By most scientific standards, crying is considered a positive thing, as it’s been found to release oxytocin and endorphins that ease physical and emotional pain. Until, of course, you cry at work. In that case, crying serves as lubricant for professional embarrassment, sliding you down a shame spiral that leaves concerned colleagues tilting their heads and asking if “everything is alright at home.”
To that end, a recent meme of a sign reading “Employees Must Stop Crying Before Returning to Work” has resurfaced a lot of the feelings around shedding tears while pushing paper. It’s probably because, as much as crying can make you feel better in the right context, I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’d rather walk around with piss on my hands than be emotionally vulnerable in an office setting. (That said, a 2019 survey of 3,000 workers revealed that 8 out 10 had gotten choked up on the job.)
I might be overreacting, though, because therapists like Jessica Tappana insist that “it’s absolutely okay to cry at work,” because “crying can be your body’s way of helping you acknowledge the severity of your emotions, and from that point, you can work toward finding solutions.”
People can cry at work for any number of reasons, but when it’s a combination of stress, exhaustion and some sort of external event (like an argument with a colleague), it can be difficult to close the floodgates. In these instances, Tappana recommends removing yourself from the situation — not because there’s anything wrong with you crying, but because continued exposure to whatever provoked you will probably only make things worse.
If you can keep it together enough to communicate and think clearly, though, some professional crying can be useful in underscoring systemic issues at your office. Along those lines, as many companies shift toward minimizing burnout for employees, crying at work could also shift from professional self-sabotage to important company feedback. So long as emotions aren’t wielded in an abusive or manipulative way, “crying within the safety of a problem-solving conversation where you’ve expressed that you’re overwhelmed and asking for help isn’t bad,” Tappana explains.
Fellow therapist Emily Simonian agrees that crying at work tells your boss and coworkers a number of things, such as “I’m overworked,” “I’m under a lot of pressure” and “There is something wrong with the professional climate in this office.”
If you end up crying at work, both Simonian and Tappana think it’s best to acknowledge your emotions without apologizing, and then keep it moving. However, you can’t control how other people will respond and some bosses and coworkers may treat you like you can’t handle your job or emotions. That’s valuable information too — if more difficult to deal with — especially if burnout or a work conflict is what ultimately brought you to tears.
In those instances, Tappana recommends asking your HR department about short-term counseling through their Employee Assistance Program. For her part, Simonian suggests talking about your emotions with friends, family and, ideally, a therapist. But if it’s just an occasional sob, and you can pinpoint the issue and quickly address it, there’s no reason to obey that stupid “Employees Must Stop Crying Before Returning to Work” sign.
And if anyone gives you a hard time about it, just tell them that you’re releasing oxytocin and that there are plenty of far less professional ways to do so.