I cried at work, in the middle of the editorial office, the first day I came back from maternity leave.
was devastated to have to leave my 10 month old but this was an out of office matter and if I went back to work I would jump right into it. Or so I told myself.
It only took one colleague to ask how the little one was doing and I broke down. The colleague, an elderly man, looked embarrassed. I made the time honored line to the bathrooms.
That was over eight years ago, but is crying at work still considered punishment? Earlier this year, Des Cahill continued to cry Claire Byrne Live when it comes to an injured GAA player.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal openly cried together in September at an event that marked the former’s retirement.
But crying in sports matters is the most acceptable form of public crying for men. Do these few examples reflect a real upheaval?
Research from Accountemps in 2018 showed that while 45 percent of workers admitted to crying at work, almost the same number of CFOs, 44 percent, said crying at work wasn’t a problem as long as it wasn’t every day occur.
“It often happened to me when I was under pressure and exhausted,” says Claire*. She lives on the West Coast, is in her early 40s and returned to college after years of working in the financial industry.
She recalls feeling unsupported at work. “I pretty much got thrown under a bus in a meeting; I cried alone afterwards.”
“I think sometimes it can be tears of anger or frustration, as much as excitement,” says Lucy*, who is in her 30s and works in Dublin for media. “I wouldn’t have been happy about that, but I felt like, look, it happened, I’ll get over it. But there is definitely shame – I was absolutely ashamed of it.
“We definitely inherited a bias against it. That it’s not okay to cry at work and that crying at work is either dramatic or inherently feminine, it’s a failure that you’re basically just soft. If women were always in charge, I wonder, would we see it in such a negative light?”
Lisa Gorry, now an elementary school teacher, remembers her days as a restaurant manager.
“I managed a man who was really terrible for everyone,” she says. “On a few occasions it has overwhelmed me and I have cried. I remember my manager saying you need to get the crying under control.”
It came from a well-meaning place, she adds. Her boss said life would be easier for her if she could be less emotional. What really bothered her was that her crying was being made the subject and not the other person’s bad behavior.
“I would have managed people of different ages, backgrounds and experiences,” says Lisa. “I think some of them saw the crying as, ‘Oh, she can’t handle herself.’ Actually, I was able to keep up well, but sometimes you needed that release.”
In her new work environment, crying is seen in a completely different light. “I have worked at DEIS schools where there was a lot of trauma. Crying at work – never in front of the kids – is seen in a different light. You show empathy and that is a release you need.”
Jennifer*, who is in her 30s and works in the public sector in Dublin, recently cried in front of two young employees she manages after receiving bad news about her health.
“They were very nice,” she says. “They went out and got me chocolate. I think the reason I’m in a pretty nice place to work is because there are a lot of women in my department; There is a lot of empathy.”
She didn’t find it worrying to cry in front of co-workers she leads. “I think it’s good to be vulnerable. In general, I think it’s better to know what’s going on in people’s lives – it means everyone can function as a team. You’re at work eight hours a day, you can’t wear a mask all the time.”
Not every boss shares this approach. Elaine*, mid 50’s, has been leading teams in the communications industry in Dublin for decades. “Personally, I don’t think you should cry in the workplace, but actually I’m not a whiner. I once worked with someone who used it quite strategically — tears worked well with a male boss, but not at all with a woman.”
Sonya Lennon is the founder and thought leader for workplace equality at Work Equal, an organization dedicated to full gender equality in the workplace. “When you feel the need to subsume a part of your personality — especially in the workplace — to be less of your authentic self, that’s the concept of ‘covering,'” she says.
She points to Deloitte’s 2022 inclusion research, which showed that workers are, as Lennon describes it, “trying to be less themselves in order to conform to norms within the power base.”
“If you look at responses from white men, 45 percent of them said they report on some aspect of the workplace,” she says. Much of the cover in this cohort seemed to revolve around the fear of revealing their feminine side.
And here we come to the heart of the matter. As Sonya explains, crying is “a gender problem”. “It’s a social risk to show feminized traits for men,” she adds. “I think as a society we need to start giving men social permission to be vulnerable and see if those feminine traits can seep into our work culture.”
Sinéad Brady is a psychologist specializing in work and the workplace. Traditionally, she emphasizes, crying was seen as a hysterical expression of emotion. “Usually it was a woman crying out of frustration, burnout, overwhelm; trying to operate in a flawed system that doesn’t suit her or any woman,” says Sinéad.
If a woman cried, she was considered unfit for the cut and thrust of the workplace. “In some workplaces we’ve moved away from that now,” Sinéad adds, going on to describe workplaces she’s encountered where the key is not having tissues in offices or boardrooms to embarrass potential criers.
Like Sonya, Sinéad identifies the gender issue with crying in the workplace.
“Boys are taught in the schoolyard that crying is not socially acceptable. The idea of crying in the workplace is feminine, and when it’s feminine, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and considered taboo.”
One HR professional I spoke to, who works at a large company, says: “In my experience, men only cry when they are being disciplined when they might break down. Even that is pretty rare.”
What if your boss made you cry? Crying in response to toxic bullying behavior is a truly normal response, says Sinéad. “It’s just a show of humanity. All you can really say is that I am unable to have this conversation until those words are more constructive.”
Crying over a difficult boss could be a sign that it’s time to assess the impact of your work environment on your mental health. “Sometimes walking away is the only option,” Sinéad adds, advising that person to consider a six-month exit strategy in that case.
Unless you’re dealing with a difficult boss, it’s still important to articulate your feelings. Sinéad suggests saying things like, “‘I’m finding this really hard right now, can we take a break, I can feel the tears coming up.’ It’s not easy words, but sometimes you need to do just that.
“After all, crying is just another emotion, just like laughing.”
* Names have been changed.
https://www.independent.ie/life/crying-at-work-is-shedding-tears-in-the-office-still-a-taboo-in-2022-42115105.html Crying at work: will crying in the office still be a taboo in 2022?