my emotionally fragile employee is sobbing at work multiple times a week

A reader writes:

I am in HR and one of my employees, “Brenda,” is a sweet, kind, sensitive, empathetic soul – she wears her heart on her sleeve. To know Brenda is to love her, and she is adored by everyone in the organization. A self-described empath, she cries easily and is a feeler’s feeler. (She feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.) She gets emotional when given any sort of feedback that isn’t glowing (and even sometimes over feedback that IS glowing) and when Brenda realizes that she has caused a problem of some sort – regardless of how small – she is often teary-eyed for the rest of the day. Until recently, I’ve been able to manage her fairly effectively, but the situation has escalated and now I’m unsure of how to set expectations without sounding particularly heartless.

Brenda is in the midst of a highly emotional season (since late January-ish) in which she is dealing with baggage from her own life that she has largely ignored for decades. (Frankly, we could all learn a lesson from her on that.) For the last several months, she has been a heartbeat away from a meltdown at seemingly every moment. Now, multiple times each day, she is sitting at her desk with tears streaming down her face, often for “no reason at all.” Sometimes it’s “ugly cry” sobbing – several times a week.

Brenda is well aware that her colleagues are walking on eggshells around her and she hates that, but she can’t help the tears. When the source of her angst is work-related, we talk it out and I do everything I can to fix it, help her work through it, etc. Her colleagues – both in my department and surrounding departments – are very sympathetic and empathetic … but the emotional roller coaster is taking its toll on everyone … and we are about to enter an extremely busy all-hands-on-deck season for the next several months. Brenda’s inability to control her emotions is affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of our team.

She does seem to be getting help, both from a counselor and her medical doctor for her mental health issues. She is currently on a three-day break from work, paid for by the organization, in order to get away from the office before the busy season starts. (This was offered to all members of my team and all are taking me up on it.) When she returns to the office, I know that I need to set expectations for her about controlling her emotions in the workplace, including, but not limited to, providing boundaries around what is appropriate from an emotional standpoint, coping skills, etc. I am prepared to discuss the ADA and reasonable accommodations as well. I want to be empathetic and supportive, but I need to maintain an efficient workplace/team.

I would love some advice on wording for that conversation that wouldn’t be completely cold and heartless.

I wrote back to this letter-writer and said, “This sounds exhausting! How is her work? Is it impacted by any of this? And any chance she can work effectively from home?” The response:

It really is exhausting. Her work is pretty good. A few details have been lost lately, but overall, her work is solid.

Getting her to work from home is a challenge, partially because she is social and doesn’t want to be alone. She’s single so she spends a lot of time by herself anyway. The other problem is that she does all of our new employee paperwork, takes minutes at some high level meetings, etc. There are definitely some things she could do from home, but it’s probably only about 30-40% of her job.

I am exhausted just reading about Brenda, so I can only imagine what it’s like for you and others in your office.

Full-on sobbing at her desk, multiple times a week? Sitting at her desk with tears streaming down her face multiple times a day?

That is so disruptive to other people’s ability to work that I’m inclined to say it’s downright prohibitive. As in, it can’t continue to happen, period. It’s not fair to other employees. It’s upsetting and stressful to hear someone sobbing on the reg at work. I guarantee you it’s affecting other people’s emotional well-being, and I’m certain some (even most) are avoiding Brenda so they don’t risk setting her off, even when that makes their work harder.

If Brenda is in so much pain right now that she can’t be at work without this happening, then she might need a leave of absence or other time off to work through this. Or you could explore having her go down to part-time and working remotely, doing the 30-40% of her job that can be done from home. But you can’t let this continue in the space other people have to work in.

The conversation you need to have with her is along the lines of, “I know you’re going through a difficult time and I’ve tried hard to give you the support you need at work. But we can’t have you crying at your desk multiple times a week — it’s disrupting the office and making it difficult for other people to work. So let’s figure out what to do. We can talk about options like a leave of absence or intermittent FMLA, or we could even have you work part-time from home while you’re navigating this. But we’re at the point where we do need to handle this differently.”

You can say all this in a kind tone. You can sound sympathetic. But you do need to lay out these boundaries. (And based on what you’ve written, it seems likely that she might cry. If that happens, that’s not a sign that you can’t continue the conversation. Plow forward — kindly, but firmly.)

That said, do talk with your HR team or a lawyer first to make sure you’re navigating any ADA issues correctly — but “you can’t disrupt other people’s work multiple times a week” is a reasonable principle to adhere to.

And it’s not cold or heartless. You’ve gone above and beyond in supporting Brenda up until this point, and it’s not callous to be honest that you can’t continue accommodating her at other people’s expense. In fact, I’d argue it’s ultimately kinder to a larger number of people — her coworkers — to have this conversation than not to. And it’s potentially even kinder to Brenda herself, since it sounds like she doesn’t realize the impact this is having on others, and that she’s someone who would care about that if she knew.

Also, I feel awkward asking this but … is Brenda really adored by everyone in the organization, as you wrote? I’m skeptical that people are even comfortable around her at this point. I’m sure some of them are sympathetic, yes, but everyone has been in a tremendously uncomfortable position for months now. If no one is complaining, I’d bet it’s because they’ve absorbed the message that everyone has to tiptoe around Brenda, and that’s not good.

I’ve got to think most people are wondering why this situation — painful as it is for her — is still allowed to disrupt the office every day. You’ve got to act for their sake.

{ 762 comments… read them below }

  1. Dust Bunny*

    I confess I would have a hard time adoring Brenda. I might mostly like her as a person but the emotional intensity would definitely prevent me from being close enough to her to have much investment in her as an individual. And I would absolutely be tiptoeing around her, even if I felt badly for her and *didn’t* feel as though she were manipulating her supervisors into better feedback.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      +100. That sounds like heavy-cringing-level-of-awkward for large portions of the work day almost every day! I would most likely be job-hunting if I had someone crying *multiple times a day* near me while I’m trying to work.

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Yes, they are going to start losing good employees who can’t cope with this level of distraction multiple times a day. I wonder if any employees are actively avoiding her to keep their own equilibrium intact.

      2. Courageous cat*

        Yup. Cringe and definitely does not endear me towards them, does the complete opposite.

      3. Colin*

        Calling her an empath is way off the mark (particularly if she was also a heavy cryer before she started this difficult time in January). If she was regularly in tears about minor things, then she is not accurately reflecting or interpreting others emotions – she is inventing them.

    2. Hills to Die on*

      I am the first one to start crying if someone else is crying so this would absolutely be disruptive for me too! I can see having sympathy and liking her, but I could not do this.

    3. Autistic Farm Girl*

      I agree, I would not adore Brenda, I would avoid her at all cost. Maybe it sounds bad but I just couldn’t deal with her emotions.

      1. Threeve*

        I am also extremely skeptical that Brenda has everyone’s sympathy and adoration. I would be kind and gentle with her, sure–not because I liked her, but because I hated the meltdowns.

        I have mental health issues and cry at the drop of a hat, and I don’t think depression or extreme physical reactions to stress are anything to be ashamed of, but I will go to great lengths to avoid making a scene at work. There is ALWAYS a restroom, a stairwell, or an empty meeting room somewhere. Brenda has the option to make some kind of effort to step away and doesn’t.

        1. Rach*

          I also have mental health issues and have had panic attacks at work (due to a particularly bad manager) and was able to keep the scenes away from my co-workers (stairwell, bathroom stall, or the on-site clinic if it was bad enough). I did eventually have to take a leave of absence partly due to the bad management, which is notorious at my workplace.

          1. Delia*

            ME TOO.

            You just have to manage that stuff.

            I appreciate what the OP has done, but at the same time, Brenda doesn’t seem to realize on her own that something has to change, and this is enabling the behavior.

            I had a meltdown in my boss’s office last year. We were able to talk about personal things and felt better but then…that’s it. I need to not run to her as a therapist (or even a friend).

        2. Artemesia*

          This. It doesn’t sound like Brenda is even trying to rein this in. I would suspect this is partly a performance and making clear that the office is not a place to behave like this is important. She needs to be getting medical health; she probably needs medication if it is this constant; you can’t suggest that, but you can encourage therapy, medical help and medical leave.

          But it is important to make clear that this cannot continue in the office where it is inappropriate and disruptive. Apparently no one has given her this message and all the sympathy is reinforcing the behavior. She needs to get the message that she needs to get help for this and turn it around and that she cannot be doing it at her desk. Perhaps come up with a strategy of where she can go temporarily when overwhelmed — the fact that she hasn’t sought out privacy but puts on a show multiple times a day is concerning.

          I am betting she is not ‘adored’ — I bet those around her are fed to the gills.

