When Tears Take Over
Crying at Work and How to Help
Have you ever felt like you could just burst into tears in the middle of the working day?
Whether it's a work-related problem, a family issue, or some other emotional distress, sometimes you're gripped by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness or anxiety.
Most of us know that feeling, whether we've actually shed a tear or not. We spend many hours a week in the workplace, often in testing circumstances, so it's understandable that things can become too much to cope with.
So, how would you react if you saw one of your team members in tears? Would you immediately know the right thing to say, or would you be embarrassed? And what would you do if you suddenly broke down?
In this article, we look at some common reasons why people cry at work, and we explore ways to manage them through such a moment. Also, we examine what to do if you're the one who's reduced to tears.
Why Do People Cry at Work?
If you know why a team member is so upset, then you can work out the best way to help them. Common causes of workplace breakdowns include:
- Fear of change.
- Illness or exhaustion.
- Conflicts with colleagues.
- Negative feedback from managers.
- Poor work-life balance.
- Struggling with a heavy workload.
- Working in an emotionally-demanding role.
Managing Tears in the Workplace
Seeing someone in tears, especially someone you know well, can prompt an emotional response. You might feel sympathy, concern, awkwardness, or uncertainty. You don't need to rush up to them immediately and ask what's wrong, but neither can you ignore what's happening.
If you do ignore a team member's tears, they may feel that you either don't care or don't understand their situation. And, if you don't address what has upset them, it could cause them more stress and potentially result in them leaving your team – temporarily, on health grounds, or for good, to escape the trauma.
There are three steps that you can take to help someone who's crying at work:
- Deciding when to respond.
- Exploring the underlying causes.
- Moving forward.
Step 1. Deciding When to Respond
Your first decision is whether to respond immediately or to give your team member a little time and space to compose themself. Your involvement may be welcomed, or it could be resented. This is a judgment call that depends on your sense of empathy, your degree of Emotional Intelligence, and your relationship with the team member – they need to be able to trust you and be able to approach you.
It could be that the person's colleagues already know about the situation and are doing their best to help out already. If this is the case, wait for an appropriate time to talk to them to find out if there's anything you can do to help. But if, for example, you see that they are being emotionally affected by another team member's behavior, you need to act swiftly to address the situation.
Another time that you should act sooner rather than later is if your tearful team member does not leave their desk or work area. Most people will find somewhere private, such as the rest room, if they feel that tears are imminent. Others, however, might break down without warning, particularly if they've heard some unexpected bad news. Ushering them to one side can prevent the rest of your team from feeling awkward or embarrassed, and can protect the person's dignity as well.
Step 2. Exploring the Underlying Cause
Once you and your team member have the time and privacy to talk, you can get to the bottom of what made them cry. Offering a little "tea and sympathy" can be enough to get them to open up, but be tactful. Ask if they would prefer to talk to another person in the team or organization who they have a good relationship with and can trust.
If they're not keen to discuss the details with you, you should at least try to establish if the cause is work-related. Our article, Questioning Techniques, has tips for asking "open" questions that encourage fuller, more detailed responses. If it is a work-related issue, you can draw up a plan to deal with it.
If they do open up, listen actively to what they have to say. Sometimes the biggest help and most calming influence for someone is simply being able to talk freely and being listened to, without interruption. However, they may also feel ashamed or embarrassed about crying publicly, and want to forget that the episode ever happened. It's important that you're not judgmental or dismissive about what they have to say, even if it sounds trivial to you. If they see that you are respecting their feelings, it can help to build up trust between you and strengthen your relationship.
Ask if there is anything that you can do immediately to help, but don't make promises that you can't keep. Otherwise, you may risk breaking any trust that exists between you, and adding to their distress. If the issue is deeply rooted, let them know that you'll work with them to find a solution. If you think that they need more expert or qualified help, refer them to your organization's employee support program or HR team.
You may feel that it's appropriate to send them home for the rest of the day, or to suggest that they take some annual leave to rest. But check whether they'll have support while they are away from work, as isolation can make things worse.
On rare occasions, tears can be used deliberately as an attempt to manipulate or to control a person or a situation. If you suspect that this might be the case, consider conducting meetings with a colleague present as an independent witness of fair practice. Don't be afraid to take disciplinary action if it's appropriate.
Step 3. Moving Forward
What to do in the longer term depends on the cause that you identified in Step 2. In some cases, there may be a simple solution. For example, if someone is really struggling with a particular project or a long To-Do List, perhaps you can take the pressure off by delegating work to other team members.
People are often too proud or afraid to ask for help, and that can put them under so much pressure that they end up breaking down. Be as supportive as you can, and set up some regular one-on-ones with your team member to monitor how they are coping and whether the situation is improving.
If your discussions reveal some more serious underlying problems within your team, you will need to develop a plan to deal with them. Our Bite-Sized Training™ session, Managing Conflict, can help you to do this. Or, if your team member is struggling with stress, it may be helpful to take a look at our resources on Stress Management. However, if it's very serious, they may need to seek outside help from their doctor or therapist.
When You Need to Cry
It's not always a team member that needs support. Chances are, as a manager, you may find yourself in a situation where all you want to do is curl up in a ball and weep. For example, you may feel overwhelmed by pressure to deliver results.
Do not feel ashamed. Follow the advice that you would offer someone else in the same situation, such as tackling the underlying issue, learning how to manage your emotions, or talking to your HR department or employee assistance program. If there's a team member you have a particularly good relationship with and feel you can trust, you may also want to reach out to them, even if it's just for an informal chat or catch up, to let them know how you're feeling and talk through the problem you are facing.
It can be awkward and embarrassing for all concerned when a team member cries at work. But you can't ignore it and just hope it doesn't happen again. After all, there could be a serious reason for them breaking down that needs urgent attention.
Common reasons for tears at work include bullying, overwork, team conflict, fear of change, working in an emotionally-demanding role. But it could also be that your team member is struggling with an issue that is not work-related.
You need to approach the situation with tact, empathy and emotional intelligence. There are three steps to managing a tearful colleague:
- Deciding when to respond,
- Exploring the underlying cause.
- Moving forward.