Why People Cry At Work, As Explained By Science — And Why Shedding A Few Tears At The Office Is Not Always A Bad Thing
If you haven't done it yet, you probably will sometime: crying at work is an unfortunate but fairly common experience. The sheer number of hours you spend at the office, coupled with job-related stressors, basically guarantees that there will be some emotional times in store for you there. Although it's always uncomfortable, the reasons why you cry at work vary, so it's time to start thinking more clearly about this phenomenon. As Anna Ranieri explains in the Harvard Business Review, not all of the situations are created equal, so how you handle them should vary, too.
First, people cry at work because of a run-in with their manager. Even a mostly-good performance review can induce tears when it comes to the "needs improvement" section. Second, people cry at work when there's a culture discrepancy. Perhaps your coworkers love to raise their voices and shout things out when you'd rather exchange a few excessively polite emails about the matter. Finally, personal issues can make you cry at work. Breakups, deaths, medical issues — life happens, and sometimes it happens when you're working.
And contrary to what some sexist creeps would have you believe, men cry at work too — we're human, and sometimes there's just no controlling these meat bodies of ours. But, despite a few high-profile examples of men crying while on the job (former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd and parliament member Craig Thompson), anecdotally everyone seems to have seen more women do it. Data suggests that 41 percent of women have cried at work in the past year, compared to just 9 percent of men.
Scientists have dug a little deeper than the old "women are more emotional" explanation, and learned that women have more hormones like prolactin in their systems, meaning that crying is largely a straightforward biological response — it doesn't mean that women are more easily emotional or overwhelmed than their male counterparts. And if you do shed a few tears at the office, you certainly don't need to quit your job over it! If you do end up crying on the job, remind yourself that you may have actually broken some tension or cleared the air. I once cried in front of my boss after a month of being overloaded and overwhelmed. I wouldn't have planned it that way or done it on purpose, but it helped to make him feel sympathetic while still taking my work-related claim seriously.
Understand that crying is much more acceptable in some offices than others, so you can go easy on yourself if you do work somewhere more informal (and if you work somewhere where crying is the ultimate no-no, it might be a values mismatch for you). Notice that you're in good company, because top execs like Sheryl Sandberg admit to having cried at work. And if crying at work becomes a routine occurrence, that suggests that the position or company itself is chronically stressing you out, and not just some isolated personal incident.
It's also possible that you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a good workplace cry — no one, from interns to your own boss, is immune. At the office or not, it's best not to ignore the crying of others, but not to dwell on it either. Provide whatever support you can to the person, but keep things mostly professional too. If Kleenex on every desk become a fixture at your office, though, maybe it's time to consider finding a new job. That suggests that the cultural conditions there are not going to change anytime soon.
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