Crying in the Workplace – Is it Acceptable?

Published on 2013-10-07

Source: Creative Donkey @ Flickr
STRESS IN THE WORKPLACE is an accepted by-product. There’s no evidence that we live in a more stressful environment than our predecessors, but most would agree they’d be happier with a little less stress in their life, as would we. The trouble is in the control of stress. Legendary management consultant, Peter Drucker, once said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”, and stress, or rather the causes of stress, are notoriously subjective. A backhanded remark can make one colleague smirk, while another might breakdown and sob. Stress is, after all, all in the mind. But while stress and its causes are generally accepted in the workplace, the reactions it causes are not. And one of the most contentious reactions to stress is crying.
Is it okay to cry in the workplace?
American Anne Kreamer, author of It’s Always Personal, discovered that 41% of women and 9% of men reported that they had cried in the workplace during the past year. Kreamer believes that this imbalance of visible emotions is all to do with X and Y, or rather, two Xs.
“Biologically, crying is simply easier for women,” says Kreamer. “We (women) produce six times more prolactin, the hormone that facilitates crying, than men do, and our tear ducts are bigger, so the tears are more copious.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]“Biologically, crying is simply easier for women…[/quote]
Few would argue that snide remarks are welcome in the work environment, or anywhere for that matter. But whether a colleague should be allowed to cry in the workplace is debatable. Kreamer adds that crying at work isn’t a moral failure. It happens. She also adds that crying is not a hindrance to a career.
“It’s always been assumed that those who cry will never be able to reach the highest levels, because they are somehow weak. But my research found that there’s no crying ceiling, that there are men and women at all levels of management who are part of the ‘crying tribe’. Crying humanises and people connect with empathy and compassion.”
Compassion with Chinese characteristics
But what about China? A 2010 leadership survey, conducted by ClarkMorgan, measuring the qualities of leaders that were most admired (‘Leadership Quality Survey 2010’), found that Chinese white collar workers rate ‘compassion and caring’ as the most important quality in a leader. Second in the survey results was ‘authoritative and strong’ – the polar opposite – implying more that Chinese appreciate a parental leader, rather than one that is schizophrenic. But ‘compassion and caring’ is one thing. Crying in the workplace is another.
In a LinkedIn survey targeting the HR community in China, 45% of respondents said it was not suitable to cry in the workplace. Only 14% said it was okay, with the remaining 41% saying that crying was acceptable in some situations only. Wendy Zhang, HR Manager at Fenwal Inc Beijing, said on the LinkedIn forum ‘China HR Network 中国人力资源’ that crying in the workplace is acceptable in “some kind of situations” such as during “a team meeting, when people share their difficulties or emotions.” Where it is unacceptable, adds Zhang, is “just releasing their negative emotions in front of all colleagues.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]In China, 45% of respondents said it was not suitable to cry in the workplace[/quote]
Bonnie Xiong, Senior Purchasing Manager from Philips Consumer Lifestyle in Shenzhen was less forgiving. “No matter what position you are holding, it is not suitable to cry in the workplace. There are many ways to release pressure, and crying would only make you feel worse.”
Interestingly Bonnie’s Xiong’s harshness towards tears in the workplace bridges the cultural divide with American women. According to Kreamer, 43% of American women consider workplace criers “unstable”, suggesting a serious character flaw. Men, on the other hand, were less critical of criers, with 47% stating that it was merely “unprofessional” and not a career stopper. Kreamer believes women become the most “hard-line opponents” of public crying because they feel they should disprove the “essentially correct gender stereotype” that women cry more than men. So women cry more, and hate themselves more for it. Now that’s stressful! Holding back the tears Right or wrong, the problem is sometimes emotion can get the better of us.
So what can we do to hold them at bay? A quick search, on your preferred search engine, will provide you with a list of techniques to hold back the tears, and here are my five favourite:

1. Ten slow breaths Oxygen has positive effects on your mood. Take 10 slow, deep breaths, and try to take your mind off the issue that’s causing the emotion.

2. Get out of there! Put some distance between yourself and the cause of the stress. Go for a walk, bathroom or retreat to your cubicle or desk.

3. Get stimulated Bite the inside of your cheek, dig a fingernail into the palm of your hand, or hold your hand under cold water. The change of stimulation will take your mind off the sensation to cry – for a short time anyway.

4. Carry a note pad When you feel your eyes beginning to tear up, look down with the pretence of jotting notes. As you do, take slow, deep breaths, blink the tears away, and then look up when ready.

5. Reframe Perhaps the most difficult thing to do in the situation, but one of the most powerful skills to have in life, is to reframe. Try to see the positive side to the stressful situation. For example, if you’ve just received a negative performance appraisal remember that even Einstein, Steve Jobs and Ma Yun, were criticised before reaching greatness.

And whether you choose these or other techniques, remember that to ‘err is human’. Putting the human back into human resources Self control is one thing. Witnessing another person break down is another. An emotional breakdown is made more stressful by the negative reactions of others. What should you do if a colleague breaks down in front of you? Should you be compassionate; be a shoulder to cry on? This is where the debate heats up again. What is the appropriate reaction by a colleague or superior?
[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]An emotional breakdown is made more stressful by the negative reactions of others. [/quote]
A reader at has one solution to a breakdown. She writes: “I was under a lot of stress for reasons unrelated to my job at one point (applying to grad school & family issues, both of which she knew about). At one point during our biweekly check-in meeting, I got a tiny bit misty-eyed. What did she do? NOT ask about it — “Are you okay?” or “What’s going on?” are the surest ways to get someone who’s trying to maintain control to lose it. Instead, she blew her nose (insuring I’d know where the tissues were) and announced that she had to pee and would I mind waiting for her in her office. Her bathroom trick gave me the thirty seconds I needed to compose myself, acknowledged that people sometimes get emotional without making a big deal of it or making me look unprofessional, and made her look amazing.”
Whether you are part of the 14% that say it’s okay, or 45% that say it’s absolutely not, crying in the workplace is still an issue that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. What is not an issue though is the ability to manage the tears, whether your own or another’s.