          1. Working Hypothesis*

            All of this. Thank you, Artemesia. This is pretty much what I was coming to say — that if she’s sobbing openly at her desk instead of running off to the bathroom or an empty conference room or something, there is a bigger problem than simply an overly emotional but adored colleague — but you said it first and better. :)

            1. AKchic*

              I can almost guarantee that if given the option to run to a bathroom or empty conference room to do her sobbing/crying jags; she will make it a very loud, elaborate affair.

              After 6 months, with multiple times a week loud sobbing events and multiple times daily tears-streaming-down-the-face events that she doesn’t even attempt to control – this is a performance piece. If she has to take it elsewhere, she will do so in dramatic fashion. Sometimes it might be wailing woman-style. Other times it might be stoic widow escorting her soldier to the grave. Depending on acoustics in the designated room she’s assigned for her tears, it may actually amplify some of her vocalizations. And I suspect she will get more vocal because she will no longer have a visual audience.

              But, I am very cynical about all of this, and I openly admit that I have absolutely no patience for people who hold offices hostage with emotions (tears, anger, etc.).

              1. Dela-WHERE?*

                AKchic, I share your cynicism. As an example, my former boss & now colleague is probably the most empathetic person I’ve ever met. Her capacity to feel is Troi-levels. Yet somehow, despite how deep her feelings run, she manages to keep her it together. I’ve seen her get a little red-rimmed around the eyes once, and that was because I had to euthanize my dog after a traumatic experience. As a colleague, she IS adored because her empathy allows her to read the room and constructively support other staff. In contrast, I have an (estranged) family member who identifies as an empath, displays empathetic tendencies, but is very clearly performative in her outbursts. I have no doubt that she feels deeply, but I also know she NEEDS PEOPLE TO KNOW just how deep those feelings run.

                To be clear, I understand and appreciate that Brenda is seeking help from medical and mental health professionals and that the pain she experiences is very real, but it doesn’t mean she isn’t also performing.

                1. Dela-WHERE?*

                  Real quick- I also understand that there is a gendered read to this. I don’t expect people who feel deeply to be stoic; that is not a healthy work environment. You can demonstrate pain and sadness, and you can and should be open about it. But with that should also come self-awareness. If you need to cry, do it! It is good to cry! It is not good to have public meltdowns that affect others. That is where I read “performance.”

                2. Red 5*

                  I have to say, I’m coming down with the same read on this as you are. I have coworkers who are deeply empathetic and care about everyone in the office, and who show the right levels of concern whenever they’re able to. But they are also incredibly even keeled in the work environment and that’s WHY people adore them and tend to go to them (maybe too often) with their issues. They do feel for other people, but not in a way that’s about them.

                  The sentence that cracked it over for me is describing Brenda as feeling things about the LW’s life that LW doesn’t feel that much or to that depth. I’ve known those people and that’s the biggest flag for me that Brenda isn’t empathetic in a way that’s useful and lovely and makes people love her, she’s the type of person that performs and makes things as much about her and her emotional response as anything else.

                  That’s not to say that she can’t have issues and trauma and be in a bad mental health space, that can all be true! Maybe this type of behavior is a direct response to that trauma even! But this particular type of person exhausts me because when I’m having strong emotions I end up having to manage my emotions and theirs at the same time and honestly I don’t have the bandwidth and LW’s other employees shouldn’t feel obligated to that either.

                  That said, I disagree that she should always be locking that up and going somewhere else and hiding her outbursts in a bathroom or stairwell. That’s not always the right call either, honestly. It’s about how she’s managing it in the moment, which it sounds like she isn’t. But when I was going through fresh grief, honestly the weirdest things would set me off and I knew that if I could just be left alone for a minute or two I could get it under control and move on, where going somewhere else to cope in silence alone would have made it worse. But that wasn’t tears streaming down my face multiple times a day, that was reading a random sentence that reminded me of what happened and catching my breath and crying quietly for a minute or two.

                  This is definitely affecting the rest of the office though in the end that’s the important part.

              2. Anonys*

                honestly (this might be an unpopular opinion, idk) I’m generally suspicious of people who identify as empaths. Having an aptitude for empathy is great but in my experience people will say they are an empath and use that to justify throwing tantrums or getting overly emotional involved in your life and not working on these things. It then causes other people to have to curtail their (regular sized) emotional responses because at the slightest hint of someone else being upset, the so-called empath will spiral. Part of emotional intelligence is expressing emotions appropriately.

                “she feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.”
                This is a huge red flag to me. That is very boundary crossing and it sounds like Brenda was like this even before her personal problems started in January. I think it’s highly problematic, especially for an HR person. If I go to HR to report something I don’t want to worry about upsetting the HR person with something that happened to me and then having to manage their emotions.

                1. Spencer Hastings*

                  Yeah, that line jumped out as a red flag to me as well. I don’t think I would respond with “adoration” to anyone who felt that way about me.

                2. Rusty Shackelford*

                  This. I thought she sounded exhausting even before the LW got to the current situation.

                3. Ace in the Hole*

                  I agree with all this… especially regarding the red flag. If someone has an extreme emotional reaction to something in my life when I don’t share those feelings, that’s not empathy. It’s the opposite of empathy: they’re too wrapped up in their own feelings about it to consider how I feel. It’s not inherently wrong – people have different emotional reactions to things – but it would make me very uncomfortable sharing anything remotely personal or important with that person.

                  To relabel it as empathy, however, is manipulative. It means she’s forcing other people to manage/attend to HER feelings while telling them they have to do this extra emotional labor because SHE cares so much about THEM.

                  I also bridle at the implication that having empathy and being emotionally demonstrative are the same thing. Plenty of people are highly empathetic without outward displays of emotion. And plenty of extremely “emotional”/”sensitive” people have the empathy of a self absorbed teacup.

                4. Idril Celebrindal*

                  ^This

                  I would add that empathy is understanding and sharing feelings with another person, which means that if she is feeling things that you aren’t feeling, LW, that she is not showing any empathy. She is feeling things about what is going on with you, but it is her emotional response, not sharing yours.

                  I know people who are very proud of how empathetic and insightful they are, and I have come to realize how much of a red flag that can be. Yes, they may be empathetic about a lot of things, but it seems to come with a huge side helping of them putting more weight on their own emotions than the other person, trusting their emotional response over the stated experiences of the other person, and centering their own emotions about an event and making the other person (who is the one who was originally in pain) manage the emotions of the “empath”. She may be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean that every emotion she expresses can be attributed to empathy.

                5. Quill*

                  Generally I find that “empath” tends to track with women of a certain age who are relatively woo and don’t have a functioning definition of boundaries.

                6. Venus*

                  “them putting more weight on their own emotions than the other person”

                  Oh wow, thank you for this insight! This is the problem I have had with the ‘Empaths’ I have met. They have generally been self-centered while trying to convince me otherwise (notallempaths of course, just the ones I have met).

                7. knead me seymour*

                  I agree that when people broadcast about their empathy, it comes across as self-serving. If they were really that good at reading others’ emotions, they would probably realize how tiresome this kind of performance is.

                8. Ailsa McNonagon*

                  Absolutely agree- I’ve never come across a self-identified ’empath’ who didn’t use their ’empathy’ as a way to control and re-centre themselves in whatever was happening. I worked in Mental Health for many years and the colleagues who described themselves as ’empaths’ were always the least capable, most histrionic and definitely NOT well-beloved members of the team.

                  If someone describes themselves to you as an Empath, you’ve just been given a very valuable piece of information about that person.

                9. jenkins*

                  YES. I hate this empath crap. Personally, I seem to experience empathy quite easily (compared to the people I know well, anyway, who are all lovely and caring and just find it easier to compartmentalise or something). So I avoid certain media because it’ll leave me a blubbering mess, and I keep strong personal boundaries because I know that otherwise I tend to get inappropriately invested in other people’s monkeys. I’m not An Empath(TM) and would be mortified to present myself as such – and if I gave myself free rein to emote all over the place I’d be horrendous.

              3. TootsNYC*

                the “she feels things about MY life that even I don’t feel to that degree” smacks of some serious self-indulgence or over-imagination.
                Upstream, Hills to Die on said she’s quick to start crying if she sees other people crying–I think that’s not uncommon, and I’d call those people empathetic.

                But I loathe the term “empath,” and this “I’m SO upset about your life,” when I’m not even upset that much myself? Rein it in.

                Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh; I have had moments when I was visibly moved out of proportion to my own involvement, but they aren’t that common, and I don’t make other people deal with it. And i don’t wear it as a badge of honor, complete with the label “empath.”

                1. AKchic*

                  I think there is a difference between empathic and empathetic, and people are comingling the two words and the two… ideas?

