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April 9, 2020

Crying at Work and How to Help – Your Top Tips

Lucy Bishop


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©© GettyImages/Cecilie_Arcurs

Crying at work is widely regarded as something of a taboo. If you're reduced to tears in the workplace, there is the very real fear that others will see you as weak, overemotional or unprofessional.

And if personal issues are the cause of your distress, you don't want to feel disapproval from your boss or colleagues at bringing outside problems into work.

Controlling Your Emotions

But, the thing is, tears are hard to control. And, unless you are a brilliant actor, it can be incredibly difficult to pretend that everything is fine when it's not. We all face times when we feel overwhelmed by one thing or another.

Just take the past few months of the coronavirus pandemic, for example. I'm sure there are plenty of us who have shed a tear over our laptops, wondering to ourselves, "How did this happen? When will it all go back to normal?"

Every time I switch on the news, I find something new to cry about. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a scary or sad thing, either. I'm partial to a happy cry too, on occasion.

Suppression Doesn't Work

I've been caught crying at work plenty of times. Tears of anger, frustration, sadness, happiness, laughter. I've tried and tried to control my emotions; to stamp them down and swallow that lump in my throat. But I'm just no good at it! It's just not me. It's not part of my DNA. Simply put, I'm a crier. And that's OK.

So, as I've got older I've stopped trying to suppress the tears. (I should add this doesn't mean I'm just walking around crying in the office all the time!) And, do you know what? People's reactions are generally kind and caring. I'm lucky: my colleagues can also be counted as my friends. I'd like to think I've been there for them when they've had what I'd call a "wobble," too.

What to Do When You Find Someone Crying at Work

I remember finding a co-worker – someone I'd spoken only about half a dozen words to – in the bathroom, crying. At first, she was embarrassed. So was I – I barely knew her. But rather than ignore her or pretend that I hadn't noticed, I asked her, "Are you OK? What's happened?"

It turned out that her boss had been putting pressure on her and she just wasn't coping. He'd knocked her self-confidence and made her feel pretty bad.

I knew nothing about this situation. So I suggested she talk to him about her feelings. Better that, than hide them away like they're something to be ashamed of. After all, he's just a person, right?

I have no idea whether the advice I gave her helped. But her mood seemed brighter and the tears stopped. I think just having someone who's willing to listen to you without judgment can be all it takes to feel better.

Crying at Work and How to Help: Your Top Tips

We wanted to know how you handle crying at work. What do you do when you simply can't stop the tears from coming? How do you help your colleagues when they're finding it a struggle, too? Here's a selection of some of the best tips and advice we received from our friends and followers on social media.

Tears Are Normal – Don't Hold Back!

Interestingly, a lot of you made the point that crying is a perfectly normal way to express your emotions. And that suppressing these feelings can have a significant negative impact on our mood and mental health in the longer term.

Facebook friend Heidi Ziegele said, "When a person cries, it's an expression of emotions which are normal and natural. They don't always make sense, logically. And yes, sometimes they happen when we are at work.

"Emotions are like an energy passing through the body. If you allow them to move through you, they will pass in minutes and subside like a wave. When that does happen, it helps to have another human to hold space for this.

"Holding space for someone means to be with them in that space: have empathy, listen, don't try to fix. Give affirmations to what they say they are feeling, such as, 'That sounds hard.' Don't give advice, try to fix, or say, 'Look at the bright side!' That's not what's needed, unless it's asked for.

"Questions like, 'How can I best support you right now?' can go a long way to making the person feel heard and understood and that they have someone who cares."

Rebecca Dion agreed. She said, "Give them space and not make a big deal. It is what it is." And Muhammad Adam Abdullah offered one of the most profound sentiments I've come across on an MTtips discussion with this gem: "People who shed a tear at work are the strongest that I have seen. It is not a sign of weakness."

Listening and Empathy

Many of you highlighted the importance of empathy and listening when helping someone who's crying at work.

As HR and coaching professional Nicola McCall said on LinkedIn, "Help them to a space where they can cry and not feel they have embarrassed themselves (if they want). Sit and be with them. Say nothing, just be a presence. Listen when they want to talk, if they do.  

"Ask them what would help them go back to work, if they wish to when they're ready. Or would they prefer more time, to go home, to contact a family member or friend? Listen and help them to change state from being overwhelmed to being able to support themselves and make decisions again. Demonstrate kindness and integrity, whatever their working relationship with you."

On Facebook, Paulo Tuason seconded the power of listening. He said, "Let them vent. Most of the time they need an ear to listen and not a mouth for you to speak."

Keep Your Conversation Private

Several people flagged up the importance of keeping your conversation private when you talk to a colleague who's crying at work. And, crucially, not using it as an excuse to fuel gossip.

