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Why do people cry at work?

Melody Wilding: There can be multiple reasons, including feeling sad when faced with tragic circumstances. But often it can be frustration and stress. It may also happen when you’re caught off guard. Maybe you’ve had negative feedback, an overwhelming situation or a big change you weren’t expecting.

By its nature, nursing attracts empathetic people. You may cry because you feel very moved or connected to someone or something that’s happened. It’s not always because of something bad. It can be something beautiful. You’re crying because you care.

Is there a stigma attached to crying in the workplace?

MW: Some may perceive showing emotions as a sign of weakness and that you don’t know how to control yourself, and we’ve been taught to believe that makes you less professional. There’s a misconception that if you cry, you don’t have leadership capabilities or can’t handle yourself under pressure.

I think the pandemic highlighted you can’t separate the human side of work from everything else. We need to make space for people to have a reaction. We have a responsibility to regulate our emotions and respond to them in healthy ways. But it’s always a balance.

Should we try to suppress our emotions?

MW: If we do, they can become internalised, potentially emerging in more harmful ways. This may include burnout, disengagement, bullying behaviour or shouting at others.

Having opportunities or channels, such as speaking to someone or writing a journal, where people can express themselves allows that pressure valve to release. It also gives people a greater sense of belonging, feeling they can bring more of their whole self to work – which means they’re likely to stay longer and be more productive.

How can you support a colleague who’s in tears?

MW: It’s important not to make assumptions about what might have happened. Instead, simply ask what they need or is there anything you can do to help them at that moment. Ask them the question and give them space to react.

Afterwards, don’t feel you have to bring it up again, unless it’s a regular occurrence. We all have times when we get more emotional than we’d like in certain situations. Give people some grace, especially if they’re under pressure.

Top tips

  • Drink some cold water. “When you have an emotional reaction your body heats up,” says Melody. “Bringing down your physiological temperature can help.”
  • Give yourself space for reflection. “Collect yourself, taking a moment to be intentional and deliberate about what you want to say, and how you want to say it.”
  • Talk to your manager. If you’re feeling frequently overwhelmed, tell them why and suggest what might help. “It makes it more of a joint problem-solving exercise, rather than feeling helpless.”

If you’ve cried at work, how do you manage any embarrassment?

MW: Don’t judge yourself, feel ashamed or over-apologise. Instead, be frank about your feelings and view them positively. Respond to your emotional reaction with strength, labelling it as a sign of your passion and investment. Tell yourself it’s because you care about your patients and about doing a good job. Often this has the best outcome.

Will my patients think I’m unprofessional if they see me cry?

MW: I don’t think it’s unprofessional to cry once in a while, as long as it’s not a consistent pattern. But you must respond to the situation with strength.

You cry because you care

People will remember what happened afterwards. So, if you can follow up by saying something like; ‘I was caught off guard yesterday. I wanted to say…’ and deliver your point powerfully, that can leave a great impression.

What should you do if you find yourself crying regularly at work?

MW: You need to work out why. If it’s because you’re constantly overloaded with work, speak to your manager, but try to have some solutions too. For example, you can point out you’ve been stressed lately, and they may have noticed you’ve been more emotional as a result, but you realise it’s because of your workload. Ask if this can be adjusted, with some ideas of what that might look like.

Speaker and coach Melody Wilding is an expert in mental wellbeing and sensitivity.

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