A Teary Time

The pandemic is causing a lot more work-related crying. How both sides should handle the potential awkwardness.

Published: May 7, 2020

On a recent Zoom call with his team last month, Bill, a marketing manager, was in the middle of a normal meeting when he suddenly started choking up. He’d watched too many colleagues get laid off, friends leave the city, and worse, seen his own brother-in-law go through a week of COVID-19 hell. Before he could stop himself, he was crying.

People have been crying at work forever, but by all accounts, the pandemic has created enormous stresses that have brought tears to everyone, from mayors to CEOs. On the plus side, the release of emotions has been gaining acceptance over time. Last year, before the virus, a survey of 3,000 workers found that eight in 10 workers said they had cried at work. Another study found that about 75% of chief financial officers said crying from time to time was OK.

Last year, before the virus, a survey of 3,000 workers found that eight in 10 workers said they had cried at work.

“Crying is a human emotion, and in a world is full of stress, it allows more kindness in,” says Nancy Von Horn, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “It doesn’t mean you are weak, unprofessional, or manipulative.”

Still, there is no doubt it can create awkwardness for managers and colleagues alike. Here’s how to handle a cry gracefully.

Suspend judgment.

Crying is such a raw emotion that it often drums up primal reactions. But career experts say now isn’t the time to blame or shame. Instead, use your emotional intelligence to separate your thoughts from your feelings, and to be empathetic toward the unique situations the pandemic is putting people in. “This is a very emotional time with work, health, family, and financial considerations all needing attention,” says Ryan Frechette, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. “It can be overwhelming.”

Realize anatomy’s role.

Yes, we’ve all heard the stereotypes that females cry more often than men because they’re more emotional and because it’s more acceptable for women to shed some tears. But biology actually plays a major role here: research from the University of Minnesota showed female tear ducts are shallower than men’s, causing spillover to happen more often. So much so that more than 70% of the time men cry, tears don’t fall down their cheeks—meaning a man and a woman could both be crying and yet it would only be visual with the female.

Talk about the tears.

If you’re the person who cried, you shouldn’t feel as if you need to apologize, but it helps to acknowledge the moment. Indeed, experts say it can be beneficial to clear the air by acknowledging what’s going on once you’ve calmed down—that you’re frustrated by layoffs or overwhelmed by your workload. “You’re a whole person and not just an employee of this company,” Von Horn says. “You can recognize that you have a lot going on, and sometimes that comes out in tears instead of words.”

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