Is it ever okay to cry at work? A case for and against it•
The topic of proper workplace etiquette can launch a thousand debates, because 1) every workplace is different, 2) every employee and manager relationship is different, and 3) things that are standard workplace behavior to some people, might not be to others. What makes workplace etiquette even tougher for people to totally agree upon is the fact that in many cases, human emotions naturally get involved.
That leads us to one emotion-driven behavior in the workplace and whether it’s ever OK:
Is it ever okay to cry at work?
Whether it’s because something happened at work that has really unsettled you or something happened outside of work (maybe in your personal life) that has impacted your emotional composure when in the workplace.
Tear-prone employees say that on the one hand, since crying is a natural and often unavoidable part of life then it must be acceptable at work, while others may argue that it’s entirely unprofessional to ever cry in a workplace setting.
While there isn’t one universal rule about crying at work, here’s a break down of the arguments for and against crying in the workplace to let you decide for yourself:
For: crying at work is just fine
If you’re one to possibly cry at work or have even done so before, you’re not alone. An estimated 41% of women have cried at work at some point in their professional lives, as have 9% of men (though these figures may underestimate workplace crying, particularly among men who face stigma for shedding tears). That shows that crying in the workplace is common. But is it appropriate?
Some workplace leaders, particularly women, say absolutely yes.
Scientists use the term “psychic tears” for the crying that happens when we feel stressed, angry, sad or some emotions, as opposed other types of tears that happen in response to physiological things like when we have dry eyes (basal tears) or when there are irritants like dust or dirt in the air (reflexive tears). These psychic tears often arise spontaneously and may be beyond our control.
That means that, technically speaking, expecting people to never ever cry in the workplace is unnatural because there are physiological triggers for tears too! However, when it comes to just the emotional kind of cry, since a person can experience a full range of emotions during their work lives…shedding an emotional tear at work should be fair game.
Something to note, though, is the stigma against crying in the workplace often negatively targets women. Women are more likely to cry than men, which is partly due to socialization AND partly due to biological differences. Women produce six times more of the hormone prolactin, which promotes crying, than men. That means that in periods of high emotionality — whether positive or negative emotions — women may cry more easily. It’s not a sign of excessive emotionality but simply a biological reality. Thus, people should not be penalized for workplace tears.
Against: avoid crying at work at all costs
On the other side of the argument are those who’d say that crying at work is never acceptable.
Proponents of this viewpoint say that crying is a sign of excessive emotionality that distracts from the work, and for which there is no reasonable excuse. Just as yelling, throwing things, or snapping at your coworkers is an inappropriate emotional display, so is crying.
Other lines of reasoning that further support this particular viewpoint: the fact that crying makes things awkward for the people around you, as many people are unsure how to handle a crying colleague. This awkwardness causes a workplace interaction to become all about you, rather than the issue at hand. Finally, crying often causes others to think less of you. Despite the argument that crying is natural, many people still view it as an inappropriate emotional display. Crying at work may risk your professional reputation or cause others to question your leadership.
The hard truth is that work can be stressful and emotionally taxing. And since we’re all human, it’s natural to expect that our emotional responses and impulses will prevail from time to time when we happen to be on the clock.
So the bottom line? We all might just have to agree to disagree about whether crying at work is truly okay… and go with it’s okay sometimes, depending on the circumstances.
If you’re someone who tends to cry easily, make your life easier by heading off any negative impressions proactively: “You may notice that I sometimes become tearful when I’m really stressed, upset, or excited. I can’t help it, so let’s just keep working together when it happens, and I’ll excuse myself if I need to.” This gives your colleagues a helpful framework for how to respond.
At the same time, it’s important to be aware of your own tendency for tears and emotional displays. If you’re frequently crying at work or other people express concern that you cry too much, it’s worth taking a good hard look at your workplace behavior. Crying excessively may be a sign that you’re too stressed or that you could benefit from some outside help to improve your emotion regulation. As with most things, moderation and balance are key.
Linda Le Phan is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at kununu US, a place where job seekers can get an authentic view of life at a company and where employers have a trusted platform to better engage talent. When she’s not creating content about the modern workplace, company culture, and life & work hacks, she is probably going out to get an iced coffee (even in Boston winter), raiding the snack drawer, or jamming to kununu’s Spotify playlist.