                  Hills to Die On would most certainly fit the empathetic descriptor.
                  This empathic thing that most of us are frustrated with? I think a lot of us have the vision of 90’s woo girls who were just a little too into good fairies and elves, crystals, tarot cards and incense, and that really intense gaze while saying “how are you *really* feeling” while making a little moue of sorrow like they just know that we’re hiding the shame and agony that our cat was run over by the mayor right before getting dumped by the quarterback the day before prom just as we got to school that morning and no amount of confusion (we’ve never owned a cat!) or denial will dissuade them from knowing better and telling everyone within earshot that you’re in denial and they *know* because they can *sense* (or feel) it and it. is. setting. them. off. They *feel* your P A I N. Your T U R M O I L. Your a-go-ny (and I say this with all of the wail that Bugs Bunny can muster).

          2. MCMonkeyBean*

            I don’t know about that, it says that she is working with a counselor *and* a doctor so I do think she is trying to rein it in. I don’t think it’s fair to assume this is a performance. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I agree this is disruptive enough to others that it can’t continue, but I don’t think there’s any reason to assume the worst of her.

            I am nowhere near this level but I’ve always been someone who cries fairly easily and I *hate* it. But that only gets you on a sort of downward spiral where you feel bad or angry or embarrassed about the tears, which just makes you even more upset! It’s fucking miserable, and when it happens at work it’s embarrassing as hell. It’s not an easy thing for everyone to control. For me, when the feeling of needing to cry comes up–trying to tamp it down is honestly physically painful. (Again, I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m constantly crying at work, but I have a few times and I can recognize that even a few times is more than most of my coworkers.)

            1. JSPA*

              Occasional tears don’t register with me as intrinsically disruptive. A lot of tears, often, with devolutions into bawling ugly cry (and making it common knowledge that you’re indeed suffering, not just someone whose eyes occasionally go into the wet zone) is many levels beyond that.

              Or to put it another way, not all crying is drama; but Brenda’s crying is.

              1. MCMonkeyBean*

                Sure there is definitely drama here, and as I said it is definitely not an acceptable situation because it’s just too disruptive to her coworkers. I just think that a lot of people are being overly harsh accusing Brenda of being performative and manipulative when there is nothing in the letter to indicate that.

                I know that some people do use tears to manipulate, but based on the facts laid out in the letter which include 1) that this is new coinciding with personal issues and not how she has behaved for the previous 8 years and 2) that she is working with a counselor and a doctor, Brenda doesn’t seem to fall into that category.

                I think people are projecting bad experiences they have had with manipulative people onto her. It’s a bummer to read as a person who also cannot control their crying (my brother used to accuse me of faking it all the time when I was a child and that’s a shitty thing to hear when you are genuinely upset) and it’s not helpful to the OP because it doesn’t change the advice.

                1. Rebelx*

                  +1 MCMonkeyBean. I relate so much to your description of crying in your first comment.

                  Upthread some comments seem to suggest that this must be a “performance” of some sort because otherwise why wouldn’t she make more of an effort to be less disruptive, like going to the bathroom or somewhere more private to cry. But I think there are other possibilities besides “it’s a show for attention” and I don’t see how it’s helpful to the LW to take that view instead of assuming a more charitable interpretation of Brenda’s actions, at least at first. Some more charitable possibilities: Maybe she’s in such a bad place mentally that she’s just not realizing how disruptive it’s become. Maybe she feels like she can’t or shouldn’t leave her desk to gather herself privately because she’s supposed to be working. Or maybe even because her manager & coworkers have been supportive of her (or at least walking on eggshells and not openly dismissive/frustrated/hostile/etc.), she feels comfortable “feeling her feelings” in front of them (and generally it’s probably a good thing that the office culture doesn’t expect stoicism and is understanding that people sometimes have and display emotions, but of course that’s within reasonable limits and Brenda has become too disruptive).

                  Regardless of the reason why she hasn’t taken the steps to be less disruptive of her own accord, if she is going to continue working from the office, I think LW needs to tell her that if she’s feeling a cry coming on that’s going to require more than a brief, quiet moment to collect herself at her desk, then she needs to discretely step out of the office to a private area for a few minutes. After LW has talked to her about what needs to change moving forward, if she’s still being disruptive, well maybe then there’s more evidence of drama/attention seeking/manipulation/whatever, but I wouldn’t necessarily start with that assumption.

                2. Karia*

                  Thing is that people can be performative and manipulative without realising it. Brenda likely just feels pain and / or is subconsciously trying to get her needs met in the only way she knows how. It doesn’t make her a monster, but it does need to be fixed.

        3. TomorrowTheWorld*

          I never used to cry much until I hit menopause and started crying at everything. I’ve been prescribed Paxil and the hair-trigger “welling up with tears” stopped in a couple of days.

          1. Ralph the Wonder Llama*

            I cried over Every Little Thing for several years of perimenopause. I am posting to tell you that this too shall pass and there are better days ahead. I got back to my normal matter of fact, take most everything in stride self.

            1. TomorrowTheWorld*

              Thanks! It’s been pretty easy sailing, really (go go gadget-maternal line!), but the crying was pissing me off no end. I consider myself only authorized to cry over small fluffy beasts, not breaking a pencil lead, damn it.
              (Also, even mild hot flashes in the night messed-up my sleep, hence the Paxil.)

              1. JSPA*

                The mild night ones are the hot flushes, in my experience. I thought they were the flashes until (after a wonderful year and a half of nothing thermal) the actual flashes hit. Much briefer, but scalding: had me standing outside in negative degrees farenheit in my underwear for 45 seconds at a time, barefoot in the snow and happy to be there. Luckily, the flashes moderated and then passed off within four and a half months. Of course, YMMV. But don’t panic if it happens.

            2. Sparkles McFadden*

              Same thing here. As a person who once said “I wouldn’t cry at work unless I had a broken bone sticking out of my leg” I would find myself welling up for no obvious reason. I had very few other symptoms, and I would have gladly traded this symptom for hot flashes as the weepiness really annoyed me…which would make me weepier. It did pass. I also found my thyroid went wonky during this time and I felt more normal once I got treatment for that.

        4. JSPA*

          I’d likely be squelching high level exasperation, and quite possibly low level rage, even if I also felt sympathetic and kindly on some level. I’d also be paying considerable lip service to caring about Brenda’s emotional state if I knew that the manager was not only sympathetic but practically in awe of Brenda’s level of “empathy.”

          And, on empathy: empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling, as a sort of emotional echo effect. The literal definition is, sharing someone’s emotions. Not supplanting someone else’s own emotions (or lack thereof!) with your more extreme ones. The idea that it’s in any way empathetic to feel “things about [YOUR] life that [you] don’t even feel”? Yeah, no. That’s…. something, all right, but it’s not “empathy.”

          It’s not helpful to anyone, including Brenda, to put her on a pedestal for “feeling more, all the time.” Emotional dysregulation / overreaction (regardless of cause) are a problem to be managed, not something to mistake for…well, a badge of emotional royalty.

          Feeling a pea under seven mattresses was always a strange test for nobility, right?

          Notice it, name it, and resolve not to buy into it.

          1. JSPA*

            Tip of the hat to Idril Celebrindal, you said it above, and I didn’t read far enough before posting.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        I couldn’t handle it. Even if I liked her! I have a coworker now with whom I would genuinely like to be friends but she is, while not Brenda-grade, a habitual oversharer of very personal information, and I do not have the bandwidth to take that on.

    4. kittymommy*

      Same. I would 100% have a hard time dealing with this level of intensity on an every day basis. My sympathy would be shot pretty darn quick.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, mine too. I was a teary teen, but as an adult, I very rarely cry. I’ve for example never cried at a funeral, but the funerals I’ve attended were for people who were either very old or very sick or both, my grandparents or aunts and uncles who were sick, etc.
        These days, I’m much more likely to cry out of anger, frustration, or joy than sadness.
        I have cried at work, but it’s always been a reaction to extreme stress, and I’ve been careful to do it in our one stall restrooms to avoid upsetting others.

    5. ExcelJedi*

      Same! I feel like I would probably dislike her even at her *best* – someone who says they feel my situation deeper than even I do is someone who I suspect is manipulating me.

      That may not be true for the OP, and I’d take her at her word that she observes this in Brenda….but it’s a trait that would make me deeply suspicious, especially at work.

      1. Threeve*

        Even if the emotions and tears are absolutely real, when noisy “ugly-crying” meltdowns happen over and over with no attempt to withdraw even a little, it becomes a performance for attention.

        1. LifeBeforeCorona*

          There’s a reason for washrooms. They’re a good place to cry in relative privacy. It might be worthwhile to ask her to excuse herself and go to an empty office or washroom if she is crying to the point of being unable to work.

