Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Crying at work

Crying is an acceptable way to manage emotional stress

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1642 (Published 12 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1642
  1. Isobel Phillips, foundation doctor
  1. Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant CF72 8XR, UK
  1. isobelphillips{at}hotmail.co.uk

Should doctors be able to cry at work?1 The answer is entirely contextual. There is an absolute difference between crying during an emotionally challenging conversation with the family of a dying patient and crying in private because of excessive workloads and pressure. Regardless, doctors are human beings. Professionalism is the bread and butter of medicine, but doctor-patient relationships are formed through shared humanity.

Studies have shown that displays of emotional intelligence improve the doctor-patient relationship,2 and surely the ability to know when it is appropriate to shed a tear in the workplace in a sign of emotional intelligence? If we work on the premise that doctors should be suppressing emotion around their patients, the “doctoring” might as well be done by robots.

The emotional pressure on junior doctors is so far beyond that of people at similar stages in other careers. Very few other careers expose young adults, new to their profession, to situations where emotions are as heightened as they are with, for example, a family at the bedside of a patient dying of cancer. To cry—whether with the family or later in privacy—is an appropriate response to this experience and an acceptable way to manage negative feelings. If handled poorly, negative emotions such as anger and distress can negatively affect clinical decision making and patient satisfaction,3 so suppressing such feelings rather than finding an outlet for them could adversely affect patient care.

Multiple studies have shown comparatively high proportions of mental health problems in the medical community.4 Depressive symptoms have been linked with a greater chance of burnout.5 If we stop our doctors from being able to cry, a natural release of emotional stress, are we pushing them towards dropping out and leaving medicine all together?

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

References

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