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Is It Ever Okay To Cry At Work?

14/10/2016 12:51 | Updated 14 October 2016

That moment when your heart starts to race, your eyes start to prick and you realise you're not going to make it to the office loo before someone notices is the worst - because crying is still seen as a major taboo in the workplace.

On Thursday's episode of 'The Apprentice', candidate Jessica Cunningham found that out the hard way when her fellow candidates, the media and hundreds of people on Twitter questioned her professionalism, all because she cried.

Jessica lost her composure after taking on the role of Project Manager. The task was to create an advertising campaign for jeans and after struggling to maintain control of the group all day, Jessica realised she'd forgotten to pick up the product before arriving at a photoshoot.

The mistake was the final straw for the PM, who couldn't stop her tears from falling before she left the room. You could hear her hyperventilating as she closed the door behind her and my heart really went out to her, but her fellow candidates weren't so sympathetic.

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The moment Jessica was out of earshot, Trishna Thakrar said "we can't be relying on her", while the other women seemed determined not to let the incident slide the next day, saying Jessica "collapsed under the pressure" and "lost the plot".

But showing emotion at work shouldn't be seen as a sign that you're incapable of doing your job. Crying is a natural, biological reaction to a high stress situation and is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

'The Apprentice' process is undoubtedly an intense and exaggerated version of the average person's work day, but Jessica is far from the first person to feel overwhelmed after a day at the office.

Statistics from the Labour Force Survey found there were 440,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Britain in 2014 and 2015.

It also found that stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health.

When a person cries at work, you have no idea what's been going on in their home life or what may have been building up internally for weeks.

Yet on Twitter, some suggested Jessica made "all women in business look like a joke" when she cried - and herein lies the problem.

Men and women deal with stress and frustration in different ways. Just as men are taught "boys don't cry" as children, girls are told it's not okay to shout or display anger. So sometimes, we cry.

During the show, the male candidates shouted over one another and locked horns when things got tough, but time and time again this kind of behaviour is seen as passionate, rather than unprofessional.

Tabloids on Friday morning were full of headlines about Jessica's "hysterical meltdown", but few pointed out that the boys' PM, Mukai Noiri, probably struggled with the job in hand just as much.

Crying has become so synonymous with weakness at work that another candidate, Alana Spencer, opted to stay quiet in the boardroom while her lip quivered, instead of standing up for herself and letting a few tears fall in the process.

It's clear that employers need to do something drastic to improve mental health and wellbeing at work and that starts by recognising that signs of stress vary from person to person.

Some people cry, some people argue, but we shouldn't be made to feel embarrassed by our personal reaction. Instead, employers should be providing more support to ensure we don't reach breaking point in the first place.

What surprised me most about the reaction to Jessica's crying was that some of the most ruthless criticism - both on and off screen - has come from women.

On the show, Aleksandra King stabbed her in the back in the boardroom, saying the team had to "piece her back together", when in reality, she regained her composure alone outside.

And in her weekly column, former Apprentice candidate Luisa Zissman said: "Women please don't cry at work, there is no place for crying at work! It bugs the hell outta me."

Women now make up 47% of the overall workforce but just 17.3% of FTSE 100 directorships and 13.2% of FTSE 250 directorships are held by women.

If we want to close this gap, women should be supporting each other to the top, not tearing each other down at every other opportunity.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting crying at work is something to be encouraged, in fact far from it.

If you find yourself drying your eyes in the toilets on a regular basis, it may be a sign that the job isn't for you or you need to have a serious chat with your boss about your working environment, for your own sake. After all, we spend a hell of a lot of time at work each week and it shouldn't be making you unhappy.

But if you fail to maintain that facade of professionalism once in a blue moon and shed a few tears in the process, that doesn't mean you're bad at your job. It means you're human and and more often than not, it means you actually care about your job and getting it right.

The sooner we all recognise that, the better.

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