            1. it's me*

              And I’m thinking of Joan from Mad Men talking about the secretaries crying in the bathroom.

              1. CTT*

                Joan was perhaps not wrong when she said to do it at home instead of the bathroom because it destroys morale.

        2. Nicole*

          You seem to be reading a lot into details that aren’t in the letter. Do we really need to jump on the tired old sexist train of thought that any woman expressing emotion poorly is automatically doing it for attention or to manipulate others?

          1. IRV*

            Ugly crying at ones desk multiple times a day does seem like too much drama and definitely attention seeking behavior. The LW indicates that this is not an occassional emotional cry -She makes no attempt to rein it in. I’d lose my patience very early on and would really question why she was being pandered too by management. I’m a crier when emotions get high, but would never ever sit at my desk and subject my co-workers to constant sobbing.

          2. Butterfly Counter*

            Idk. I experienced extreme depression when I was a young teen and would spend hours sobbing multiple times a week as well. As an adult, I told my mom this and she was shocked despite being in the same house at all times. You can cry, even sob, quietly. To this day, the only sound I make when I cry is my sniffling.

          3. Rusty Shackelford*

            A recent post about a man throwing temper tantrums also inspired similar comments about attention-seeking behavior, so I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that people here are jumping on the sexist train.

          4. Delia*

            Why? Men also express emotions poorly (often in different ways) and we jump to the conclusion that he may be doing it for whatever reason that isn’t just fighting emotions.

          5. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

            What are the other explanations for loud, public crying? If it’s not to manipulate or get attention, what’s really going on? It seems like you can sob incessantly in private? Especially for an empath who is so aware of how other people are feeling?

            I’m all for being open and emotional in a productive way in the workplace. But this kind of behavior undermines women who express emotion in a productive way.

      2. AnonEMoose*

        This is basically where I sit. I mostly don’t even like discussing my emotions with my close friends…I definitely would not want a coworker telling me how much she feels for me on pretty much anything. I’d feel uncomfortable at best, and like she was trying to manipulate me, or be closer to me than I wanted to be to her…I do not deal with people I perceive as clingy or needy well at all, and I think Brenda would push those buttons pretty firmly.

        I’d be as polite to her as I needed to be to try to avoid having her crying at me. But I’d also be avoiding her as much as possible. I’d be stuck between feeling bad for her, and trying not to be judgy, because I do everything I can to avoid tearing up in front of coworkers.

      3. OP*

        I really do adore her… and she really is worthy of it. :) There is so much about Brenda that’s wonderful. She’s going through a tough time, for certain. It’s hard right now, but I am hopeful that things will get better with the help she is getting.
        I do struggle, though, with how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not. She does it with everyone, but as her manager, I have put up boundaries around that – some, in what I am willing to share, but I have also had conversations with her, when necessary, about it. It’s awkward, but important.

        1. Nea*

          I do struggle, though, with how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not.

          I’m trying to be sympathetic, but I can’t bring myself to see this through any other lens than “wildly manipulative.” Correct me if I’m wrong here, but… isn’t this basically saying that YOU are not processing YOUR circumstances “properly” by not being happy or sad “enough”?

          As someone who has done my fair share of crying in the office bathroom I sympathize with sorrow, but the idea of someone emoting for me… wow. All I’ve got is wow and annoyance.

          1. AKchic*

            That’s how I see it too.

            Like… Brenda… don’t tell someone how they should be feeling. It’s literally managing Brenda’s feelings, who’s trying to control *your* feelings.
            Why is she so intent on controlling everyone else’s feelings? (Actually, that’s not important; she just needs to stop)

            1. anon 4 this*

              I knew someone like this! She kept trying to get me to question my own reactions to things, asking me if they were really ‘authentic’ (i.e. to her liking). I never gave her the answers she wanted (I had no reason to doubt my own feelings), so she moved on to a friend. He thought she was amazing, and within three months they were engaged. Three months after that, she’d broken it off, taken the $6,500 she’d gotten out of him, moved out of their apartment while he was at work, and run away. I expect she’s still out there looking for people to con.

          2. Archaeopteryx*

            Yes the whole bit about her self describing as an “empath” and feeling details about other peoples lives more intensely than they do themselves just made me honestly want to run for the hills. That doesn’t sound remotely healthy.

            1. Delia*

              My therapist has said that this isn’t even an actual thing – he thinks its sort of a delusion actually.

              1. Red 5*

                It’s definitely got it’s roots in woo-woo mysticism really. The idea at the core of it isn’t bad, and it probably was something that somebody started using the term to describe a particular situation in a way that was useful to get through it, probably something about emotional maturity or intelligence or something, who knows, I’m not a psychologist, but could be.

                But it has definitely become one step above calling yourself a psychic at this point the way it’s being used online. Not saying Brenda is, but a lot of people.

          3. Mockingdragon*

            I wouldn’t think necessarily. There’ve been times when friends tell me things that don’t seem to upset them but make me very upset on their behalf. It’s not me saying they’re doing anything wrong, just that I would react really differently to it, and that putting myself in the shoes of someone who is facing that makes me react. If overdone it’s certainly not healthy or particularly well boundaried but I don’t think it has to mean they’re telling someone else how to feel.

            1. Quill*

              Yeah, it’s especially hard when you get two people with opposite trauma responses, and one is like “this thing that happened to me was kind of mildly fucked up, but it doesn’t bother me now” and the other one gets triggered into a meltdown.

              (Have done that in friendships before…)

            2. Mockingdragon*

              (For the record, I do try not to talk to that person about my being upset. This is when third parties are useful lol)

        2. anonymous 5*

          OP, you mentioned below that you all are in a mental health field, so I trust that this will resonate with you: people’s feelings and stories are their own. Others don’t get to appropriate them. Brenda doesn’t get to “feel things in your own life that you do not” and then expect sympathy for those feelings. Your life is your life, not hers. And if she’s doing this to other people, it’s especially critical that you as the manager shut this down in general, not just put up boundaries for yourself.

                1. Mad Harry Crewe*

                  Jack is probably my favorite character. He’s so phlegmatic and straightforward.

        3. Alexander Graham Yell*

          “I do struggle, though, with how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not.”

          Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, so feel free to take my comment with a grain of salt.

          It seems like rather than allowing you to process your own feelings and circumstances on your own, she has decided that it’s okay for her to do it however she likes, which then essentially forces you to deal with not only your feelings, but her feelings about your feelings when you might have wanted to just…not have that conversation at work. So she’s now controlling how everybody else processes their emotions.

          Even if I am skeptical about the whole empath…thing…that has been cropping up in recent years, you get to establish clear boundaries about how you need her to handle this with other employees. She should not get to essentially make their feelings all about her, which she does by making you feel that she feels them more deeply than you do.

          Even if she’s wonderful, even if everybody truly does love her, she needs to cut allllllllll of this out.

          1. Archaeopteryx*

            Yes the trend of people deciding that they are an “empath” is just so incredibly cringe he to me. It sounds like they want to be characters in a YA fantasy novel, but in reality they just have poor boundaries and emotional control.

            1. Hrodvitnir*

              Eugh, yeah, I do try not to express my distaste but pretty much what you said. I am empathetic to a fault, but the idea of calling myself an “empath” makes my skin crawl.

              Obviously this is exacerbated by the only people I’ve seen talk about being empaths either being shockingly incorrect in their self-assessment (people whose actions are deeply selfish and show an uncomfortable lack of empathy, emotional or cognitive), or in some cases people I like very much who are often in a lot of pain and are trying to find a way to feel positive about themselves, but really are struggling a lot with emotional dysregulation.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I have to wonder if everyone loves her or do they just feel bad about her messy life?

            I am thinking in terms of that three legged pup, every one has so much heart for. The pictures grab our hearts instantly. But we don’t even know the pup. We probably will never meet the pup. And yet here we are fully involved in this picture of the pup. This how quick and how easy this stuff happens.

            OP, you may have an illusion going on that everyone loves her. NO, they just want her to get to a better place in life. I do think all the extra attention she is getting is prolonging her healing, not helping it.

          3. Pennyworth*

            I’ve been wondering why Brenda knows so much about LW’s life and feelings. That needs to be shut down.

        4. Dust Bunny*

          how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not.

          Sorry, no–this is bogus. If you’re not stressed out about it, there shouldn’t be anything for her to pick up. I might be worried about my under-the-weather cat but if I’m not frantic and sobbing, there is no reason for her to be frantic and sobbing except that she’s taken a suggestion and blown it out of proportion.

          I’m sure she has legitimate problems and concerns, but your first step as a manager should be to stop buying into her woo-woo.

