A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with my team to have a discussion about ending our virtual existence and returning to campus and in-person, face-to-face meetings. Before launching into the reasons the university and my division were moving toward full in-person in the fall, I wanted to start the meeting with an acknowledgment that I understood that not everyone is eager to return to pre-pandemic office life. I wanted to share that I understood that we were about to embark on another tumultuous period, like when we pivoted to remote work. And that I, like them, was having feelings about it.
I told them that what I would miss most about remote work was working from my mom’s apartment and the wonderful lunches she prepares for me. She’s a recent transplant to Brooklyn and, in October, we moved across the street to be closer to her. What this has meant is that I’ve had a place to go for the past eight months where I could work while my husband oversaw remote school for our two children. And I’ve had someone mothering me during this very trying time -- and she has had someone to mother.
I could not get through this revelation without tears. I proceeded to try to acknowledge some of the profound losses of our team members who have lost family members. More tears. Honestly, I struggled with my composure during a lot of the meeting even while explaining how we would begin transitioning back and expressing my genuine faith in our ability to do it.
After the meeting, many checked in with me, as caring people do when someone is visibly emotional, and their overwhelming response was to thank me for showing empathy, not just giving it lip service. There’s probably much that needs to be said about how empathy isn’t something that can be embedded in emails, but at this time of heightened vulnerability on the tail end of a devastating and transformative communal experience, I want to re-examine the place of emotions in the workplace.
Crying Is Good for You
The paralyzing fear of speaking up in a meeting. The burning resentment over a coworker’s promotion. The explosive anger of a boss under too much pressure. While I acknowledge that these emotions can take on unhealthy dimensions when directed outward at our colleagues, for the most part, we’ve come to accept them as part of our daily experience at work. Tears that are a psychic response to difficult emotions, however, are still relatively taboo.
We pay a price for keeping feelings inside that may spur emotional tears. There seems to be a scientific consensus that crying is good for you and that not crying, or “repressive coping,” is associated with increased risks of cancer, hypertension and coronary heart disease. Influential research by Bessell van der Kolk on the physiological effects of traumatic stress illustrates just how The Body Keeps the Score. And psychiatrist Judith Orloff puts it plainly: “It is good to cry. It is healthy to cry. [It] helps to emotionally clear sadness and stress.” She adds, “Crying is also essential to resolve grief.”
All of which makes crying nearly a requirement in our being able to come out the other end of this crisis successfully. So as leaders in our departments and on campus, how do we welcome this important coping mechanism into our offices for ourselves and others?
Making Space for Tears
The first step is to acknowledge our instinctual and cultural biases related to tears.
She can’t handle it. He’s weak. They’re falling apart. We hold some pretty outdated ideas about crying, especially crying at work. While anyone who has ever cried knows these statements are generally untrue, we still may apply them to our coworkers when they become emotional.
Humans are the only species to shed emotional tears. Theories about why we weep espouse that, from an evolutionary perspective, crying has been integral to our prosperity by promoting social bonding and triggering empathy. Infants cry to communicate their needs. While we become more articulate as we mature, crying may still be a signal that we need support, and seeking that support, consciously or unconsciously, makes us uniquely human and better able to face difficult situations.
In any case, it is natural to feel concerned for someone who is crying and good to offer support, but if we’re to signal that it’s OK to shed tears at work, as supporters we need to try not to overreact. Crying doesn’t necessarily imply that there is a desperate problem in need of an immediate response. Recognizing that it’s often a healthy release valve will help more effectively and efficiently uncover whatever issues are the underlying cause.
Don’t Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste
I’ve heard the expression “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste” many times in the past 18 months as a way to talk about seizing this moment to make overdue structural and cultural shifts at our institutions where change is usually slow and halting. As marketers, we are often the biggest change advocates on campus as we are asked to introduce new generations to our schools using new technologies and new communications methods. I’m confident that we can also lead in ushering in a new level of emotional intelligence. Let’s all have a good cry and be ready for the hard work ahead of us.
Donna Lehmann is the assistant vice president for marketing at Fordham University in New York City.