I can vividly remember the last time I cried at work. I was trying out a new birth control pill and the hormones were making me feel especially emotional. I got a text from someone I cared about—just two deadly letters: “OK.” My mind raced: What did such a passive-aggressive message even mean? My life was clearly in shambles.
I felt the tears well up and sprinted downstairs to find a bathroom far away from everyone. It took me 15 minutes to get my face back to normal, rubbing away smeared mascara with wet paper towels in secret. But crisis averted. Nobody caught me being human.
Here’s the thing I wish I’d known then: Almost everybody cries at work. About eight in 10 people have shed tears at the office, according to a recent survey of just over 3,000 people from Monster.com. While 19% of criers sobbed over personal issues, like I did, 45% blamed tears on bosses and coworkers, 16% blamed their workloads, and 13% cited workplace bullying.
Crying is actually one of the most human activities there is, as we’re the only animals that shed emotionally charged tears. So why did I go to such great lengths to hide my humanity from my coworkers? For good reason, actually. People tend to view crying people as less competent, according to 2017 research in the British Journal of Social Psychology. This stereotype isn’t great news for women like me, because research shows women cry more than men—some say it’s biologically hardwired, blaming the shape of our tear ducts and the hormone prolactin, while others blame gendered social conditioning.
Why is crying at work often especially frowned upon? “One reason to explain this is the assumption that happier employees are cheaper employees,” explains Edgar Cabanas. His recent book, Manufacturing Happy Citizens, which he co-authored with sociology professor Eva Illouz, explores the “tyranny of positivity” in today’s workplaces.
While there’s nothing wrong with genuine positivity, workspaces where one can’t comfortably express negative emotions take a toll on workers. “‘Negative emotions’ are stigmatized as they are understood as signs of a flawed and ill-domesticated psyche,” says Cabana. “Sadness, anxiety, stress, or depression have become proxies to weakness and personal failure. Those who express any negativity are deemed as ‘toxic people’ responsible for creating ‘toxic environments.'”
When workers feel happiness is mandatory, this unfairly pushes responsibility downward, he explains. Workers feel they have to demonstrate their commitment to their higher-ups by maintaining a positive attitude, and real concerns, such as job insecurity, salary dissatisfaction, or work overload, get covered up.
“The assumption that happy workers are more productive workers has become a widely accepted mantra in companies and business circles, but it should be put into question,” says Cabanas. There’s actually plenty of research suggesting that workplace positivity has its limits. For one, expectations that your workplace will make you happy can actually make employees more emotionally needy. And some research has found that happy people actually make less accurate decisions than sad people. “Moreover, positive moods might drive individuals to ignore situational factors, as well as to succumb to inferential biases more often than people in a negative mood,” adds Cabanas.
If we didn’t have such an obsession with happiness, we might actually learn something from our negative emotions. Liane Davey, a psychologist and business strategist, also known as the “teamwork doctor,” sees tears as a potent “form of data” that can offer valuable insights into what needs to improve at a company. So how do you turn an awkward emotional outburst into something constructive? Davey says there are three steps managers should follow when an employee has an emotional outburst: “validate, inquire, pivot.”
“First, validate the person rather than negating them. If you see tears or hear yelling, simply say, ‘This is important—what do I need to understand?'” Step two: Ask open-ended questions. “When you hear statements full of judgment and drama, encourage the person to share the facts,” she explains. She gives an example: “You feel like Sunil doesn’t value you. What makes you say that?” And finally, when the person calms down and you’ve identified the issue, it’s time to “pivot toward an action plan,” brainstorming ways to improve the situation together.
Davey is honest about the fact that she’s cried at work. She remembers an instance in which she was facilitating a strategy session with her company’s executive team. “At some point, one of the executives said something that I found offensive, and the tears started to roll.” She tried to hide her tears by facing the board. “But when one of my mentors on the executive team spotted the tears, he called for a break . . . it was so awkward.” When she apologized to the CEO, though, he treated her with compassion—and it stuck with her. “From then on, I never felt sheepish or embarrassed.”
And why should she? Crying isn’t just human; science shows it’s actually good for us. Leah Sharman, the lead researcher on a recent 2019 study published in the journal Emotion, “Using Crying to Cope,” found that crying balances us physiologically. Sharman exposed subjects to sad stimuli and asked them to perform stressful tasks. The criers actually breathed less rapidly and their heart rates returned to normal more quickly than noncriers. She concludes that crying “might be useful in calming your body” during distress.
Yet scientists still don’t actually know very much about crying. “I was really curious why crying was so under-researched, and it was strange that something so obvious would be left out of emotion research for so long,” says Sharman. Thanks to Darwin, many scientists have historically dismissed tears as a mostly useless evolutionary byproduct. “I think ultimately this belief that crying was purposeless was a big driver in why crying has not been studied as closely as other things and even been left out of a lot of research on emotion.”
What we do know is this: Tears don’t automatically equal incompetence, so the stigma associated with them needs to end. “My rule (for myself and others) is that emotions don’t absolve accountability,” says Davey. “I might need to have a good cry to purge hormones released out of frustration or embarrassment, but I never want to appear helpless or to back down from my responsibilities.”