          1. valentine*

            stop buying into her woo-woo.
            Yes, OP. Stop sharing. Don’t feed her feelings. (Probably done simply by existing because she imprints/enmeshes.) It’s vital you not hear out, much less weigh in on, her projections. If she never volunteers and you are always asking about the crying, you can turn off the faucet on your end.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              I think it needs to go even further than stop sharing. As Brenda’s manager, esp in HR, OP, you need to rein her in on that with *anyone* at work. As multiple people have pointed out, she’s interfering with other people’s abilities to honestly process their own feelings, and making the situations about her and how she feels.

              Possible script for this:
              Brenda, at work, as HR, we need to keep a certain emotional distance from other employees so that we can help them with solutions to problems quickly and effectively. Practicing that on a daily basis will help you maintain it when a emergencies come up. Someone who’s letting you know about bereavement leave just wants their additional PTO in place quickly, not to spend time listening to you cry. A few sentences of sympathy or questions about how *they* feel is fine, but your loss of composure is an extra burden, not a help.
              ——
              But yeah, you really have to rein this in for a whole host of reasons.

          2. Anononon*

            Yes, I thought the whole thing about being an “empath” was that you are aware of how other people are feeling, even if it’s not obvious. OP, if you don’t feel something, Brenda certainly shouldn’t as well. That’s not being an empath.

            1. Spencer Hastings*

              Even that is potentially creepy. If I’m trying my best to hide my emotions, because I don’t want to bother other people with them or because they’re socially unacceptable, then I’m not going to be terribly happy if someone else took my emotions on as a problem to solve anyway because I didn’t hide them *quite* well enough.

              1. Tau*

                I actually think this is something very emotionally in-tune people miss, sometimes. Like… maybe you can pick up on what someone is feeling even when they’re hiding it. But that doesn’t mean that acting on that is in any way appropriate, or that it may not be the kindest thing to just let the person save face. Especially at work!

                It’s funny, because I’m autistic, and it feels like everyone and their dog wants to tell me about how there is this Amazing Wonderful Thing called body language which makes up 80% of communication and not being able to figure out how someone is feeling will forever cripple my social interactions… and I did in fact buy into this for a while, as a teenager? But the older I get, the more I feel that acting oblivious to not clearly signalled emotions is actually an A-OK socially acceptable way to behave and you’re actually more likely to get yourself into trouble or piss people off by reacting to the overly subtle stuff.

                1. Spencer Hastings*

                  Yes! Letting each other save face is so important.

                  Acting oblivious can also be useful in cases where someone is performing an emotion in order to provoke some kind of reaction. “Nope, this person is not going to bait me into having the argument they want me to have with them!” More applicable in the social or family arena than at work, though. Hopefully.

                2. Dust Bunny*

                  I’m also on the autism spectrum. I’m actually pretty good with body language/subtle facial expressions, mostly through practice, but my policy is that if you don’t come to me for sympathy, I’m not going to dig into your feelings. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I assume that if you don’t tell me, you don’t need or want me to know. (If you’re crying or visibly upset, yeah, I’ll ask, but if you brush it off I won’t go any further.)

                  So far, this has not backfired on me. People who want my participation will ask for it, and people who don’t won’t get it against their will. If anything, I think people who want support trust me more because they know I won’t cry their personal lives all over the place.

                  Also: Somebody who cried over *my* feelings would extra infuriate me for all the reasons stated above–they don’t get to decide how my emotions should be processed. I’m already somebody who doesn’t like to share until I’ve processed stuff myself.

              2. JSPA*

                Indeed!

                Insisting on outing someone’s inner emotions–whether you’re right or wrong about what they are–is invasive, broadly along the lines of (correctly or incorrectly) outing their medical information, or (correctly or incorrectly) outing them on something gender or sexuality-related.

                “I can tell what feelings you’re hiding because I resonate with them” is already irritating by 8th grade. The idea that someone’s getting traction on that in a professional setting is disturbing.

                I get that if she’s good at doing the conversational empathy thing, and jumps to do it, that people will, at times, have gone to her willingly when they needed a friendly ear, and she’s been willing beyond the call of duty. It’s possible to have bad emotional boundaries, destructive levels of emotion, and still be an excellent listener and an all around good human being. But it is not a kindness to her to support this aspect of how she functions, while at work.

                Let’s consider that she’s overwhelmed past her ability to pull back, by how connected she feels to everyone’s issues with everything. Then what? She’s stuck. Whether she stays or she goes somewhere else, she doesn’t have a good model for how to interact without getting up in other people’s emotional business, as well as sharing hers.

                This presumes that her difficult time isn’t major trigger level warning stuff. A coworker whose child died in an accident or who survived a violent attack very reasonably gets near endless leeway to sometimes be overtaken with tears for…well, a long time.

                If it were that level of specific event, I’m thinking the OP would have been more specific than the catch-all, “hard time.” Most of us have, have had or will have the occasional bad relationship sinking fast, pets that don’t live forever, friend breakups, financial problems, and some level of proximity to mental health crises, physical health crises, and death.

                1. Spencer Hastings*

                  Yeah, I think that the privacy of our own thoughts and feelings is one of the most sacred rights to privacy that we have. That post that Alison did a while ago with an “interview with a strongly relationship-oriented person” — I think it was before I started reading the blog, but I read it at some point in the archives, and my main reaction was “whoa now, work colleagues are definitely not entitled to that much knowledge about me.” (Nor I about them.)

                  And I actually do consider it in the same category as coming out to coworkers — I won’t do it until there’s a certain level of trust in place. And I’m not going to want you to know that I have a certain emotional state that’s not related to work/the task at hand unless I trust you either.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              I would say it’s more an ability to relate to people and understand how they are feeling.

          3. Delia*

            Agree one hundred times over.

            I really think the OP is really SO worried about Brenda, but not so worried about the rest of her staff.

            Also, it’s not fair the person who throws the biggest fit gets attention. Someone else on your team may be going through worse stuff, but they are handling it properly for a work environment and I’m sure could feel really resentful. I know I would.

        5. BPT*

          Yeah…I’m sure there are legitimately people who are affected by other people’s tragedies and have it affect their own moods and feelings. However, anytime I’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as an “empath” and behave like this, the message they are sending is “I want to make your experiences about me.” It is never appropriate. And I can assure you that some of her other coworkers are likely very disturbed by the way she makes their experiences about her and her feelings, and that needs to be put a stop to right away.

        6. HR Mgr*

          You have allowed a level of boundary crossing that you now need to correct. You can be open that you have allowed a level of emotional that is not appropriate for work. Brenda needs to stop crying publicly at work. Brenda needs to stop expressing her upset about other people’s issues. This is important — and it is supportive to Brenda. She needs to learn how to be professional at work but you do NOT need to teach her how to manage her emotions professionally. You need to express the professional boundaries – and hold to them. If Brenda cannot be professional at work on a given day, she needs to go home. If that continues too long, then you have a productivity issue. You are not doing Brenda a favor by allowing this.

          1. Jules the 3rd*

            +1 If Brenda can not maintain her composure in the office, she needs to leave the office. You can help by making it easier to leave, including really examining how much of her work could be done remotely.

        7. Colette*

          The thing is, everyone goes through hard times. But Brenda is making her hard time everyone else’s problem and requiring them to tip-toe around her feelings, even though they might be dealing with issues equally tough without showing it at work.

          1. Delia*

            Right.
            Brenda doesn’t get to be the only one going through tough times. I think this really bothers me. I really struggle with a lot of stuff, but I sure as heck manage it so it’s not disruptive to others. It would be comforting often to get some support and have someone to talk to about emotions at work, but…not.
            It seems like everyone else has to alter their own behavior when internally they could be really struggling worse.

            It just seems like Brenda is being given treatment that is not being equally applied. I’m guessing many coworkers are struggling just because of her.

        8. Butterfly Counter*

          I do struggle, though, with how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not.

          I’ve done academic research on reactions from others to disclosures of trauma (ie. “This terrible thing happened to me and I’d like your support.”). When a person goes beyond empathy to having a reaction where the person disclosing information has to then comfort the one they were telling, we called it an “egocentric response.” They care less about the person telling the news than how that news affects them, or would if they were in the same position. Often, the trauma survivors found this reaction very unhelpful.

          1. Adultiest Adult*

            This. Also, as someone who works with trauma survivors, they often very carefully vet who they will share with, because they are NOT looking for an extremely emotional reaction to what they have to say. Brenda is not doing anyone any favors in this situation. And even in a field where we are all about mental health, it is expected that WE will maintain emotional control, because at the end of the day, it’s not about us!

