Crying at work can leave you feeling embarrassed or unprofessional – but it happens to the best of us. A communication coach explains how to bounce back.
Crying at work is a contentious topic. Although office tears are now seen as marginally more acceptable than they once were (workplaces having blessedly caught onto the fact that their employees are human beings, not robots), most of us would still rather avoid breaking down in front of our colleagues if at all possible.
But what happens when you can’t help it, and your carefully maintained veneer of professionalism dissolves in a sea of tears? First of all, it’s important to remember that however embarrassed you feel, you’re extremely unlikely to have done irreparable damage to your career. The journalist and former corporate executive Anne Kreamer conducted a survey of 700 people for her book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, and found that 41% of women (and 9% of men) of all management levels had cried at work. None of them felt it had made a difference to their success.
To advise on how to bounce back after an office-bound meltdown, we consulted communication coach and author Joanna Crosse, who has run confidence and communication workshops for everyone from media professionals to boardroom executives.
Here, Crosse shares her tips and tricks for how to recover – and prepare – when tears are unavoidable.
What to do if you’ve cried at work because… you’re having personal problems
There are all kinds of non-work-related reasons why you might find yourself sniffling in the office. Perhaps you’ve recently gone through a break-up, a family member is ill, or you’ve had a big row with a friend. You might even be grieving the loss of someone close to you. In these situations, focusing on a spreadsheet can feel nigh-on impossible – and welling up is perilously easy.
Found yourself getting teary in the office about external events? Your first move should be cutting yourself some slack, says Crosse.
“We are all human, not cardboard cut-outs or automatons that come into work to do a job and then go back to their real lives at the end of the day,” she says. “Even if you think you’re putting on a brave face or covering up the fact you have problems at home, the cracks will be visible for everyone to see. It’s like lugging a great rucksack in and hoping nobody will notice.”
However, she warns that we shouldn’t make a habit of breaking down at work. If you regularly weep over the “small stuff”, your coworkers are unlikely to take you seriously when something big happens. “There’s a lot of talk these days about having the courage to be vulnerable, but if a person has a history of bursting into tears on a regular basis it’s unlikely to elicit much sympathy from colleagues.”
If you’re going through a tough time and think there’s a chance you might get weepy during work hours, Crosse suggests going to a trusted colleague (ideally your boss) in a calm moment to explain face-to-face what’s going on. You don’t have to go into detail, but giving them an overview will help them understand if you do get upset.
“Weeping silently or looking distressed will worry your colleagues, but it’s much harder for them to support you if they don’t know what the problem is,” says Crosse. “Also, people can feel awkward around unspoken grief and stress and are much more able to deal with the situation if they are aware of the facts.”
If it’s too late for planning ahead and you’ve already blubbed, give yourself a time out. Ask your boss if you can go for a walk around the block for 10 minutes to clear your head. If that’s not an option, there’s no shame in going and sitting in the staff loos while practising mindful breathing for a few minutes.
Turning off your phone and avoiding social media can help shut out the outside world at work. A rollerball containing an invigorating blend of essential oils, like Aromatherapy Associates Inner Strength Rollerball (£16, libertylondon.com) may also help you re-focus if you’re feeling wobbly.
What to do if you’ve cried at work because… you received bad news
A phone ringing unexpectedly in the middle of the day can sometimes be just as scary as someone calling at 3am. If a shocking tragedy or emergency strikes while you’re at work and you find yourself bursting into tears, Crosse again advises confiding in someone you trust.
“None of us can predict how we are going to react and feel if we get unexpected bad news,” she says. “If you have built trusted relationships at work and are in a supportive environment, that will certainly help.”
If you’re not particularly close to anyone in your office, you still have a responsibility to let a colleague or a manager know the basic facts about why you’ve suddenly become upset – particularly if you have to leave the office at short notice. You may not be able to face telling your entire team, but you should alert one coworker and ask them to pass on the information to the relevant people.
“Communication over speculation is the key,” says Crosse. “There will be consequences for others in the workplace if you have to head off somewhere. Also, you don’t want your colleagues to be speculating about what’s happened because that will become office gossip and could affect your personal reputation.”
What to do if you’ve cried at work because… your boss is being awful
Bullying bosses, contemptuous bosses, overly demanding bosses: there are all kinds of horrible managers, and if you’re unlucky enough to be saddled with one, you’ll know that a fraught encounter can be seriously distressing.
“Any boss that makes you cry because they’re being so vile needs to take a serious look at themselves,” says Crosse. “But it can be a sign that they are not behaving in an emotionally intelligent way, and so won’t be able to see their part in the situation.”
She advises asking courteously if you can continue your conversation another time. “Politeness at least gives you the moral high ground because you really don’t want to sink to their level and start being aggressive back.”
Once you’re somewhere that feels safe, you can regroup and start planning your next steps, but these will be difficult to think about in the heat of the moment.
Crucially, resist the urge to apologise for being “over-emotional”, which will only put you further on the back foot. Once you’ve had a chance to calm down, tell your boss that you cried because you care about your job, and you’re frustrated with the current state of affairs. Research has found that employees who cite passion (rather than emotion) as the reason for tears are viewed as more competent, and are more likely to be chosen as collaborators on later projects. This can also be a useful in-the-moment explanation if your boss won’t allow you to leave the room.
However, it’s also important to know when enough is enough, says Crosse. “If your boss has a history of being awful you might want to consider reporting their behaviour to Human Resources, who at the very least will take note of it for future reference.” You should also consider keeping a log of these incidents, in case you need to cite them at a later date.
What to do if you’ve cried at work because… you’re stressed
This is arguably the reason you’re most likely to weep at your desk. Crying is often prompted by feelings of helplessness, and occupational health professor Gail Kinman says “frustration” is the most common cause she sees of office tears. If you’re overwhelmed by your workload, it’s easy to be swept up in feelings of desperation – cue the waterworks.
Physiologically, emotional tears kick in when your system moves from a state of high tension to a recovery period. We tend to think of these shifts in terms of release – saying we’re “letting it all out”, “breaking down” or “giving up”, for example. But when we can’t actually give up (because that report’s not going to write itself by 9am), crying can actually be a useful way of taking a break from a challenge.
“Crying can be a great stress reliever so don’t beat yourself up for being upset,” says Crosse. “But panicking and letting the emotions take hold can feel overwhelming.”
She recommends taking a few deep breaths and keeping your feet on the ground. “Imagining roots going into the earth will really help you feel centred and less distressed.” Kalms tablets (£8.25, boots.com) are a herbal anti-anxiety remedy that may also help you feel less panicky.
You might feel as though you don’t have a moment to spare, but you’ll almost certainly feel stronger and more clear-headed if you give yourself a short break. Get some fresh air, make a cup of tea, vent to a colleague – and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you really think you can’t finish everything on time. “Some people find it very difficult to ask for support and it’s the battling on one’s own and trying to do too much that leads to the stress in the first place,” says Crosse.
However, if you find yourself weeping every time you have a major deadline, it’s a sign that you need to rethink how you’re approaching work. Many people experience symptoms of anxiety around deadlines, and these can become paralysing. You can find a useful list of tips and tricks for dealing with deadline anxiety here.
“Taking personal responsibility for your actions and reactions is a very positive thing to do,” says Crosse. “It means you can take control of the situation and do something differently and more positively next time that deadline is looming.”
This article was first published on 2 October 2017 and has been updated throughout.
Images: Getty Images / iStock / Rex Features