Why do women cry at work?

I’m not upset; I’m just frustrated.

This blog is a response to a question raised on LinkedIn.

“What about talking about how to deal with tears on site - for those prone to the odd cry in tricky situations 🙈🦆”

Lynsey McNeilly MEng CEng MICE, Chartered Civil Engineer at Farrans Construction.

I’m going to tackle this using The Duck Project method of identify, understand and explain.

Crying in the workplace is usually a sign of stress, not weakness; you are not weak; you are simply under too much pressure. Identifying that is the first step.

So we have identified the problem, now we need to understand it.


There are many reasons why we cry, but I am going to talk about the most common at work; crying as a response to stress.

Most of us are aware of “Flight or fight” as the typical stress response. What we are less likely to be mindful of is that this is a predominantly male response. Most of the early research on stress was done exclusively on men, so most of our understanding of stress is therefore gendered.

The female response to stress is markedly different* with some researchers even going so far as to say we have a “tend or befriend” response**. The “tend or befriend” response finds that women are more likely to either try and befriend the "threat" or seek social support.

These differences in the stress response can mean that we are more likely to see aggressive behaviour in men and crying (as an unconscious response to seek social support) in women.

Here’s the interesting thing, the male response here is usually seen as a sign of strength, whereas the female response is traditionally seen as a sign of weakness. Even though crying and anger are usually responses to the same thing. It is therefore, other peoples reactions that we often need to manage on top of the stress itself.


So lets borrow a little from health and safety and get ERIC involved.

Eliminate. Where, and if possible, try and eliminate stressful environments. Easier said than done, right? There are though plenty of techniques that can help with your response to stress. If you are like me, these will take you years to learn (still not mastered). Hopefully, you are a quicker student.

Reduce. If you are going into a situation that might be stressful try and run through as many of the unwanted questions/outcomes as possible and plan your response. If you know how you will respond if the worst thing you can think of happens, you will be less likely to feel stressed.

Isolate. If you do end up crying, wanting to cry or exhibiting other stress responses, ask for a few minutes to regroup. Then go cry somewhere, it can be vital to get that release. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, think through what it is exactly that is causing you to respond this way. Also, consider what you want to happen, and if you feel the conversation reflected your understanding of events.

Control. Before resuming the conversation, decide if it is a good idea to pick it up now, or do you need some more time to prepare a response. Make sure you are in a place where you are thinking logically, not responsively. Be clear about your version of the event, what you want to achieve, and how you think that can happen.

Of course, you may have a more or less understanding line manager, and this might mean you have to factor more or fewer things into the equation. There are no absolute answers but do trust your instincts.

The language we use when people cry, such as; “weak”, “looking for attention”, “can't cope” etc. etc. is dismissive. We do not tend to apply the same language to masculine demonstrations of stress as often*** this causes a difference of experience that can be difficult to navigate****.

We need to acknowledge stress when we see it whatever form it takes. The key is working towards helping to support each other, not break each other down further.

If you want more help with these or similar issues you can request a topic for a blog or if your feeling a bit more flush sign up to one or our personal plans or workshops.

*If you are fond of sentences like “Female sex hormones attenuate the sympathoadrenal and HPA responsiveness.” You might want to read Gender differences in stress response: Role of developmental and biological determinants, to find out more

**This article is much easier to read, probably because it was written for a magazine. It does refer back to the academic research though, in case you feel you haven’t worked hard enough today.

*** although there are a whole other set of problems that men face around having to be seen as strong that I will cover in another blog. Don’t worry chaps I’ve got your back, or at least I will try to.

****And arguably a difference that non-gender conforming men struggle with especially

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