Workplace robots and weeping in the boardroom


Have you ever cried in front of your boss, marched past a crowd of colleagues with your skirt tucked into your knickers, or accidentally said ‘penis’ to a client? If, like me, you can answer with three yes’s, then you’ll be very familiar with this boardroom juggling feat – being professional, while also being human.

As a teen, I remember when hitting 20 seemed so very distant and grown up. I also recall making the vague assumption that leaving University and getting a ‘real job’ would mark a significant milestone in my life – leaving the petty squabbles of student days behind, for the serene, conflict-free vista of office life with the adults.

Fast forward a few years and I soon discovered that people out in the real world – earning money and holding down posh sounding job titles – were just as childish as me and my fellow students.

One shred of wisdom I’ve picked up along my 29-year journey, is that age doesn’t always beget wisdom. Unfortunately getting older doesn’t mean we experience any less anger, irritation or irrational jealousy towards the people we spend time with; we just try to be mature about it. Cloaking ourselves in a veneer of professionalism at work, in theory, allows us to control our wayward emotions better. But in fact bottling up negative feelings can simply push us closer to boiling point. Or it can push that colleague you hate down the fire escape.

Nicollette Sheridan, better known as Edie from Desperate Housewives, once became embroiled in an off-set cat fight with the show’s creator Marc Cherry, when she brought a lawsuit against him for unfair dismissal. Sheridan alleges that her character was killed off from the show after she complained that Cherry had hit her on set, which he denies. Cherry then listed a catalogue of unprofessional actions, including punctuality, forgetting lines and being rude to a prop worker, that lead to Sheridan being let go.

Unlike Edie, you probably won’t be killed off if you act up at work, but you could find yourself having to resolve serious office politics, which have come as the result of pent up emotional outbursts, in an employment tribunal. The Ministry of Justice recorded 831,000 cases received by the Tribunals Service in 2010-2011, which marked a 31% rise since 2008.

We spend so much of our lives on the employment hamster wheel, often seeing our colleagues more than our own families, so it’s hardly surprising that things can get a bit tense in the workplace. And yet the traditional paradigm, that home is our realm for emotion and work a space for rational thought only, still seems to rule office life.

Which leads me to that ultimate career kiss of death – weeping at work.  Nobody wants to break down into tears during a meeting, but it happens, more often than we might think. Author Anne Kreamer, in a study of 700 Americans, revealed that 41 per cent of women had shed tears at work, compared with nine per cent of men.  And yet losing control is still seen as a real weakness in corporate culture, and a fast-track to losing the respect of fellow employees. Especially for women – even though we actually have much smaller tear ducts than men, so it’s physically harder to hold back the waterworks.

Over the last decade the world has been undergoing a well-being revolution. Ideology on how to look after mental health, fit relaxation into daily routines and better express emotions has permeated our hectic schedules, and the only facet of modern life that has yet to really catch up with this is work. If we’re all meditating before breakfast and finishing the day sipping green tea in downward dog yoga poses, the notion that behaving like a robot in the office is preferable to the occasional display of real human emotion just doesn’t make sense any longer.

Some things really are just better out than in, even when you’re wearing a power suit and playing at being an adult in a world where nobody really, truly seems to grow up – the office.