Is crying at work acceptable? Vanessa Chalmers asks the questions as she explores why women weep more (yes – science says so), and what colleagues really think of criers
Am I the only person who felt for Theresa May last Wednesday after her nightmare speech? The prime minister had a cough (big deal?), a prankster handed her a P45 (she dealt with it smashingly) and the backdrop behind her which read ‘Building a country that works for everyone’, began to fall apart, which was unfortunate but amusing.
Theresa May ploughed on at the Conservative party conference in Manchester for an hour. But although her party stood in ovation to show their support, the next morning the front page news read that 30 or so Tory MPs are rallying for her to step aside, with senior MP, Grant Shapps, saying she wouldn’t be able to recover from the disastrous speech.
And the criticism didn’t stop there. After Downing Street sources denied claims that the PM later cried in the arms of her husband, Philip, Theresa had to face being asked if she had depression following the election result in June. In an interview with Tim Shipman for The Sunday Times, Mrs May said, ‘One minute journalists are accusing me of being an ice maiden or a robot, then they claim I am a weeping woman in dire need of a good night’s sleep! The truth is my feelings can be hurt, like everyone else, but I am pretty resilient’.
Seeing my boss lose composure on more than one occasion has far from displayed her as weak. Psychologists suggest people are more likely to connect over what they see as real displays of emotion
Even if she had cried, does it really matter? The first time I cried at work I ran to the toilets in loud sobs and hyperventilated in a cubicle. What would people think of me? Weak or immature? Why can’t I hold it together – am I cut out for my job? The overthinking passed and after calming down with a cup of tea I asked – why is crying at work such a taboo and sign of weakness?
In a survey of 500 peoples undertaken by Healthista, using OnePulse, just 25 per cent of people said that yes, it was always ok to cry at work, whilst the majority of 47 per cent said it depended on the situation. What ‘situation’ one might see as warranting tears may be, to another person, an overreaction, whether it be getting a bollocking from the boss, your cat dying or the printer just not working (if technology hasn’t made you cry in anger, well done). And so the grey areas of crying at work persist, making it an awkward conversation that needs to be had.
Why do humans cry?
The first thing we do on this earth is cry, and the role of crying as a baby is crucial. It’s a newborn’s only way of communicating hunger, distress or fear to its parents. As we become adults, some of these reasons persist. But we are the only species to cry emotionally triggered by our feelings.
Charles Darwin once declared emotional tears ‘purposeless’, and to this day, the act of crying remains a mystery. In some ways Darwin wasn’t wrong. Bottling up feelings is by no means healthy. However, the theory that we feel relief after crying or that tears are a ‘detox’ (physically of toxins built up by stress) is yet to be supported by research.
What may bring relief, however, is the support offered by other humans. More plausible theories suggest tears are a cry for help, show vulnerability and trigger social bonding. ‘Tears are of extreme relevance for human nature,’ according to clinical psychologist Dr Ad Vingerhoets, author of Why Only Humans Weep: Unravelling the Mysteries of Tears and a leading expert on crying. ‘We cry because we need other people. So Darwin was totally wrong’.
‘Women cry more than men’ – is it true?
Whilst sometimes I cry over serious matters, I also cry at the John Lewis Christmas advert every year, when I’m hungry or for no reason at all (hello PMS). If it’s the same for you, you may too be a sensitive woman. Although it would be easy to become defensive over a stereotype, science is proving that women do cry more. 30 to 64 times a year, to be exact, in comparison with six to 17 times a year for men, according to Dr Ad Vingerhoets survey of 5000 adults over 37 countries. And women cry for longer periods of time too, with sobs lasting six minutes on average, whilst for men, they last between two and three minutes.
One reason suggested by Professor Vingerhoets is that women tend to seek more tearjerkers and sentimental literature. I can vouch for that, I love a good weep whilst watching The Notebook. But more interestingly, women cry more because of biological factors. It is thought that our hormones are partly to blame, as according to biochemist and researcher William Frey, woman have higher levels of prolactin, a hormone which may encourage the production of tears, in comparison to men, whose testosterone inhibits it.
The next time your partner, should it be a male, seems to ‘show no emotion’ when fighting remember this – the female’s tear ducts are actually smaller and shallower and therefore tears are more likely to overspill onto the face. That’s according to research such as that of a physician in the 1960s who measured the tear ducts on female and male skulls.
Crying at work – what makes us crack
It comes as no surprise, then, that of 500 respondents on Healthista’s survey, 64 per cent said women are the gender they see cry more in the workplace, as opposed to 12 per cent saying men, and 23 per cent saying ‘no gender’. But what’s to say men aren’t hiding in the loos secretly weeping?
Personal lives and work are in constant collision as modern communication grows. Personal events such as bereavement or relationship breakdown are seen as a more ‘legitimate reason to cry’, says Gail Kinman, a professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, who has conducted extensive research into crying at work. But personal stresses are not the most common tear-jerkers at work. ‘The main reason women tended to cry was out of frustration where it wasn’t appropriate for them to shout or show this anger. It’s like a reflex and they felt that they had no control over it’.
