Crying at Work Is Only Stigmatized Because Offices Cater to the Male Experience

Photo: Getty Images/Zero Creatives
Though it's not an everyday occurrence, I wont lie to you: I've done my fair share of crying at work. I’m human being who sometimes finds work to be emotionally exhausting, and sometimes tears are my reaction to that. That said, I've always strived to avoid these cry sessions. But I'm done—crying is a biological trait that I should be allowed to express so long as it doesn't compromise my work or distract others. I'm a working woman who has bigger fish to fry—like the gender pay gap, imposter syndrome, and unequal division of labor—than defending my right tear up at my desk. So I hereby call for the normalizing of crying at work without worrying about how I am perceived or whether letting the tears flow will hinder my career trajectory as a result.

After all, it's natural to cry every now and then. So, why is it that I'm so keen to button up my emotions for fear of making my manager and co-workers wonder if I'm solid, strong, and capable? In large part, the reason is thanks to an old guard standard of work. (Hint: It's the same reason office temperatures are always so freaking cold.) That's right—since office situations have historically been male-dominated, they cater to the male experience with and reaction to crying.

For her book It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace, Anne Kreamer surveyed 700 people and found 41 of women have cried at work, compared to only 9 percent of men. Is this because men are more competent, capable, and professional? No. It's a matter of biology. According a study from the German Society of Ophthalmology (translated by Harvard Business Review), the average woman cries psychic tears—which are produced from strong emotional responses rather than as a response to irritants or dryness—between 30 and 64 times a year, whereas the average man cries psychic between 6 and 17 times a year. Furthermore, these crying sessions are likely turn into sobs 65 percent of the time for women versus just 6 percent of the time for men. This finding doesn't provide evidence that crying is unprofessional or reflective of a poor work ethic but that the connotation of crying as it connects to work is rooted in a male-favoring framework.

Knowing this, it makes sense that research results show crying at work to be a negative—we've been conditioned to believe it is. In 2017, the British Journal of Social Psychology published three independent studies of a total 1,042 participants to draw conclusions about the perception of tearful people. They showed participants a photo of either a person who was crying or one who had tears that were digitally removed. Participants viewed people with tears as warmer and sadder—but also as less competent. And while they said they would be more likely to to offer help to the crier than to the person with no tears, they also said they would likely avoid asking the crier to offer assistance on anything important. Meaning, if you cry in at work, you'll likely have a shoulder to lean on, but your co-workers won't necessarily think of you first to jump in on a new project.

"Crying causes employers to feel empathy and even an increased willingness to help resolve the issue." —clinical psychologist Kim Chronister, PsyD

But just because crying culture caters to men doesn’t mean that everyone needs to stifle their tears. According to licensed clinical psychologist Kim Chronister, PsyD, there are benefits to crying at the office. “There’s no shame to be had for crying at work since studies show 45 percent of workers admit to [having] cried at work," she says. "At times, crying causes employers to feel empathy and even an increased willingness to help resolve the issue. It can initiate dialogue and could even help bring to light the severity of a problem that has been brewing in the workplace and lead to revised policies in situations where there’s emotional abuse at work (i.e., bullying at work, unfair or unequal treatment, extreme work pressures, etc.).”

Crying can also be beneficial for your mental and physical health. A recently published study in Emotion found that tearing up can help with regulating emotional arousal and cortisol levels via breathing control, which can be an effective and cathartic release. Furthermore, crying can be a means for clueing in yourself and others as to how you're feeling.

So while there are certain benefits to glean from crying at work, there may still be value in not making it an everyday show in front of the whole company. “Intimate crying one-on-one is best so that it is not misconstrued as either emotion dysregulation or manipulation," says Dr. Chronister. "If it has happened once or twice, however, it's not a massive issue because emotions are normal in context and certain circumstances.”

But, in general, let's all cut ourselves a break about the issue of crying at work. There are many solid reasons as to why you shouldn’t be afraid to do it at the office, but, as with all issues related to behavior and communication, be mindful of the frequency and context. And if you're not ready to let your tears spill freely while clocked in, that’s okay, too. Happy hour with your friends is also always available for a good cathartic cry.

Another workplace issues that need our attention? Gender bias. Plus, here's what employers can do to cultivate a burnout-free workplace

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