What Crying At Work Says About You & America’s Work Culture, According To Experts

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Most of us, at some point, have felt like crying at work. Whether your personal life is making your 9-5 stressful, your job is high-pressure, or if your work culture is toxic, the occasional need to spend 30 minutes in a stairwell with a box of tissues is understandable. Crying at work is extremely common and nothing to be ashamed of, but it can also be a signal of other things going on in your life, too.

Research indicates that women are penalized unfairly for displays of emotion in the workplace. Dr. Kimberley Elsbach, PhD, a professor at University of California, Davis, who's done extensive research on crying at work, tells Bustle that many women had experienced negative consequences for weeping on the job. "Some consequences were relatively minor — being treated with kid gloves," she says. "In other cases, women were pulled off high-profile projects, not given plum assignments, or in a few cases, been so severely ostracized that they left their jobs. The best case in our studies was that women were treated neutrally — neither more positively or negatively — because their crying was seen as justified in the circumstances."

However, experts also tell Bustle that crying can help performance rather than hinder it — and that understanding why you're crying at work can give clues about your emotional health and what's really happening in your workplace.

You're Undergoing Something New & Stressful

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If you're crying a lot at work and don't know why, you likely need to do some detective work on your own emotional distress. "Most of the time, crying is an indication that we are sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated," psychotherapist Annie Wright, LMFT, tells Bustle. '"So if you don't know why you find yourself crying at work, check in with one of these three feelings to see if they resonate and if that's going on for you." The source of your crying may be the work environment, or it may be something else.

Not sure how to identify what's going on to cause your crying? Family therapist Whitney Hawkins Goodman suggests an exercise to pinpoint any changes in your life. "Take inventory of how life has been going lately. Have there been any new stressors? Have any of your coping skills fallen to the wayside that you would typically use?" Anything from an annoying coworker to a new schedule to upcoming external stresses like surgery or a house move can be contributing to your distress.

You're Under A Lot Of Pressure

Crying at work doesn't mean that you're a "failure."

"The act of crying can be perceived as a sign of weakness; it can also make other people uncomfortable," research psychologist and crying expert Dr Peggy Drexler tells Bustle. However, she adds, "crying at work can be a powerful tool if both employees and employers learn to recognize that most emotion at work stems from frustration, and not sadness." If you're experiencing a lot of frustration in your work environment or are under a lot of pressure, crying can be a typical response.

Dr. Drexler tells Bustle that crying under pressure can also have its upsides. "Crying in an intimate setting can help reinforce the camaraderie between employees," she says. "People tend to connect with what they view as an authentic display of emotion. An outburst of tears can result in a healthy and productive airing out of a situation that has long been festering." She adds that tears are less effective if they happen in large group settings or when clients are present, so if you do need to cry at work, it's a good idea to choose your moment if you can.

You Have A Medical Issue

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If there's no discernible emotional or environmental trigger that's causing your crying, Hawkins Goodman suggests you may also want to look at your physical health. "If there's nothing really glaring or obvious, then I would definitely want to get a medical check-up. See if anything has changed in that arena," she says. You may be exhibiting signs of depression, or experiencing tiredness and stress as a result of an undiagnosed medical issue.

You've Tried To Compartmentalize Life And Work

The idea of work-life balance is hardwired into our culture, but it's actually based on a misconception. "People tend to think that work life is different from real life when, in fact, life is life," Dr Drexler tells Bustle. "And, of course, Americans work more and longer hours than ever before, which makes the likelihood greater that private emotions will spill into the working hours." If you've been attempting to leave all your emotional issues and concerns at the door when you go to your job, chances are that they'll catch up with you, which may result in tears.

Your Work Environment Is Toxic

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The source of your crying may not be typical job pressure, a one-off stressor, or a medical problem; it may be a toxic work environment. Signals of emotionally distressing workplaces, says Hawkins Goodman, include "abusive behavior by others, chronic burnout and consistent distress at work." And if that's the case, crying is just an outward signal of emotional distress caused by the environment.

So what can you do about a toxic work environment, especially if you can't immediately leave? "I may be biased as a therapist, but I think the best first step is seeking out therapy to have a confidential and unbiased space to explore how and why you find the workplace distressing and what your options for dealing with it are," Wright tells Bustle. "Sometimes this may mean you learning better emotional regulation skills to deal with the discomfort you're experiencing. And sometimes, for some people, this may even look like leaving the work environment that you're in and seeking out a better, more supportive job."

Quitting an emotionally distressing job can feel drastic, but it can sometimes be the only available option — particularly because if a place is toxic, you can't change it all by yourself. "I believe that if a place is distressing, it's not the entire responsibility of the individual to cope with that. There are certain situations in the workplace that all the coping skills in the world and stress management are not going to help you with," Hawkins Goodman tells Bustle. At some point, if you're crying consistently and can trace your serious distress to the fact that your workplace is causing you misery, it can become necessary to consider your employment options.

Why We Need To Rethink Crying At Work

An occasional cry at work shouldn't be the end of the world, experts tell Bustle — especially for women. "Crying is just the expression of emotions that everyone feels," says Professor Elsbach. "And it is OK to express these emotions at work in other ways (being quiet, sighing, raising one’s voice), so it should be OK to cry. We need to educate people at work to understand that crying is not an emotion, it is the expression of emotion. And the emotions with which it is associated are very common emotions that everyone feels at work."

As Elsbach's research shows, there's a while to go before we feel OK with crying at work – or observing other people crying. However, it can also be releasing to have a bit of a weep — and it doesn't mean that you're weak or unable to do your job. If you're crying at work a lot, try to do some self-examination as to why; you deserve a healthy work environment that doesn't drive you to emotional distress every day.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.