In other cases it’s not so complex, but more a case of the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. The computer crashes or your tea spills and suddenly the water works are on. Even worse, when somebody tries to comfort you or asks ‘how are you?’ ‘You can hold it together whilst you’re being more professional, but as soon as someone is more personal, whoosh!’ says Gail.
Gail interviewed 59 women in different jobs about their workplace wobbles and what came up often was the use of crying to manipulate. ‘Some people can be quite psychopath or emotionally manipulative, so they know who to cry in front of to get their way. A bit like a child – I’ll cry and I’ll get what I want and get away with it’, suggests Gail, which links to crying being rooted in our childhood behaviours since birth.
Crying at work – what your colleagues really think of you
10am and the daily stresses of my job have already got the better of me. I cry in our morning conference. But its ok, it’s only the 120th time this year and my colleagues know to ignore me by now. To imagine being seen as manipulative is the last thing I want to be known as, let alone weak or unprofessional.
When The Apprentice candidate Jessica Cunningham had a wobble during a task (or, as The Mirror called it, an ‘EPIC emotional meltdown’), the reaction from her team was clear. She was deemed uncappable. Although Karren Brady, accomplice to Lord Sugar, told Jessica to ‘calm yourself down. We’ll be here when you’re ready’, her competitors were quick to jump in. ‘Let’s try and talk while she’s not here. We can’t rely on her’, said one. Luisa Zissman, a runner up in The Apprentice 2013, wrote in a column, ‘Women please don’t cry at work, there is no place for crying at work! It bugs the hell outta me’.
This attitude is reflective of what research is finding in the workplace – criers are seen as warm, but less competent. A recent series of studies on 1,000 people, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, showed that despite people being likely to help tearful people, they aren’t keen to work with them when their own performance is at stake.
But work colleagues aside, women are their own biggest critics. In 2008 study Gail Kinman and psychology researcher Yasmine Yaghmour found women who cried judged themselves far more harshly than they judged others who became outwardly upset. Sometimes you just can’t help feeling like you’ve let the team down.
On the flip side, crying at work can create a closer bond between colleagues. Seeing my editor Anna Magee lose composure on more than one occasion has far from displayed her as weak. Psychologists suggest people are more likely to connect with one another with what they see as real displays of emotion than the business personas people create for themselves at work. This can lead to better communication and effective teamwork.
It’s not me, it’s the workplace
What dictates whether crying at work is viewed as professional or not in fact comes down to the industry or position you are in, says Gail Kinman. ‘I heard one story of a woman in a senior role who had been going through a particularly difficult time’, she says. ‘Something was said during a morning meeting that was the cherry on top. She broke down in floods of tears. No matter her achievements or the wonderful things she did in her career, she was always ‘the one that cried’. Staff would introduce her to new people by saying ‘you see her? She looks professional but she’s the one who cried in a meeting’. It followed her forever’, says Gail.
On the other hand, crying in a care job such as nursing or social care was often part of parcel. ‘I spoke to somebody who had been in child protection for many years and her job was very hard. She’d sit at her desk and cry and people would completely ignore her as if she wasn’t there. If it becomes really common people may become immune to it’.
Jessica Hopcraft, 28, refers to her old job in customer service as ‘babysitting’ due to how much blubbing occurred. An office of 60 or so women, mostly under the age of 25, meant the boundaries between friendship and professionalism were blurred. ‘There was a lot of drama, cliques and girls being left out, as well as customers being angry over the phone’, recalls Jess. ‘We needed to give them a talking to when it was bitchy arguments’.
We all know how stone-faced politicians can be. But even they are proving that robots have emotions. Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and even Theresea May, who is known to rarely show any emotion, have all let the façade fall in the face of defeat – but not without bringing attention from the press. MPs Nicola Blackwood, Vicky Foxcroft and Alison McGovern haven’t been afraid to weep in workplaces such as the House of Commons when discussing emotional topics.
Is the workplace ready to handle weeping?
Ok, so I may get teary over minor mistakes at work. But let’s get serious here – a persistent cryer may signal a bigger issue. Mental health in the workplace has been the focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day, but experts such as Gail Kinman don’t think most managers are equipped to cope with crying, let alone mental health issues. ‘Managers really do need to be trained because sure as anything they will be faced with someone crying on their shoulder at some stage. Rehearsing what they are going to do is really important’, she says. In the worst case scenario, a male manager hugging or comforting a female subordinate could be taken the wrong way.
What’s more, as long as we harp on about the typical weeping woman, we are furthermore silencing men. Shockingly, the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK is suicide. Charities such as Movember Foundation are prompting people to look out for the men in their lives by geniuenly listening to their problems. ‘We really need to do more research on men’, says Gail. ‘Women in male dominated industries such as construction are saying it isn’t rare for me to cry. But they will only do it in front of a women and in HR, and often it’s about serious things such as alcohol problems’.
What’s good to know is that crying at work isn’t proven to have a detrimental impact on your career. Instead, research by US journalist Anne Kreamer found that 41 per cent of women and 9 per cent of men in all levels of management had cried at work during the previous year, and they all said it made no difference to their success. I mean, imagine being fired because you were too emotional. Ouch.
If you would like to talk to someone about mental health issues you may be facing, phone Mind Charity 0300 123 3393 or Samaritans 116 123.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.