          2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            Yes, this. My kitten died a nightmare-inducing death and I barely told anyone because if I did, THEY would start crying and I was in no way capable of helping them. They would even bring the subject up on subsequent occasions, saying that they had had nightmares about it. I would just say, right, so imagine how much worse it is for the one who found the dead kitten. The person to go to for your second-hand trauma is not the person who got the trauma first-hand.

        9. Rusty Shackelford*

          I do struggle, though, with how deeply she feels things in my own life that I do not.

          How she feels is not your problem. How she reacts, at work, is your problem. She can go home and sob over your sick puppy all she wants, but she needs to get a grip on her behavior at work.

        10. Venus*

          Out of curiosity, has Brenda been a lot worse in the past year while she works on her personal issues? Based on personal experience with someone who had a lot of personal issues, they had generally been a very good friend and someone that everyone wanted to spend time with. This sounds like your description of Brenda. Then they got really sick, and had to work on their mental health by revisiting some trauma from decades previous. This made them very emotional and it was difficult to be around them. I spent time together but had to limit it to what I could handle as their bad days were exhausting. I had to consider every word that I said for possible triggers. Some might wonder why I stayed friends, but I knew it was a health issue. They weren’t like that previously, and after a very long year of therapy they were much better, and after many years now things are better than we could have imagined.

          I am making a guess based on personal experience, so might be wrong, but I do wonder if this is a time where Brenda is mentally sick and needs more accommodations. Resetting a broken bone from decades ago is much more difficult than a broken bone now, and this is even more complicated if Brenda isn’t outwardly ill and is often the one who is the strength of the workplace community. There is the added complication that mental health is often improved with routine, so you don’t want to force Brenda to be at home all the time, but you might have to put some strict limits on her work. Same as you wouldn’t want Brenda with a broken bone to lift weights, you shouldn’t have Brenda carry any emotional loads because you want her to get better soon and not injure herself further. Maybe there are some tasks that she can perform better than others, and you can give her those instead?

      4. Tau*

        Oh yeah, my eyebrows went way up at that part. Especially because…

        I have some issues with excessive empathy involving mirroring emotions. It’s a bad thing. It’s a bad thing because it makes it way too easy to make *other* people’s problems all about *you* and what you feel. It can be an active obstacle to deeper interpersonal relationships, and I try to keep one hell of a grip on it and squash down any upset I feel that’s been triggered by other people’s upset or situations – and withdraw if I can’t. The fact that she apparently isn’t even trying, and the fact that this is coming up so frequently at work, makes me suspicious. I’m not saying she’s deliberately manipulating people… but she’s definitely not putting much work into *not* behaving in a manipulative way, if that makes sense.

        1. Parenthetically*

          “It’s a bad thing because it makes it way too easy to make *other* people’s problems all about *you* and what you feel.”

          HELL YES. I have had to actually audibly whisper to myself not to make it about my feelings when my husband is struggling with something emotional. This is not a positive characteristic, it’s something I have had to continually work on or I just become the emotional red sock in the emotional load of whites.

          1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

            Side note: I love that red sock in the emotional load of whites metaphor so very much, I may borrow it. That is eloquently put.

        2. emmelemm*

          I agree. A lot of people are jumping to say Brenda’s manipulative, clearly doing this all for show, etc., which is certainly possible but the most uncharitable reading of the situation. Ultimately, though, even if Brenda isn’t *consciously* doing this to manipulate people, it is manipulative. And just as we say “intention is not magic” – even if you’re not doing something with bad intention, you can still cause harm – Brenda *is* affecting and essentially manipulating other people with her actions.

          1. Poppy the Flower*

            This. She may not be doing it on purpose, but it still has to stop.

            As someone with a chronic illness, when people react this way to that information it’s at the least awkward. More than often it’s disruptive and can even get into the creepy side for me. And it’s one of the reasons I don’t disclose unless necessary or I know the person well enough to know they won’t make MY illness about THEM because that’s how it comes across 99% of the time. People are honestly welcome to have feelings about whatever they want, but there’s an appropriate time and place. Reflecting those feelings back on the person actually affected is not the way to do it (comfort in discomfort out).

        3. Delia*

          There is this great thing I read about the circle of empathy.

          Like if my father dies, and he is someone else’s best friend, the best friend would not come to me for support or to talk about how sad they are, they would reach out to another friend who was maybe the dad’s coworker, who should reach out to someone else further away from the issue. So that empathy flows out.

          1. Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived*

            I’ve heard this called “dump out, comfort in.” You process your own grief with someone who is probably grieving less than you, not more.

            1. allathian*

              Yes, this. Although with grief it’s hard to tell. I don’t feel like I’ve grieved yet, so I have no idea how I’ll react when it happens. I loved my grandparents, but when they died, they were sick enough that it was a relief for all concerned that they did in fact die. I felt like a fraud because I simply couldn’t cry at their funerals, except at my maternal granddad’s funeral when I was five. I don’t remember the crying, but I’ve seen photos from the graveside. Even then, I only knew him as a sick and grumpy old man who would literally roar at me and my younger sister for making the slightest noise when he was resting, so I felt nothing but fear for him. Now I do realize that he was like he was because he was in constant pain with stomach cancer, but that doesn’t help the frightened five-year-old I was.

      5. Massmatt*

        I really want to give Brenda the benefit of the doubt, but that line about her getting more emotional about the LW’s issues than the LW gets is telling.

        I had a coworker whose child was going through a life-threatening illness and a mutual coworker was like this. She’d talk and bawl at seemingly every opportunity, even calling her at home. My coworker realized she was having to spend her emotional energy consoling her COWORKER when SHE was the one with the child in the hospital, and told her to stop. Coworker sulked and sulked, and at one point said “No one understands the pain I’m going through”. In the presence of the mom with the sick child! It was clear to everyone the sort of person she was after that.

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, I bet that you and your coworkers were very careful not to share emotionally tough stuff with her anymore after that… If Brenda is like this, she’s most probably not nearly so adored as the OP thinks she is.

      6. MCMonkeyBean*

        I don’t think she’s *telling* people that she feels more deeply than they do about their situations. From the letter it reads to me more like her reactions to something OP may share with her are strong and then OP is judging for themself that her reaction is bigger than their own.

    6. Yorick*

      Even before the recent sobbing episodes, at least some of my adoration would have been a show.

    7. ThatGirl*

      I am deeply skeptical of anyone who calls themselves an empath — to me that’s code for serious anxiety and/or boundary issues. I am sympathetic to mental health issues, but part of being a working professional is not projecting your inner anxieties all over your workplace.

      1. beanie gee*

        In defense of fully functioning empaths, it’s quite possible to be an empath and not have serious anxiety and boundary issues!

        1. The Beagle has Landed*

          This. Many empaths function well in society without burdening others. In fact, people seek them out and the opposite may happen – they get burned out from being everyone else’s shoulder to cry on or venting receptacle.

          1. OP*

            YES. This would definitely be Brenda. And people definitely seek her out for a shoulder to cry on.

            1. Littorally*

              I hope that’s not going on right now! She’s failing to fully handle her own emotional baggage — this is not the time to be taking on anyone else’s.

            2. Dust Bunny*

              That needs to stop. She can’t function with her own emotions, never mind everyone else’s.

              Your office sounds like a very stressful place to work.

            3. Cordelia Shirley*

              OP, I’m just getting the sense you really want to be understanding of Brenda, but none of her empathy matters if she is disruptive in the office.

              She is most definitely affecting people’s emotion negatively and I really think you need to understand that. What she is doing is negative, not positive.

            4. JSPA*

              That’s also not her job (except where it is) though, right?

              All of this sounds more and more like a workplace with some boundary problems. Brenda may not be the sole cause so much as the nexus. But really, you may need to pull back on the whole “being an ear for coworker personal problems” default. That’s not ideally a work-colleague role.

        2. ThatGirl*

          I’m glad to hear that – and I’m going to assume you don’t sob at your desk/in public multiple times a week or tell other people how things in their life are deeply affecting you, or even go around telling people you’re an empath regularly?

          I think it might be like being vegan – there are the Loud Evangelical Vegans and the quiet ones who just do their thing without fuss.

          1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

            Also an empath. Sounds to me like Brenda has no control over her emotions and, as empaths, that is the FIRST thing we have to control or else we run amok.

            What we feel from (literally) everyone around us burns us out, big time. We cannot turn it off, we are constantly walking around feeling the emotions of others. And sometimes those emotions are completely overwhelming.

            Personally, I don’t mention this to anyone IRL. They are either skeptical or feel they are also empathic, not realizing there is a difference between truly being an empath and being someone who can have empathy for others. We can all have empathy for others, but we all cannot feel others’ emotions and feelings as if they were our own.

