’m going to start this with two non-sequitor stories, then try to answer the questions at hand herein:
- Couple of years back, maybe a year past getting divorced, I was low-level on the client side — meaning I was not bringing in a ton of income — and I was able to finish work early some days. So, periodically I’d go to the bar and talk to some derelict guys I knew there, and by “derelict guys,” I mean “one of them made $205,000/year and was still at the bar at 1pm.” I got a little toasted at the bar this one day, opened LinkedIn to look at my notifications, and just randomly decided to post “Have you ever cried at work?” I went home, made some food, watched true crime, passed out on my couch, woke up, walked my dog, etc. It took about six hours for me to look at LinkedIn again. That post had 500+ comments and like 17,000 “impressions.” People were going nuts telling me “YES!” with a few “NO, I WOULD NEVER!” So clearly this topic touches a nerve.
- That whole sequence caused me to rewrite an article I had done once on whether it’s OK to be emotional at work.
The “modern moment”
Even before COVID, we had increased examples of burnout, emotional exhaustion, loneliness, stress, and the like. Now, it should be noted I think all these things are bad, yes. But I don’t necessarily view them as a crisis, no, because I don’t think executives care. They look at burnout and think “The cost of doing business,” not “I need a better mental health approach.” When they hear “better mental health approach,” they hear “More spent at the margins.” Anyway, I digress.
Then COVID came along. Now you’ve got bad news every day, social unrest, racial issues, questions of whether Instagram is performative, kids at home, work-from-home, work-at-a-place-and-be-exposed, and a million other issues little and big.
Stress and exhaustion no doubt increasing. There are more people crying at work now than we want to admit, whether that means “their laundry room” or “the supply closet of a place they did not want to return to.”
The tears are flowing, fam. So what now?
Yes, what now?
This is from Harvard Business Review and opens with a consultant being asked by a client “What do I do if someone cries at work? Can I tell them they can’t cry?” LOL. Sounds like an amazing boss to work for. What is this, Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own?
So what does this consultant propose if someone is bawling like a bastard in front of you?
- “Let’s pause for a moment here. I can see you’re crying. Would you like to take a break or keep going? It’s up to you.” This is neutral language that gives someone the opportunity to choose what they want and need next.
- “I’m going to stop our conversation for a second to check in with you. Can you tell me what’s going on for you right now?” This demonstrates compassion and curiosity for the person, without dramatizing or overplaying concern.
- “You’re crying, so let’s pause. What would be most helpful for you right now? I’ll follow your lead.” This acknowledges what’s happening, while empowering the person to take control.
This is all pretty good, and all rooted around the pause. I actually have cried at work probably 6–12 times, including in front of managers, and including in front of male managers. Two of the three times that it was a male manager, they tried to keep going with the discussion and not acknowledge that another dude was sobbing in front of them. It’s very awkward to try and do that, so I would embrace the pause if you can. PS: in the past, I have referred to that as “The Boys Don’t Cry” problem of work. See also: we do not openly discuss male depression, and that has repercussions for how males both (a) relate to work and (b) manage others at work.
So embrace the pause. What else?
My partial list:
- Tell them it’s OK.
- Offer to help.
- Give them some time off.
- If it’s about another person, think deeply on a strategy for dealing with that person.
We live in this culture now where there’s such animosity and triggers around mental health — “pussies” and “snowflakes” and “cry your way home” and basically people snarling at each other about accountability, etc. — and that makes mental health in the workplace a very tricky topic. I’ve written about it once, and way back on maybe Episode 30 of a podcast I do, I talked to a woman who once had a co-worker repeatedly ask her “How is it being so crazy?”
I am sure that guy thought he was being funny, or getting “points” with other co-workers by doing that — “Look at these snowflakes haha” — but in reality he was just being an asshole, and I think the way we handle people crying at work/in front of us is often similar. When you botch it, you’re probably coming off like an asshole and you ain’t doing much for team morale or the supposed “employee engagement” we seek or pretend to sometimes care about.
What else would you say about people crying at work and how to handle?