Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Doctors’ Wellbeing

Should doctors cry at work?

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l690 (Published 26 February 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l690
  1. Fran Robinson, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. fran.robinson8{at}gmail.com

In front of patients or colleagues, or hidden in the toilets, is it appropriate—or maybe even a good thing—for medics to shed a tear on the job? Fran Robinson investigates

Many doctors admit to crying at work, whether openly empathising with a patient or on their own behind closed doors. Common reasons for crying are compassion for a dying patient, identifying with a patient’s situation, or feeling overwhelmed by stress and emotion.

Probably still more doctors have done so but been unwilling to admit it for fear that it could be considered unprofessional—a sign of weakness, lack of control, or incompetence. However, it’s increasingly recognised as unhealthy for doctors to bottle up their emotions.

Unexpected tragic events

Psychiatry is a specialty in which doctors might view crying as acceptable, says Annabel Price, visiting researcher at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, and a consultant in liaison psychiatry for older adults.

Having discussed the issue with colleagues before being interviewed for this article, she says that none of them would think less of a colleague for crying at work: “There are very few doctors who haven’t felt like crying at work now and again.”

A situation that may move psychiatrists to tears is finding that a patient they’ve been closely involved with has died by suicide. “This is often an unexpected tragic event: it’s very human to become upset, and sometimes it’s hard not to cry when you hear difficult news,” says Price.

She adds that the possibility of losing control and crying in front of a patient is something medical students often tell her that they feel anxious about. She responds by telling them about the occasions when she’s cried at work, how she managed at the time and afterwards, and that it’s possible to do this and still be a good …

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