Have you ever felt an ominous lump in your throat during a meeting? Maybe you’ve noticed tears forming and then slowly gathering, giving the office a slight blur as you pretend to cough them away.
When my last job ended, I felt a massive relief as I was very unhappy with what was happening around me. At the same time, emotions were running close to the surface as I loved my work and the people I worked with, and my ego was getting beat up because I felt like I was failing.
I felt my breath catching and prayed no one would look at me, let alone ask me a question, because, at times, I felt the moment I tried to speak, I’d break down.
If you’ve been there, you might also have wondered how to stop crying or how to avoid or delay getting there in the first place.
You’re certainly not alone. A recent survey from the staffing firm Robert Half found that 45% of respondents, all workers in the U.S., had cried in an office environment.
Is it okay to cry at work?
The short answer is that it depends—on what kind of situation you’re in when the tears come, how frequently, who’s around when it does, and your work environment.
I come from a military background, where If you cried, you had better have a bone sticking out of you. Most people believe crying can have negative consequences. According to the Robert Half survey, roughly 70% of workers and CFOs agreed that it “can undermine career prospects” or that “crying at work is perceived as weak or immature.”
Only 30% thought that “crying has no negative effect—it shows you’re human.”
There are situations where it’s best not to cry, like when you’re an employee talking to a supervisor (especially if you have a complicated relationship), a woman in a group of men, a presenter standing in front of others in power in a tense situation, or at odds with a colleague.
Kimberly D. Elsbach (Ph.D. Stanford University) is a Professor of Management; she adds, “The dangerous part of crying is it repositions us farther down the power position,” Dudley says. “In any situation when we cry, we risk losing our power, credibility, and believability.”
What’s Gender Got to Do With It? Men who cry at work are often judged harshly. Sadly, women who cry may reinforce stereotypical attitudes toward gender in the workplace.
4 Ways to Stop Crying (or at Least Avoid or Delay It)
Depending on the situation, you don’t necessarily have to consider crying at work a career killer.
But here are a few things you can do to tamp down oncoming tears, delay them long enough to find a safe place to let them out or make you less likely to cry in the first place.
1. Take a Deep Breath
A common suggestion for avoiding tears is to practice deep breathing when you feel the waterworks coming on.
Take a Break and Get Away From the Situation
If you think you might start crying and you’re in a setting where you don’t want that to happen, the best thing you can do is remove yourself from the situation. If you’re leading a meeting, you can tell everyone to take a 10-minute break and reconvene. Otherwise, you can quietly step out—people always go to the bathroom.
3. Stop the Thoughts That Are Making You Cry (This’ll Take Some Practice)
If you can’t physically escape the situation, that doesn’t mean you can’t mentally get away. Whatever provokes your crying response, try to put that out of your mind and think about something unrelated instead.
4. Eliminate or Reduce Stressors in Your Life, if You Can
You can avoid crying well before you find yourself in a tear-inducing situation. Ensure you’re getting enough sleep, adequately fed, and hydrated. Try to reduce or eliminate other stressors in your life, too.
The Argument for Not Avoiding Tears at Work
Next time you think about how to stop crying, consider that it might not always be such a terrible thing, and you can help make it just one more normal response in the spectrum of what’s acceptable at work.
And don’t forget that you can play a role when you’re crying and when you notice someone else in the office call. “We can only start changing this if we start to change how we think about it with others,”
So don’t be so hard on yourself if you occasionally feel the tears coming at work.
And don’t be so hard on your colleagues if and when they cry at work.
Crying is a sign of our humanity, and we want to see the society in our colleagues and leaders.”