cried several times in professional situations.  I cried in my thesis adviser's office when a project I had been working on for many years seemed to have failed.  I cried in my undergraduate adviser's office as I struggled to write my honors thesis and felt the deadline looming.  Most recently, I cried at work when a coworker asked about the loss of my relationship, and I was unable to stifle my emotions about it.

Apparently crying is a gendered phenomenon.  In a study by Anne Kreamer (discussed in the Time article) she found that 41% of women had cried at work in the past year, compared with only 9% of men. In general, women cry an average of 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men.  There might be a physiological reason for this, according to biochemist William Frey II. Women's tear ducts are anatomically different from men's, resulting in a larger volume of tears. In fact, often when men cry, tears do not fall down their cheeks but merely well up in their eyes.

Biologically, crying stimulates the production of dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter) and restores emotional equilibrium.  In fact men reported that after crying at work their minds felt sharper, the future seemed brighter, and they felt more relaxed and in control.  However, women reported feeling more upset, ashamed, and as if they've failed a feminism test.  Women also tend to be more judgmental of others who cry at work.  43% of women (vs. 32% of men) surveyed considered people who cry at work unstable. Not only are women socialized to cry more easily, and physiologically cry more easily, we are harder on ourselves and each other when we do cry and therefore less likely to reap the benefits.

It appears that one of the reasons women are more likely to cry at work is because they do not feel comfortable expressing anger and frustration.  While more women reported feeling angry at work, only 23% felt able to express it (compared to 42% of men). 

In Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, the Facebook COO’s asserts that it’s OK to cry at work. Sandberg’s message: "Crying happens. It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let's accept ourselves. OK, I cried, life went on.  We are human beings, we are emotional beings and we can be our whole selves at work."

So crying happens, and it happens more for women.  What should we do about it?  Here is some advice from The Vault about how to respond to crying in the workplace:

1. Accept that it happened and move on

Your reaction to the event will give everyone else their cues on how to handle it.

If you act like it was the most embarrassing thing to ever happen, others will cringe as well. However, if you shrug and say, "I'm human, it happens," and move on… that's what everyone else will do too.

2. Make it about the issues at hand

Chances are you're crying because you didn't get enough sleep, you're overworked, or something stressful is going on in your personal life, and this is what put you over the edge. But feel free to keep that to yourself in the event of tears. Instead, refocus on the work issue as quickly as possible: "I'm really frustrated that the numbers aren't adding up here," for example—and not your reaction to it. You'll shift the focus off of you while also defusing your emotional state… and get everyone else talking about the project again.

3. Show empathy to others who are upset

This doesn't mean you should hold impromptu therapy sessions in your office. Just show others kindness in the event of emotional upsets, and don't treat it like a huge, embarrassing deal. Simply passing someone a tissue and asking if they'd like to take a moment will help foster an environment of acceptance and maturity in your workplace. Much more so that avoiding eye contact and looking mortified. And you'll see that karma come back around the next time you need a Kleenex on the job.

There is also this past blog post by Joan Schmelz giving advice for academic advisers on how they should deal with a student crying in their office.


  1. Funny timing. Cried in my office this morning, read your post in the afternoon. Thanks for writing this one!

    At least for me, I tend to feel relief of tension after a cry. And if I feel the need to cry and don't, that tension stays with me throughout the day and colors my decisions and interactions.

    I'm definitely lucky to have a supportive office mate who was OK with me crying, and willing to talk afterwards about the cause for tears.

  2. Very interesting and quick read. I have cried exactly twice at work, once late at night when nobody was around and once in a room full of trainees because I had just spent a week of being ripped apart and was questioning even becoming a manager. Both times left me completely mortified at myself as I viewed it as a failure on my part. Not sure it makes me feel better that it is gendered but the part about forgiving yourself and moving on resonated because clearly I didn't do so.

  3. I have never cried at work but I have held back many tears. Have anyone ever held back tears so long that your throat starts to burn? I have! As a woman, we sometimes fight our emotions that come with hormone changes during various moments in our life (Pregnancy, Menstrual, and Menopause). Men, don’t have to deal with these issues. But as a physicist I have learned to take criticism. In the science community it can be very competitive. If I find myself in an embarrassing situation I try to address it. The best way to overcome fear and embarrassment is to address it head on. The best thing that I take from this article is the tip to “move on”.

  4. If I cry about work, it's usually after I get home. While I still think of this as "more professional" than crying at work, your post made me stop to reconsider. I'm thinking back on a time when as a sleep-deprived 3rd year medical student I started to cry in the nursing station as the surgery resident I worked for berated me at top-volume over the phone. The nurses were like angels, bringing me kleenex and offering words of comfort and advice on how to deal with it, and pointing out that he was probably sleep deprived and not being his best self either. They evoked in me a feeling of camaraderie and a deep sense that we are all on the same team - even the guy who was yelling at me over the phone. Though I would still argue that his behavior was more unprofessional than mine in that circumstance...

  5. I'm surprised 9% of men cried at work in the past 12 months---I thought fewer than that would've have cried, period (at work, at home, in the wilderness, wherever), in the past 12 months.

    As I was taught, there are only 3 acceptable occasions when a man may cry.

  6. Last year I was crying often and it was blatant (like sobbing) and unpredictable. So unpredictable that I was concerned it might happen at work (i.e. while teaching). Never did, but I'm pretty sure I would have excused myself if it had.

  7. Anatomical differences fascinating… probably many male "almost crying" situations would have proper tears if the ducts were larger. And then that feeds back in to the emotional state.

  8. one of the most humiliating experiences of my life though i feel like crying at work regularly with the way my job has gotten i remember how bad it felt when i actually broke down & cried at my old job & i manage to suck it up praying when it gets really bad helps me