To be human is to have emotions — no matter who you are. That said, for better or for worse, not all emotions are experienced equally in work settings. Upbeat feelings such as happiness or excitement are typically embraced in workplaces of all kinds. In fact, for many survivors, the positive associations of working during treatment helped them to cope.
However, depending on the work environment or office culture, emotions such as frustration or disappointment may unfortunately carry a stigma – particularly when those emotions lead to tears.
At CAC, it’s not uncommon for us to hear from patients and survivors who found themselves crying at work (usually for a very understandable reason) and are struggling with feelings of shame or embarrassment about what happened. But the experience of crying at work isn't something that needs to follow you forever - nor should it. As executive coach Melody Wilding discussed in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, there are steps that can be taken to reframe how we think about crying at work and to move forward if/when it happens.
- Have grace with yourself - you’re not alone. The HBR article cites a study published in 2018 that found close to half of all professionals had cried at work, a number that has likely continued to increase during the ongoing pandemic. In other words, crying on the job isn’t uncommon and doesn’t have to permanently change how you are seen. What defines you as a worker are the efforts you put in week-over-week, not the passing, human experience of shedding a tear or two on one tough day.
- Take a moment for yourself. If you feel the urge to cry setting in, don’t be afraid to take some space and allow it to happen. Knowing how and when to set professional boundaries is an important skill that can help you maintain your stamina at work during and after treatment. Furthermore, it communicates to your boss and coworkers that you are self-aware and not afraid to appropriately ask for what you need. There’s no need for a complex, pre-planned sound bite. Simply saying, “Excuse me, I need a moment” is more than enough to justify leaving the room or turning off your webcam to create some room to breathe.
- Know your re-centering “hacks.” If taking an extended break or leaving work early aren’t options (or aren’t what you need), it can help to have some go-to techniques that will help you feel grounded and able to focus again. One tip from Wilding is drinking ice water to help soothe that lump-in-the-throat feeling, and there are numerous other effective stress relief techniques that can be quite helpful. These include breathing/visualization exercises, listening to a favorite song, stepping outside for air, and many others. The key is figuring out what works for you.
- Acknowledge what happened without apologizing. Crying at work may leave you feeling vulnerable and/or self-conscious. And while it may not feel right to completely gloss over what occurred, as long as you didn’t say or do something inappropriate there’s no need to apologize. Instead, focus on moving forward and refocusing on the work at hand. One approach you might try is using the Swivel, a verbal pattern that allows you to acknowledge what happened and communicate that you’re still focused on contributing to the team. For example, you might say to your coworker, “Thanks for your understanding earlier – today’s been a lot. Before I stepped out of the meeting, I had some thoughts about that email campaign that I didn’t have a chance to share. I’d love to run them past you if you have a few minutes.” Obviously, this exact language isn't going to work for everyone so the idea is to come up with language that works in your unique circumstances and which you feel comfortable saying.
For more on navigating challenging emotional circumstances at work, check out the following CAC resources.
Upcoming Balancing Work & Cancer Webinars:
Archived Balancing Work & Cancer Webinar Videos:
CAC Website articles: