Workplace

It’s OK to cry at work

Our comfort with crying at work has changed drastically over the past couple years. But experts said the hard part is helping workers get through the underlying mental health challenges.

A person crying.

Tech workers and workplace mental health experts said discussing emotions at work has become less taboo over the past couple years, but we’re still a ways away from completely normalizing the conversation — and adjusting policies accordingly.

Photo: Teerasak Ainkeaw / EyeEm via Getty Images

Everyone seems to be ugly crying on the internet these days. A new Snapchat filter makes people look like they’re breaking down on television, crying at celebratory occasions or crying when it sounds like they’re laughing. But one of the ways it's been used is weirdly cathartic: the workplace.

In one video, a creator posted a video of their co-worker merely sitting at a desk, presumably giggling or smiling, but the Snapchat tool gave them a pained look on their face. The video was captioned: “When you still have two hours left of your working day.” Another video showed someone asking their co-workers if they enjoy their job. Everyone said yes, but the filter indicated otherwise.

Maybe the filter is forcing us to do what we’ve always wanted to do at work: cry. Whether you’re crying because of work or for some other reason, the boundaries between home and work have become so blurred in the past few years that it doesn’t really matter. The fact that we’ve resisted that impulse highlights long-standing assumptions that showing feelings is a sign of weakness and could be used against us. Tech workers and workplace mental health experts said discussing emotions at work has become less taboo over the past couple years, but we’re still a ways away from completely normalizing the conversation — and adjusting policies accordingly.

“As HR and business leaders we are in the feelings business,” said Steve Pemberton, Workhuman’s chief HR officer. “It’s our job to try to shape how our employees feel at work. After going through a global pandemic, we’ve discovered that employee engagement is no longer about how they feel about work, but how they feel at work.”

Why we aren’t crying enough at work

Matt Schulman, currently a communications manager at Crunchbase, worked at a small marketing agency back in 2014. At the time, he worked 12-hour days and made relatively little money. He was already approaching a breaking point when he noticed a resume had been flagged for someone looking to work in the same role he had at the time. “I remember thinking ‘Oh, I'm the office manager now. Are they looking for another office manager? Am I going to get fired on top of everything?’” Schulman said.

He eventually brought it up to a manager, at which point the tears started to flow. “They felt really bad,” Schulman said. “They saw that they pushed me to a breaking point. It was an empathetic response at that moment.”

Schulman had been on the verge of tears before, but he didn’t allow himself to get emotional until before or after work. When he asked for a check-in with his manager, he’d receive mostly negative feedback. He was also in his early 20s at the time and was nervous to bring up any concerns to his boss. To make matters worse, his company lacked an HR team.

A lot has changed since 2014, but suppressing emotions at work is still relatively normal, according to Monica Johnson, a clinical psychologist and owner of New York-based private practice Kind Mind Psychology. Johnson said the workplace discourages low emotions, pointing to many company policies that allow for only five bereavement days after a loved one passes away. “That communicates a message that we should be able to at least put on a brave face after a week off, even if your mother just died,” Johnson told Protocol.

Burnout from work responsibilities is also hugely prevalent, and “sad days” are fairly new. Even though companies extend these days off, workers are unlikely to take them or are nervous they’ll be punished for doing so.

“It behooves companies to be aware of the damaging effects of burnout and encourage folks to take personal days when needed and to have a culture that openly expresses that mental health is important and has policies that support that value,” Johnson said.

We’re getting better at showing feelings at work

Lucky for us, we’re getting better at crying at work, even without Snapchat filters. Or should I say, we’re getting better at feeling comfortable crying in front of co-workers. But that’s only half the battle.

A 2021 report on mental health at work conducted by Mind Share Partners, Qualtrics and ServiceNow found that talking about mental health with co-workers is increasingly the norm, but workers are leaving their jobs more often in part because of mental health reasons. The pandemic and ongoing racial injustices propelled some of those issues, the report found.

The percentage of employees who feel comfortable talking with their managers about mental health grew from around 29% in 2019 to around 40% last year, the report found. The percentage of workers who discussed their mental health at work also grew: In 2019, just 40% of respondents said they brought the topic up to colleagues, and in 2021 that rose to 65%.

Bernie Wong, the senior manager of Insights & Principal at Mind Share Partners, said more people are coming to terms with the fact that they can’t treat their mental health as an issue outside work. “People can't just neatly compartmentalize mental health as something separate,” he said.

Still, getting workers to feel more comfortable expressing feelings at work is not going to solve mental health challenges. Ever-changing return-to-office policies are damaging workers’ mental health, and employees are less productive than they were in 2019 because their mental hygiene took a hit. The percentage of U.S. workers leaving their jobs for mental health reasons also rose from 22% in 2019 to 32% last year.

Companies can make it easier for workers to cry

Building a culture where workers are OK with getting emotional in front of each other comes down to policies and leadership practices, Wong said.

On the management side, Wong said leaders should be open to showing their vulnerable side. That doesn’t mean managers need to break down in front of their employees, but it could be as simple as saying, “This week was really hard,” Wong said.

He said bosses should get in the habit of checking in with workers proactively, “even if it doesn't seem like anything was going on.” Wong said people have been socialized to carry on as business as usual in the workplace, even in light of tragedies and drastic life events, but they could still be struggling. “Even if you don't use those weekly one-on-ones, always create that formalized space,” he said.

Wong said workers and managers should retrain the way they observe one another to notice hyperproductivity, someone sending late-night emails or messages or an employee spacing out in the middle of a meeting. He said there may be nothing wrong, but it doesn’t hurt to check in.

“You want to keep it objective,” Wong said. “Maybe it's totally fine, maybe we're binging ‘Game of Thrones’ and we’re tired the next day, or maybe there is a more substantive challenge that they're experiencing.”

Wong added that building spaces for people to discuss feelings is only part of the solution. Companies can add in support, like access to meditation apps, which Google, Intel and others have introduced. But companies should also recognize that their workers’ mental health challenges are often a result of their work environment, and giving employees control over decisions like the times they prefer working can help their well-being overall.

“It's less about debating whether we should or shouldn't allow time for crying itself,” he said. “It's more about how we are creating and reinforcing spaces where it feels safe for someone to kind of honestly share how they're feeling.”

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