THE BLOG

Is It Okay to Cry at Work?

13/11/2014 11:59 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Crying is our way of showing something's wrong to other people, letting them know we're going through some kind of emotional anguish. Given the pressures and stresses of work it's the kind of place where, very occasionally, we feel the need to raise a flag and have a cry.

But is crying at work still a taboo - even in our modern workplaces where 'soft skills' and management are to the fore?

To answer that question, it's important to think about the emotional safety of the workplace. That is: how safe it is for employees to exhibit emotions?

Some workplaces welcome the demonstration of emotion and view someone displaying the distressing emotion as simply exhibiting a natural response to a difficult experience. Individuals in this environment will be offered comfort and sympathy, and might even be encouraged to 'have a good cry' and 'get it all out' to make themselves feel better.

Other organisations can be quick to judge the display of emotions. Anyone found openly shedding tears in this environment would be at serious risk of criticism, condemnation or ridicule for displaying the distressing emotion so publicly.

Another scenario in which it's definitely not okay to cry is if your job role places you in a position of authority, or if others look towards you for support, such as police officers or paramedics.

This isn't to say that individuals in these roles should never let themselves feel the distressing emotion. On the contrary, some of the distressing things they're exposed to during the course of their work might even give them more cause to cry than anyone else. Yet they have an obligation to hold it together for as long as it takes to go somewhere private, not least because the people they're supporting need to be allowed to be the ones to display distress.

Interestingly enough, public-facing workers, such as bank counter staff or those dealing with frustrated commuters, who might experience criticism or even abuse from customers would most certainly be criticised for crying in public, but frequently offered tea and sympathy if found crying in the staff room.

One thing's for certain, unless you can be sure displaying emotions is something that's acceptable at work, your best bet is to put on a brave face until you can go somewhere private, even if it's just your car or the office toilet.

More and more employers want to know how their people are feeling. Annual employee engagement surveys are increasingly being replaced with real time 'pulse surveys' to assess how people are feeling at the moment.

Some workplaces even display 'face boards', inviting employees to display an emoticon - a happy, sad, angry or neutral face - when they get into work, so managers can immediately assess the 'feel' of the workplace for the day.

However, despite the apparent trend towards embracing how people are feeling, most employers prefer that individuals communicate how a situation is affecting them in a structured and coherent way, before things get too much, instead of a raw gush of emotion once they start to feel overwhelmed. Not least because once an employee feels so distressed they can no longer control their emotions, their ability to logically think through and communicate how best they need to be supported will also become seriously diminished.

Unfortunately, far too many people are so afraid of displaying any kind of vulnerability in the workplace (often for good reason) that situations at work and home often have to reach some kind of breaking point before the employer even knows what's going on. A far better scenario is one in which people feel able to talk openly to their employer about what's putting them under pressure, so that they can retain their ability to cope and navigate through the challenges facing them. Critical to this is creating a culture whereby employees feel safe talking to someone at work about what's making them feel vulnerable.