02 Oct Is crying at work unprofessional?
Terminator: Why do you cry?
John Connor: You mean people?
John Connor: I don’t know. We just cry. You know. When it hurts.
Terminator: Pain causes it?
John Connor: Uh-uh, no, it’s different . . . It’s when there’s nothing wrong with you, but you hurt anyways. You get it?
— Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Humans cry for complicated reasons.
My dog died. My son just got engaged. A natural disaster leaves thousands homeless. The song “Nothing Compares to You” comes on the radio (that might just be me). My best friend has cancer. My daughter was rushed to hospital. Another senseless terror attack takes innocent lives. What do these events have in common? The capacity to make us cry.
We cry when we’re sad, and we cry when we’re happy. We cry when we’re lonely, when we’re in pain, when we hear bad news, and when we hear good news. We cry when we’re so overwhelmed by life in general that we can no longer cope, and we cry when we’re filled with joy. So crying is our natural, involuntary reaction to emotional intensity
Research suggests were cry to recover from feeling emotionally distressed or overwhelmed and also as a social signal to elicit help or halt aggressive behaviour in others. Crying stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PN) which is important to recovery and relaxation, as a sort of opposite to the fight-or-flight response. We can draw a line between “a good cry” and feelings of emotional catharsis and recovery. Tears may also stimulate the release of brain chemicals like oxytocin and endogenous opioids. Your tears may therefore help repel the pain of sad or strong emotions. Crying can be an attachment mechanism, through which we bond with others by eliciting or showing empathy.
University of South Florida psychologists Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, of Tilburg University, analysed the accounts of around 3000 recent crying experiences (which occurred outside of the laboratory) and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode. The researchers found that the majority of respondents reported improvements in their mood following a bout of crying. However, one third of the survey participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after crying. The survey also revealed that criers who received social support during their crying episode were the most likely to report improvements in mood.
How you feel after crying depends on numerous factors. Change in affect is strongly affected by social and cultural factors. Crying with a friend after a bad relationship breakup might make you feel better, while tearing up in front of your coworkers at the end of a long, super stressful day may leave you feeling humiliated.
It should not be viewed as unprofessional to cry at work given what we now know about the purpose and power of crying. It is inconsistent and unfair that it is acceptable to express frustration, anger, disappointment and sadness at work, but crying tends to get excessively punished. This is maybe because it demands more attention from others – the idea that “at work, I shouldn’t be asked to provide emotional support”. But we bring our hearts not just our heads to work and people tend to think that work life is different from real life when, in fact, life is life.
The idea that crying is unprofessional at work embodies the ideas that it is a display of “weakness,” “feminine emotions,” and that we should not make other people uncomfortable. But “tough” isn’t what we need from our leaders. An organisation’s culture is established, normalised, and reinforced by its leaders. Leaders are most effective when they show vulnerability and acknowledge their mistakes. The message from the top needs to be that no one will lose credibility or be seen as less competent if they cry. We need to lead with our hearts and allow our people to whole and authentic to bring their best selves to work.
“In either case, by shedding hormones and toxins with our tears, we can recover some of the psychological balance that protects us from the self-destructive impulses of both misery and giddiness. In this way, our physical tears enable the mind’s eye recapture clarity of insight, providing a kind of emotional reset that helps us better recognize the consequences of our actions and better see our way through the highs and lows we have to navigate along the course of our lives.”