            Part of me feels sorry for Brenda that she has not learned to compartmentalize her feelings. There is an excellent FaceBook group called “The Empath’s Journey.” I really think Brenda would benefit from the advice there. Great group of folks, good sounding boards, and some folks who are super knowledgeable about compartmentalizing their gifts.

            1. Cat*

              So . . . most people actually do feel other people’s feelings, or what they perceive to be other people’s feelings. This is not a trait limited to only a few people.

              1. Jules the 3rd*

                enh. I intellectually recognize the feelings other people are having, by interpreting their body language / expression / words / situation. I feel things about their feelings, like sorrow that they’re stressed or unhappy, or joy that they have had something good happen. This is the standard, non-woo definition of empathy.

                Everyone I know who describes themselves as an empath embraces a different definition. The empaths I know state that they feel the actual feelings, as an emotional impact coming from the other person. As best I can tell, it’s like the difference between remembering a song in my internal jukebox (having a song ‘play’ in my head) and actually physically hearing the song. My internal jukebox (interpretation) is not as clear as hearing the song, and I can control my jukebox to some extent (Queen drowns out any earworm; my mind is a Good Omens car…), where empaths have a clearer, uncontrollable perception.

                As someone who has never had that empathic experience, I have a lot of skepticism about it, and I have totally seen it weaponized, but if it’s a shorthand that works for people, sure, I’ll go with it.

                1. Cordelia Shirley*

                  Yes, my friend who is a psychologist says most psychs thinks it’s actually a delusion, not necessarily bad, but delusion none-the-less.

                2. Hrodvitnir*

                  There are actually a couple of working definitions of empathy that encompass this. Most people experience both to some degree. Affective empathy is experiencing (what you perceive to be) the emotions of others, whereas cognitive empathy is what you describe.

                  I experience affective empathy pretty strongly, but as mentioned above that’s both a blessing and a curse and it’s on you to not make everything about you. If you experience little emotional empathy but cognitive empathy much more strongly, that’s not a lesser experience, and it also has its own pros and cons. (I am also compulsively analytical, so despite strong affective empathy can border on cold in some emotional situations.)

                  I am pretty uncomfortable with the idea of “empaths” and that most people don’t experience affective empathy. I am pretty confident most people experience to to some degree, and it’s not magical; it’s just our weird, complicated brains and hormones.

            2. Librarian1*

              “but we all cannot feel others’ emotions and feelings as if they were our own.” This isn’t actually true and it sounds pretty dismissive.

              1. Eukomos*

                Seconded, of course we all feel some degree of the emotions of the other people we’re interacting with. Someone who didn’t mirror emotions at all would probably be a psychopath. When you talk to someone happy you feel happy, when you talk to someone sad you feel sad. The degree that you mirror others’ emotions is different for each of us, and changes throughout our lives, so I’m happy to believe some people mirror much more strongly than others, but it’s a difference in degree and not in kind.

      2. EPLawyer*

        I am pretty empathetic. It helps in my line of work — family law. but even I don’t tell my clients I feel things better than they do. At BEST, I understand what they are feeling and really get WHY they are feeling what they are feeling. I don’t try to tell them they are feeling something more than they are. I don’t make it about ME. True empathy keeps the focus on the other person.

        I also had to learn how to draw boundaries because if I actually shared in someone else’s feelings ALL.THE.TIME. except on a superficial level, I would go nuts. Too much emotion is not a good thing. Brenda needs to learn boundaries. Her coworkers have the right to a drama free work place — her multiple times a day sobbing because of her feelings is bringing unneeded drama into the office.

        1. BeeKeen*

          All of that ^^^^^!! I also work in a law office and completely agree with what you’ve said.

        2. Third or Nothing!*

          I’m highly empathetic too and I deliberately chose NOT to go into a field that requires a lot of caring for others because I knew deep down that I’d bring my work home. I would have made a great therapist, if I had the ability to set better boundaries in my early 20s. I didn’t develop that skill until my late 20s, though, so I would have been a bad fit for that profession at that time in my life. It’s so encouraging to hear that there are people out there with the same levels of empathy as me who were able to be successful in an emotionally draining field.

      3. breamworthy*

        ThatGirl, I’m with you on this one. The people I know who are very vocal about being empaths essentially use it as a reason that no one else can have/exhibit any strong emotions around them because it’s too hard on them. Meanwhile, they are allowed to make it their emotions the centre of every situation. Ugh.

      4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        It’s not something you tell people. Either you have empathy or you don’t, and it’s very clear to all around, no need to say anything.

    8. SomebodyElse*

      Agreed… basically I would be saying the same thing as just about everyone else. “Oh poor Brenda, she’s going through such a tough time” as I walk away muttering about Brenda being a PITA and the manager who doesn’t do anything about it.

      I know this sounds harsh, but odds are OP, that someone on your team is doing/thinking the same thing that I just wrote. You have to get this under control or soon all you will be left with is Brenda after your team morale tanks and people are leaving.

      1. Ann Cognito*

        So this! I would be upset at my manager for not doing anything about the situation, while we’re all supposed to tiptoe around her, and be non-stop sympathetic.

      2. Temperance*

        Oh totally. I have a ton of empathy for the people who are probably extremely uncomfortable and walking around eggshells so not to set Brenda off on one of her public crying jags. And they can’t SAY ANYTHING about it, because poor Brenda is suffering and we don’t want to be insensitive to her.

      3. Cordelia Shirley*

        No, this is totally happening.

        It’s a bad work environment and your boss ignores it. Not good.

    9. Suzy Q*

      I would NOT want to work with Brenda in any capacity, knowing she might start crying at any moment. She sounds absolutely exhausting, and any warm feelings I might have had towards her would be dust after about two weeks of her behavior. I would avoid her and might actually end up being quite blunt with her if forced to work on anything together.

      1. I Need That Pen*

        This. I might even go as far as to break the cardinal rule of office life and tell my manager that I will not work with her knowing that I might upset her, whatever that meant. I get that some people just do not have the coping skills that others might – believe me that was me for a long time. But eventually I got to a place where I pushed back the box of tissues my supervisor handed before she started a “difficult conversation,” (or so she thought). As sympathetic as I would want to be, I would see myself growing impatient and I wouldn’t want to be THAT kind of coworker either.

    10. Sunset Maple*

      Yeah, I feel like LW desperately WANTS to like her and is trying to convince him/herself to do so, based on the way this letter is worded. LW, it’s okay to find Brenda exhausting! It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.

    11. Lena Clare*

      Yeah, Brenda is requiring others to do the emotional labour for her by absorbing her output.
      She needs to take time off.

    12. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      I think maybe it’s best to take OP on her word when she says everyone adores Brenda.
      OP should follow Alison’s advice regardless of how the co-workers feel.

    13. Sarah Sympathetic, but*

      I would agree that this is likely destroying some of your other employee’s mental health, whether they feel able to speak up about it or not!

    14. Three Flowers*

      Yeah…I’d be feeling a weird and uncomfortable combination of sympathy and frustration or stress from being around someone else’s emotional overflow all the time. She is making people’s work time and space tense and exhausting even if she’s been a great performer everyone liked. Past tense. Liked. Some of those relationships will not recover (which might say more about the coworkers than Brenda, but my point is that it serves nobody).

    15. TardyTardis*

      I would be avoiding her as much as I humanly could, because I would switch into ‘mom’ mode around her and end up stressing myself out and that wouldn’t help my work. But I knew she was untouchable for whatever reason, I wouldn’t complain about her to the boss, either.

  2. Detective Amy Santiago*

    I say this as someone who has dealt with mental health issues for 20+ years.

    Brenda needs some strong drugs. Or everyone else in your office does. I’m a fairly patient person when it comes to dealing with other people’s mental health problems and I would have snapped months ago. You are potentially harming the mental health of your other employees by allowing this to continue.

    Tell Brenda that she either gets her shit together and stops crying at work or she needs to work from home.

    1. Elle*

      Yes, same here. Also dealt with, and continue with mental health issues myself, and this would throw me over the edge. I’m also an empath, and I could NOT sustain this on a daily basis.

    2. Drew*

      IMO, this goes over the top. Brenda may in fact need medication, but that’s her doctor’s call, not her boss’s. Suggesting this to her would be an overreach. You can suggest that you think she should talk to a doctor but you can’t tell her what that doctor should do.

    3. Womanaroundtown*

      That was my first thought. Every time I’ve realized I need medication or med changes, it has been precipitated by crying at work (or in school, as when I became depressed during 1L, an already really awful year without the confusing brain chemistry…). Obviously not everyone is interested in medication (mental health stigma is real, on top of other reasons), but it changed my life. It’s helped my professional as well as personal life, and it stopped me from sitting at my desk with treats streaming down my face and no clear reason as to why.

