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Crying at Work Isn’t the Answer

Rather than focus on normalizing weeping on the job, why not just make jobs suck less?

Illustration by Sarah Wilson-Austensen

It all started with an Instagram ad. The item for sale was a graphic tee with large, feminine typography that said: I cry at work. The shirt, by the Los Angeles–based company, cost $38. By the time I revisited the website for this article, it was sold out.

I was always taught that crying at work was unprofessional. I’ve done it, but the experience was always degrading, and I tried to make it to a bathroom or out of the building as quickly as possible. My attitude was summarized by a scene from the first season of Mad Men. After being chastised at her new job by her boss, Peggy gets a more implicit lesson in workplace norms when she visits the bathroom and finds a co-worker sobbing on the toilet.

“In general, it’s clear that crying in the workplace is not acceptable,” professor Tom Lutz told The New York Times in a 2005 article titled “Weeping at Work? Dry Those Tears.” “It’s simply against the rules. The office is rationalized space organized around getting tasks accomplished, not processing emotion.”

But now crying at work is all the rage. In a stark turn, nearly 15 years later, the paper published “Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Crying at Work.” (“A good boss is going to understand that you’re human and you have emotions,” a career adviser explained.) In 2019, Fast Company published “Why crying employees can sometimes be a sign of a healthy workplace,”—“Tears don’t automatically equal incompetence, so the stigma associated with them needs to end,” the writer said—followed by “How I Embraced Crying at Work,” earlier this year. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Review published a guide to help you comfort your crying co-workers. Parallel to the rise of a new genre of business and self-help literature that advocated for a soft revision of how we worked—think Lean In—advocates of crying at work had reimagined it as a strength, a practice that allows for honesty and self-care in the workplace.

Ending the stigma associated with a normal human behavior is all well and good. And if my co-workers need to cry in front of me, I have no problem comforting them. In some ways, doing away with the taboo against tears is similar to dismissing other anachronistic workplace practices like dress codes requiring suits. But crying is a sign of distress, while wearing sweatpants typically isn’t (unless you take Jerry Seinfeld at his word). And when someone is crying, it is important to figure out why. Still, the larger question in all of this is: If crying at work is really that popular or relatable, what exactly is going on in American workplaces?

The answer? Nothing good! First and perhaps most obvious: Americans work too much. One-third of Americans work at least 45 hours per week, and 9.7 million Americans work at least 60 hours per week. The average workday in Europe is one hour shorter than the average American workday, and Americans spend 7.8 percent more time working than they did in 1979. And if that weren’t bad enough, real wages have barely gone up in decades, and rent in every state is considered unaffordable. It’s now well known that productivity became unmoored from wages in the 1970s. This situation creates stresses in the form of both daily hassles and a pervasive sense of unfairness. Most workers are exhausted from overwork, anxious because they aren’t making enough money, and angry because they know they aren’t being treated fairly.

The conditions of our labor are equally unpleasant: Unless you are a sole proprietor, a CEO, or a member of a worker coop, you have a boss, and that boss can tell you what kind of work you need to do, how to do it, and how fast you need to do it. In a white-collar workplace, your boss can make you go to a pointless meeting, rearrange your to-do list, or yell at you. But in other workplaces—an Amazon warehouse or a Tyson meatpacking plant, for example—your boss might also prevent you from using the bathroom or make you work in dangerous conditions. In short, American workers are at best micromanaged and at worst abused, which makes the workplace a stressful place to be.

Jobs are also stressful because they are the only way most of us can pay for food, rent, and clothes and access health insurance. And yet at-will employment means that your boss can fire you at almost any time. This means the stakes of what happens at work are higher than in almost any other area of life. Mistakes, a period of distraction, or arbitrary downsizing shouldn’t mean you lose the ability to feed yourself or pay for your housing, but they often do. In this way, most American labor exists under threat of violence and deprivation.