Facebook friend Tammy Touhey commented, "Keep your judgments to yourself and don't gossip about it. Whatever they say during a vent is just a vent. Period. Don't go running to the boss and don't talk about it under the guise of 'concern.' One day, it'll be you."

Adel Mezrab echoed these sentiments on LinkedIn, and highlighted the importance of showing support. He said, "Expressing solidarity, telling a joke that cheers a person up, offering support, and shedding light on bright aspects. Even more important, giving privacy to team members and keeping them away from others. For some people, even private space itself might be a solution."

Give People Space

Allowing people some space to breathe and collect their thoughts away from other people was also recommended by several of you.

Facebook friend Gareth Norcott said, "Withhold judgment. Give them space. Offer a tissue and some time away from desks to talk if they want this. Acknowledge [that] crying is a very human emotion and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about."

Similarly, Sharee Barsby highlighted the importance of giving them space, as well as signposting other sources of support. She explained, "Pull them away privately and discreetly. Allow them the free space to have someone just listen.

"Depending on the situation, I will suggest they contact the onsite therapist or life coach. I still send them their contact information after our chat. I always suggest if they are going to stay on, to take an extra break to collect themselves, wash their face, and take some alone time.

"If they request to go home, they are free to go home. If they also stay on after, I do check-ins throughout the rest of their shift to see how they are doing. I even allow them to work on things that would give them the ability to take their mind off things. I will always plan a check-in meeting on their next shift to see how things are going. Giving someone your time and showing you care always works best."

The Power of Laughter and Kindness

Many of you focused on the positive things you can do to cheer people up. From random acts of kindness, such as making them a cup of tea or giving them a little present, to telling them a joke to help lift the mood.

Kay Wheatley on Facebook said, "Leave a box of chocs on their desk, with an anonymous note saying, 'Seems like a chocolate kind of day/week – don't forget I am here for you.'

"They will spend a lot of time thinking about who would have left the chocs there for them. Cheers them up a tiny bit, as usually they come up with quite a few people and it all helps. Tricking our brain and redirecting our thoughts is the way to go."

Chocolates are certainly one way to go (a good way, if you're a bit of chocaholic like me). Hugs work for Flissy J Freeman-Bull. She said, "I used to get a hug each shift from a teammate and it was heartfelt and uplifting." The etiquette around hugging is tricky at the best of times, so in these times of enforced isolation, perhaps offer a virtual hug instead!

Finally (let's end on a positive), Facebook friend Jen Bishop recommended laughter as a good cure for the blues: "A good laugh helps to balance the emotion for me."

Do you have any more tips or advice about crying at work, and what can be done to support co-workers through tough times? Add them in the Comments box, below.

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6 comments on “Crying at Work and How to Help – Your Top Tips”

    1. Great that you feel better Angela. Sometimes I find a little cry helps me release some of the built up tension in the body and I feel better afterwards.

  1. Really great to see the subject of emotions at work being recognised. In my experience as an HR practitioner crying and other displays of emotions are viewed with fear and something to be squashed. It's so important to remember that emotions drive our passion and creativity making us valuable assets to our organisations - with that we will also have some more negative emotions from time to time but, as Lucy says, they soon pass. It's a brave organisation that celebrates emotion and provides the right environment to harness it.

    1. Thanks Clare for sharing your experiences. I think that many people fear the expression of emotion such as crying (and grief) because they simply do not know what to do in the situation to handle it. So, they try to minimize it, avoid it or shut it down. I believe it takes courage to be able to sit with another while they are crying rather than trying to shut it down or stop it.

  2. Oh, this article speaks to me. I've struggled with shedding tears my whole life. It doesn't feel like crying to me, shedding tears more accurately describes what's happening. For me, shedding tears seems to be the way my body releases feelings when the feeling is overwhelming - so, in addition to sadness and pain, it's kindness, love, anger, (fill in the blank) too. I have tried everything I know and everyone I know knows. Thinking about something else, tongue to roof of mouth, pinching web of skin between thumb and finger, looking for and counting things, all to no avail. Sure, there are medications that soften feelings, and I've done that, too. But, my best advice for when you come across someone shedding tears...pretend like you don't notice. Don't make a big deal about it. Slide the tissue box their way and carry on with the conversation. Believe me, if the person needs privacy he or she knows how to excuse themselves.

    Thanks for the article. It's always nice to learn there are others out there! All the best.

    1. Thank you very much Keely for sharing your experiences and your advice. I like the idea of simply not making a big deal out of it because as you say, if the person needs more privacy, they will take it. For me, the important thing is simply accepting that we are all human and have human emotions.

      By the way, one of my strategies when I feel the tears are about to surface is to take some conscious breaths to help me feel more grounded.

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