Crying at work is more than okay, it’s an essential part of mental health
In my 14-year career, I’ve become somewhat adept at crying at work. There’s the time I sobbed in my car after interviewing a mom whose son, a soldier, was killed in Afghanistan. There’s also the time I cried in the parking garage at work after a performance review I didn’t exactly agree with. And I’ll never forget the time I cried in a supply closet the day after the 2016 presidential election.
But the one time I allowed my tears to flow freely and publicly, I was sitting in my manager’s office. I’d just been reprimanded for not accommodating a senior leader’s request quickly enough (at least in her eyes), and I was livid. Unfortunately, my body’s stress response to anger is sometimes crying, which my manager mistook for shame or some admission of guilt.
As a young Black woman, I was trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to control my emotions lest I be deemed angry or uncooperative. Thankfully, my colleagues came to my rescue. They overheard me crying, suggested we take a walk to get Potbelly milkshakes, and for that brief moment in time, all was right with the world.
Crying at work is complicated. We’re humans, so it’s inevitable. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or everyone feels comfortable doing it.
According to a 2018 survey, 45% of people have cried at work and for a myriad of reasons—stress, anger, frustration, grief, overwhelm—sometimes all of it, all at once. But how much we cry varies: For women, it’s about 5.3 times per month, while men cry 1.3 times a month.
“When the body is feeling dysregulated, our nervous system is impacted to a point where the body might freeze or the body might shut down,” explains author, licensed therapist, and wellness coach Minaa B. “Crying is a way the body regulates itself to get the nervous system back on and back to our level of optimal arousal, which is our window of tolerance where we can function properly.”
When we’re not operating within our window of tolerance, we can experience anger, sadness, anxiety, and depression, which can result in tears. “It’s important to remember that crying is natural to the body,” says Minaa. “It’s still too stigmatized, where it’s seen as a weakness or a character flaw.”
Despite our best efforts, it’s also impossible to completely separate our personal lives from our professional lives, especially in the age of remote work.
“We can’t just flip a switch and turn off our difficult life experiences,” says Minaa. “We might also find that some of our difficult experiences are happening in the work environment, which is why we’re triggered and start to cry at work as well.”
While crying at work may not be your first choice, sometimes it’s inevitable. Here, experts share when and where to cry, and how to bounce back.
The social, emotional, and physical benefits of crying
According to the Association for Psychological Science, “tears of joy” can help restore our emotional equilibrium by “regulating positive emotion,” while crying in general is a self-soothing technique that can help calm our parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases heart rate and increases digestion.
In her research, Lauren Bylsma, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has found that crying in certain social situations can be a good thing.
“If someone’s in a supportive social environment where others are reacting in a positive, empathetic, and supportive way, they’re more likely to feel better after crying,” she says, acknowledging that the benefits may result from being around other people versus the physical act of crying itself.
However, if people cry in a situation where they’re embarrassed or ashamed, or feel that others may react negatively, they can feel worse after crying. “The workplace can be a challenging environment for crying because it’s often a less supportive environment,” Bylsma notes.
But a survey of more than 2,000 C-suite leaders shows that crying at work isn’t the taboo that it once was, with 44% of CFOs saying the occasional workplace cry is acceptable. Furthermore, 30% of C-suite leaders believe crying at work has no negative impact on your reputation. After all, everyone cries.
“If your feelings are centered around shame and embarrassment, that’s inner work for you to do,” suggests Minaa. “It’s okay to say, ‘I had a hard time, and I cried.’ This can’t be the first time a colleague has seen a person cry before.”
Give yourself space to cry
If you feel tears coming on, Minaa suggests creating some physical distance between you and your colleagues by going to the restroom or stepping outside the office altogether. Once outside, you may want to take a walk or call a supportive friend before returning to the office.
“It’s okay if you want to cry in silence and separation,” she says.
You also don’t owe anyone an explanation when you return. Whether you decide to share why you’re crying depends on how vulnerable you want to be with your colleagues.
“If you have a situation where a coworker is inquiring, it’s okay to say, ‘Thank you for supporting me, but I don’t want to talk about it right now,’” says Minaa. “Or, ‘Thank you for understanding, but I’m not ready to share why I was crying.’”
Alternatively, opening up to a trusted work friend can help you process. In fact, doing so can help you feel closer, as crying can elicit care and support from others. If, however, you find yourself crying a lot at work, it could be time to enlist the help of a therapist.
How to support someone who’s crying
First and foremost, don’t try to fix them or the situation and definitely do not probe. Whatever you do, don’t try to console the person by saying, “Don’t cry” or suggesting what they’re crying about isn’t a situation worth crying over.
“It can be very dismissive to a person who’s crying, especially if it’s a big deal to them and not a big deal to you,” says Minaa. “You don’t get to define for someone else what’s important or not.”
Instead, she suggests checking your own discomfort and giving people space to feel whatever it is they’re feeling. It is okay, however, to ask open-ended questions, such as, “Is there something I can do to support you? Is there a way I can help you with whatever you’re going through?”
If you happen to be the person’s manager, ensure they feel emotionally supported. You may even suggest taking a mental health or wellness day.
“As a manager, you might already have a personality where you are prone to fixing things and finding solutions,” says Minaa. “But the first thing as a manager you want to do is pay attention to your own emotional awareness and ask, ‘Am I uncomfortable right now? And how can I manage my own discomfort?’”
At the end of the day, crying at work isn’t the end of the world, although it may feel like it at the moment. While we’re worried about other people judging us, the reality is we’re the ones judging ourselves for being vulnerable and showing emotion.
“Sometimes, when our fear and worry become catastrophic, we magnify that fear and treat it as if it’s the scariest thing,” says Minaa. “But sometimes we just need to look fear straight in the eyes and say, ‘I cried. Is it really a big deal?’”