I suspect that encouraging employees to feel comfortable crying at work functions as a concession from bosses to avoid giving their employees material benefits such as shorter working hours, higher pay, and increased autonomy. It’s the same thing as a workplace offering a relaxed dress code, snacks, or a ping-pong table. Normalizing crying is the kombucha tap of the modern office, only free. It’s a way of telling your employees you’ll accommodate their needs without actually accommodating the ones that matter. In other words, it’s a way for employers to make life better for you, but not enough that you won’t want to cry.

It’s worth adding here that the “crying at work” trend leaves out a huge number of workers in the United States. It seems unlikely that a housekeeper or an agricultural worker would be encouraged to cry on the job as an act of feminist self-expression. It seems even less likely for workers in jobs that rely on affective labor: customer-facing retail workers, restaurant waitstaff, sex workers. A key part of their work is projecting certain emotions to make their customers comfortable.

But here’s a truly innovative idea. What if we created workplaces where employees cried less, rather than workplaces where they simply felt comfortable doing so in public? A long-term investment in the mental health of American workers would be far more effective than short-term accommodation of their misery. In order to do this, we would have to actually fix what is wrong with American workplaces: the long hours, the low wages, the autocratic structures. We would also have to create a society where everyone could meet their basic needs—with or without a job.

The 40-hour workweek was a hard-won achievement for the labor movement, and returning to it would certainly have a positive impact on American workers. But we shouldn’t stop there. In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted productivity gains would allow his grandchildren to live comfortably working 15 hours per week. That clearly never happened, but it doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for it. Reducing working hours should be a major goal for policymakers concerned with mental health, public health, civic engagement, and labor rights. As Ryan Cooper explains at People’s Policy Project, there are many ways to reduce working hours. First, the government needs to mandate that employers provide a minimum amount of paid sick leave and paid parental leave. The government also needs to mandate that employers provide paid time off for leisure. This could be in some combination of paid public holidays, paid vacation days, a four-day workweek, or a six-hour day. At the same time, the federal minimum wage should be raised, which will likely force wages up across the board to compete.

Another way to make work less stressful would be to allow workers more autonomy and decision-making power. In 1979, the occupational sociologist Robert Karasek published a foundational study on psychological strain in the workplace. Karasek looked at symptoms of exhaustion and depression as indicators of job strain in Swedish and American workers. He found that the levels of job strain at even demanding and difficult jobs could be mitigated by increasing decision latitude among workers. Reorganizing workplaces based on his research would be an easy way for employers to make workers happier without reducing worker productivity or raising wages. They could even hire Karasek himself—he now runs a business consulting firm based in Copenhagen.

Finally, we need to decouple paid work from the means of subsistence. People should be able to see a doctor, feed themselves, and have housing regardless of their employment status. This will become increasingly important as stable full-time employment continues to be replaced with gig economy jobs and economically disruptive crises (such as the one we have lived with for the past year) become more common. If people knew they would always be able to care for themselves and their families, their jobs would take on much less importance and thus cause them much less stress.

This might be done through a combination of a robust welfare state and the distribution of universal basic income. The welfare state would provide necessities such as health care, childcare, housing, and even grocery stores. Meanwhile, everyone would receive a small monthly payment from the government. The city of Stockton, California, implemented a pilot program in 2018 to measure the effects of such a policy. The city randomly selected 125 residents making $46,033 per year or less and gave them a $500 monthly payment with no strings attached. “[The money] has given me peace of mind,” participant Virginia Medina said. “I don’t need much since the pandemic, but I have confidence that we’ll be OK.”

Improving material conditions is the only meaningful way to improve the mental health of American workers. But the only way to improve material conditions is through labor organizing. Unions can help people improve conditions at their own workplaces. But perhaps more importantly, they also play a crucial role in pressuring legislators to support policies that help workers. For example, unions pressured Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make the New Deal far more radical and effective than it would have been otherwise.

Instead of crying, we should organize. We can even put that on a T-shirt.