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Is it ever okay to cry at work?

07 October 2014

Is it ever okay to cry at work?

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When someone recently asked me if it’s ever okay to cry at work, the dilemma provided some serious food for thought. Crying is our distressing emotion, our way of letting others know that we’re experiencing emotional anguish. So is it ever okay to cry at work?

To answer that question, it’s important to think about the emotional safety of the workplace. That is: how safe it is for employees to exhibit emotions?

Some workplaces welcome the demonstration of emotion and view someone displaying the distressing emotion as simply exhibiting a natural response to a difficult experience. Individuals in this environment will be offered comfort and sympathy, and might even be encouraged to ‘have a good cry’ and ‘get it all out’ to make themselves feel better.

Other organisations can be quick to judge the display of emotions. Anyone found openly shedding tears in this environment would be at serious risk of criticism, condemnation or ridicule for displaying the distressing emotion so publicly.

When not to have a good cry

Another scenario in which it’s definitely not okay to cry is if your job role places you in a position of authority, or if others look towards you for support, such as police officers or paramedics.

This isn’t to say that individuals in these roles should never let themselves feel the distressing emotion. On the contrary, some of the distressing things they’re exposed to during the course of their work might even give them more cause to cry than anyone else. Yet they have an obligation to hold it together for as long as it takes to go somewhere private, not least because the people they’re supporting need to be allowed to be the ones to display distress.

Interestingly enough, public-facing workers, such as bank counter staff or those dealing with frustrated commuters, who might experience criticism or even abuse from customers would most certainly be criticised for crying in public, but frequently offered tea and sympathy if found crying in the staff room.

One thing’s for certain, unless you can be sure displaying emotions is something that’s acceptable at work, your best bet is to put on a brave face until you can go somewhere private, even if it’s just your car or the office toilet.

Why employers don’t like crying

More and more employers want to know how their people are feeling. Annual employee engagement surveys are increasingly being replaced with real time ‘pulse surveys’ to assess how people are feeling at the moment.

Some workplaces even display ‘face boards’, inviting employees to display an emoticon – a happy, sad, angry or neutral face – when they get into work, so managers can immediately assess the ‘feel’ of the workplace for the day.

However, despite the apparent trend towards embracing how people are feeling, most employers prefer that individuals communicate how a situation is affecting them in a structured and coherent way, before things get too much, instead of a raw gush of emotion once they start to feel overwhelmed. Not least because once an employee feels so distressed they can no longer control their emotions, their ability to logically think through and communicate how best they need to be supported will also become seriously diminished.

Help employees stay strong

Unfortunately, far too many people are so afraid of displaying any kind of vulnerability in the workplace (often for good reason) that situations at work and home often have to reach some kind of breaking point before the employer even knows what’s going on. A far better scenario is one in which people feel able to talk openly to their employer about what’s putting them under pressure, so that they can retain their ability to cope and navigate through the challenges facing them. Critical to this is creating a culture whereby employees feel safe talking to someone at work about what’s making them feel vulnerable.

Case Study: The RCN supports staff in and out of work

When the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the UK’s largest professional union for nursing, discovered the extent to which employees’ mental health was being affected by issues outside of work, it decided to develop managers to help.

Deehan Cooper, HR business operations manager, explains, “A key part of our wellbeing strategy has been the introduction of a Validium Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which 30-40% of our workforce use to get help and support with any issue affecting them. So when Validium told us half of those using the EAP were struggling to cope with an issue outside of work, in particular relationship, legal and eldercare issues, we wanted to do more to help them before they became so stressed or anxious that it started to impact their ability to attend or perform at work.”

“If someone went off sick with a personal issue, it was difficult for them to return until it had been resolved.”

The approach

“We knew that if someone went off sick to deal with a personal issue it was often difficult for them to return until it had been resolved, which could take weeks or even months,” says Cooper, “We wanted to encourage managers to notice when someone was struggling to cope with an issue outside of work, so they could support them as flexibly as possible to enable them to continue to work effectively and avoid the onset of sickness.”

To help, the RCN invited Validium to create a workshop: ‘When Home Comes into Work’ to assist managers to think creatively about how best to support their team members. “We wanted to bring back the human element, to make employees feel safe telling their manager what was actually going on, where they felt comfortable sharing this, so we could work with them to prevent a problem at home from becoming a problem at work,” explains Cooper.

The solution

“The ‘When Homes Comes to Work’ workshops were delivered to groups of 12 managers at a time, across ten different locations, to give them the opportunity to share their experiences of helping staff affected by issues outside of work and realise the benefits of supporting staff as early as possible, instead of waiting until a personal problem had a serious impact on their performance at work,” says Cooper.

She adds, “Managers were shown how to spot the signs that someone was struggling to deal with a personal challenge - such as reduced eye contract, increased forgetfulness or erratic work patterns - how to gently open up a conversation with the employee based on observations made at work, the importance of respecting the employee’s confidentiality and how and when to involve HR or the Validium EAP. The focus was then on finding the balance between following HR procedures and thinking creatively to respond on a personal level - without attempting to become an amateur counsellor.”

In the event that the individual clearly needed to talk and get more emotional support, or specialist legal, financial or eldercare advice, the manager was shown how to proactively refer them to the Validium EAP, so they could get free professional support.

The results

“The highly effective way Validium equipped our managers with the ability to support staff facing personal challenges is helping us to better manage mental health related sickness.” says Cooper.

“As a result of the managers putting the new empathy skills learned on the workshop into practice, an employee going through a relationship breakdown felt able to tell their manager that they needed to nip home to post an important document, when they might otherwise have been tempted to feign illness to get home,” says Cooper.

“Another employee is now working very flexibly after their manager’s kind concern enabled them to talk about supporting a relative with a critical illness. They didn’t want to take compassionate leave, because they reported finding working therapeutic, thereby helping them not to think about it, so their manager has arranged for them to work very flexibly, so they can meet their caring responsibilities, while continuing to contribute to work in a meaningful way.”

She concludes, “87% of managers said the workshop taught them how to take an empathetic approach. While 88% of employees who contacted the Validium EAP said the practical and emotional support provided had stopped them going off sick. Employees now feel more supported than ever, which has had a positive impact on our business, enabling us to increase membership during a time of austerity.”

“The highly effective way Validium equipped our managers with the ability to support staff facing personal challenges is helping us to better manage mental health related sickness.”

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