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.