Psychologist Sinéad Brady on how to handle crying in the office

Crying is one of our most complex emotional responses – some people might be told to cry “at the drop of a hat” (whatever that means), while others refuse to cry at anything at all, whether it involves a hat or not. But crying in the workplace is especially complex, not to mention messy, as psychologist Sinéad Brady told Claire Byrne:

“When somebody cries, we automatically want to try and help but workplaces are set up to be quite stoic and we kind of think once the lanyard is around our neck and we clock in, this kind of corporate identity takes over and we’re not quite sure what we should do.

“Complicated by the fact that post-Covid we’re not really sure if we should hug somebody, touch somebody, or how we should react to emotions at all.”

If you’re the person doing the crying, it’s likely your first reaction to your own tears is embarrassment, Claire says and Sinéad agrees:

“Workplaces, for a very long time, were kind of just ultra – and they still are – places where it’s business or it’s personal and the two don’t combine. But in the last 20 years, the boundaries between work and life have collapsed so greatly, that work and life all happen within the same spaces and places.”

The workplace can make all emotional states, not just crying, awkward or difficult. This is down to how we traditionally view the workplace:

“We’ve never really been taught how to deal with emotion at work. And I suppose if you think of any emotion, so crying is one emotion, anger is another emotion, laughter is another emotion, and we’re more used and more comfortable dealing with laughter.

“We’re not very comfortable with anger but we accept it a little bit more because we’re kind of taught that workplaces, by necessity, almost have to have an element of risk-taking behavior, a little bit of anger, a little bit of cut and thrust, a little bit of being impersonal, in order to make them work.”

But the reality is, Sinéad says, workplaces don’t have to be like that. They are, after all, places where people gather and wherever we have humans, we’ll have the range of human behavior, from laughter to anger to crying and we should be dealing with it in a way that aligns with human nature as opposed to the protocols, perceived or otherwise, of corporate structures.

What if you’re in the room when a colleague starts crying? Claire wonders if it’s easier to deal with that person crying because they’ve had some bad news, than if they’re crying because of a work-related issue, like getting a bad performance review. Yes, says Sinéad:

“When somebody has had a performance review situation, or where maybe a boss has been, or a leader has been quite angry and they’ve cried in response to that, you can kind of feel a little bit like, ‘Well, how do I handle this? Because I don’t want to get on the wrong side of that person.’ And so on.”

The solution, Sinéad suggests, is to extend a hand of kindness. And we should be striving to normalize these feelings because everybody feels them. It feels like there’s an opportunity to make some changes in how we view the workplace:

“The time has come when we can own our emotions a little bit more. And where it’s ok to say, you know, ‘I’m really struggling with this performance review. My career, my job is deeply important to me. I know things haven’t been going well for me. I’m upset. Can I come back to you when I feel a little bit more equipped to deal with this?’ And then have the conversation.”

But, says Claire, if you’re saying to your boss that you need a minute through a flood of tears, will s/he think you’re weak? It sounds unlikely, but, according to Sinéad, there are over 25 years of research that shows that C-suite leaders – chief executives, chief financial officers, etc – don’t see a response like crying to something like a performance review as a sign of weakness:

“They just see that as a reaction in a moment. And it’s when you come back and follow up, they see, ‘Ok, so this person had a reaction and they’re coming back and they’re managing that.’ So, it’s not seen as a sign of weakness. What it is seen as if you cry overtly – so if every time there’s an interaction, if every time something doesn’t go your way, your response is to cry – that is an issue .”

Then there’s the gender elephant in the room:

“Tears can be more associated with women and we know that again from research, but – and that’s a wider picture that we have to look at around how emotions are generally handled in the workplace.”

It’s time to look at the bigger picture, Sinéad says, because more women than men crying in the workplace is a sign of a wider malaise in society:

“Well if more women do cry in our workplace, why is that the case? Because men are not, they’re more denied permission to cry, from a very young age. And even if you think – I mean, I’ve got my own kids at home and I see all the time, I’ve got three girls and a boy and people meet my girls and they comment on their appearance and they meet my boy and they talk about how brave he is and how strong he is . So, from the very, very get-go we’re conditioning people, based on their gender, to determine what type of response they should have in certain situations.”

The solution when it comes to the office? Our workplaces have to change and the opportunities are there, Sinéad believes:

“The structures and the cultures that our current workplaces are built on are remnants of the 1950s, they’re from an era of Mad Men, they no longer work for anybody. And that’s not just for women, that’s not just for men, that’s for neurodiversity, it’s for the whole suite of diversity and inclusion – they just don’t work.

“And we have this amazing opportunity, we sit on the abyss of an opportunity, to reimagine what work looks like for everybody. And it can have nothing but great opportunity, if we embrace it.”

It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye (sorry).

You can hear Claire’s full discussion with Sinéad by listening above.

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