        1. Susan*

          Well, if you had treats flowing down your face, people might be much more happy with emotional breakdowns! Your comment made me laugh!

      1. Threeve*

        It’s really, really hard to be a person who can’t hold back physical reactions to negative emotions. Before I got proper brain chemistry treatment I was taking benadryl at work to keep it together until I got home.

    4. Librarian of SHIELD*

      I think this is an important thing for OP to keep in mind. Yes, Brenda is clearly experiencing some mental health difficulties. But OP has no way of knowing how many of their other employees may have mental health issues of their own. Allowing Brenda to keep dumping her emotions all over the office could potentially be triggering reactions that endanger the mental health of her coworkers.

      1. OP*

        That’s a great point. Thankfully, Brenda does have a door she can close, and she often does. She lives close by as well, and sometimes takes a walk. She realizes that what she is going through right now is not normal for her, and I’m working with proving coping mechanisms for her in the moment when she is at work… and closing the door or getting out of there are both on the list.

        1. Rach*

          OP, if she has a door, how do people know she’s crying at her desk? There really are some boundaries that need to be set. There’s no reason people should know she’s crying when she has an office with a door!

          1. Joielle*

            Yeah, she should at LEAST be shutting her door whenever she’s crying. I went through a period of terrible mental health a couple of years ago but luckily I had an office with a door. I’m sure people knew something was wrong, but at least nobody ever saw me crying (which was multiple times a day at the worst of it!). She should be doing anything reasonably possible to avoid bothering other people, and shutting her office door and turning on music or white noise is a very easy step. If she’s not even doing that…. she clearly intends for people to see and hear her, or at least doesn’t care if she bothers people. That’s a problem! I’d have a lot more sympathy if she were at least trying not to disrupt the office.

        2. valentine*

          She lives close by as well
          She could work from home and pop in for the on-site stuff.

          You might want to examine how your adoration of her has stopped you shutting this down.

        3. Three Flowers*

          Then *mandate* closing the door and putting on some music if she feels a cry coming on! (Sidebar: if the door is closed and people know she’s crying, is she bawling at the top of her lungs??) And like Valentine said, have her work from home half days and walk over after lunch (or go home at lunch).

          OP, I think you need to approach this less as providing coping mechanisms (that’s what her therapist is for) and more managing the way she occupies space so her behavior affects other staff minimally.

          1. Poppy the Flower*

            “ OP, I think you need to approach this less as providing coping mechanisms (that’s what her therapist is for) and more managing the way she occupies space so her behavior affects other staff minimally.” spot on.

        4. Pirate Stick*

          Her door should be closed all the time she even gets teary-eyed so no one walks in on her.

          Also, you should NOT be doing the coping mechanisms. OP, your comments really concern me. You need to step back from Brenda.

          1. Courageous cat*

            Agreed 5000%. It sounds like OP is a little too emotionally involved in this herself for some reason, and is potentially enabling Brenda to be Brenda by working so sensitively with her on this.

        5. JSPA*

          How on earth is that not already the default? The idea that it has to be on a list is boggling to me. She doesn’t even have to make it to the bathroom to cry in private… she just has to default to closing the dang door. And your workplace is so up in everyone’s business, and so busy feeling feelings for Brenda, because she thrives on contact, that she keeps her door open while she’s having frequent melt downs? Do you not see that this is a problematic emphasis on the wrong set of needs? I get that having a job that’s focused on meeting the emotional needs of clients can skew one’s default. All the same, if I asked you–yes/no question–“is work most appropriately a place where multiple coworkers’ emotional comfort is sacrificed to one person’s need for human contact?” I’m hoping that, presented in those terms, you’d say, “no, of course not.”

          Brenda comes in, in the morning. Brenda closes her door. People come in when they have business for Brenda. Brenda goes out when she has business elsewhere. The door stays closed, otherwise. Brenda learns to self-regulate. The rest of your coworkers learn to cry on shoulders somewhere other than the workplace. Your workplace becomes more supportive by being more professional, and encouraging people to develop and model emotional resilience.

          This isn’t a sleepover or a summer camp bonding experience. It’s a workplace. It needs to focus on its function!

      2. Paulina*

        Yes, this. I’ve known a few extreme empaths myself, though not quite to this degree, and they’ve basically claimed the “emotional” ground away from everyone else. People around them have feelings and issues too, and need room for them.

        1. I can only speak Japanese*

          How are those people empaths? Sounds like they are the complete opposite…

      3. Bee*

        I was going to say this exact thing. I have a long history of depression that doesn’t surface at work (I’m known for being cheerful and bubbly!), but if someone was sobbing nearby constantly it would be very triggering.

    5. KimberlyR*

      Brenda definitely needs to consult her doctor or therapist (or get one!) She is making everyone around her do the emotional labor of managing her feelings, and that isn’t ok.

      LW, you are forcing everyone to work around Brenda and walk on eggshells around her (maybe not consciously, but definitely by implication) and I guarantee you have many dissatisfied employees. She sounds exhausting and I would dread interacting with her. I would be surprised if no one has started avoiding her, or interacting with her as little as possible, so as not to set off the waterworks.

      I also have mental illnesses (currently non-medicated and not in counseling) and she absolutely should be under a professional’s care if she can’t control what is happening. If she can control it, she shouldn’t do it. I am not suggesting that the LW tell Brenda to find a doctor, but she can definitely tell Brenda that she is expected to manage her emotional reactions at work better than this, and she can give information about any resources the employer has.

    6. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      Totally agree. It sounds really self indulgent to force everyone else to deal with your emotions.

    7. allathian*

      Yeah, this. Luckily my mental health has been reasonable most of the time, but even so, this would be extremely hard to deal with. Luckily my employer has an early intervention program to deal with anything that significantly impacts people’s ability to work effectively. It’s connected to our IEP and covers everything from substance abuse to anger management and burnout, etc. And managers absolutely have the authority to tell their subordinates to attend the program and to start the lengthy process of managing them out of they refuse. I work for the government so there are hoops to jump through, unless an employee does something criminal or particularly egregious.

    8. Frankie*

      100% this. I am a huge crier/empath/all the feelings and what Brenda is doing is really, really inappropriate. Part of managing the high empathy is learning boundaries, and it sounds like boundaries here are nonexistent. She is putting all of her emotions into the work space and making everyone else deal with it, which is really unhealthy, not just for everyone but also for her.

      Exploring whether prescription anti-depressants are for her, with a qualified medical/therapy professional, is part of her due diligence here, if she hasn’t done it already (and if she has, sounds like she hasn’t hit on the right one/combo yet). They aren’t a cure-all but when part of the issue is brain chemistry, they can provide a huge amount of emotional relief.

  3. Anonymous Poster*

    I wouldn’t be able to effectively work in such an environment. I’d feel for her, but it just is too much going on when I have work to do. What if I need to give comments back to her? What if I have a suggestion that runs counter to her? Is it worth bringing it up, or should we just go with Brenda’s ideas so we don’t have to spend the time with her to work through it? I’d feel for her, and walk on eggshells around her, and not want to collaborate with her.

    1. Fancy Owl*

      Reminds me of a housemate I had once. She wasn’t crying but she was going through a bunch of stuff and wanted to talk it out 24/7. It was exhausting. But I put up with it because everyone else seemed ok with it and I didn’t want to be a bad, unsympathetic person. Then, over time I found out that nobody else was actually ok with it either, it was just they also thought they were the only one who was bothered! We were all pretending to be fine with it because nobody wanted to be a jerk by speaking up. So, I don’t think Allison is off base to wonder whether Brenda is exhausting some of her coworkers but none of them wants to be the first to speak up about it.

      1. Fancy Owl*

        Whoops, this was actually supposed to be it’s own comment but at least it isn’t totally unrelated to yours!

      2. Caliente*

        This is interesting – back in college and after college I would always meet these people who just wanted to like…revel in their angst is what it seemed like to me. I could always have those angsty convos but only one per person. I get VERY sympathetic too, possibly even empathetic, but my thing is – one time. I cannot go through this with you a million times BECAUSE of the fact that I feel upset for you too, so please now that we talked about it take care of it and if you can’t, well we already discussed this, so…

      3. Artemesia*

        This seems right to me. I remember when my Dad died a family friend swooped in and dominated the evening in which I, my brother, his wife and my Mom grieved together. I was horrified by this jerk who had always been awful IMHO at family events but everyone else seemed to think him helpful. I later remarked to my SIL that I had had enough of him and she erupted in a torrent of angry agreement with me. I had assumed everyone else appreciated this guy — but not so much.

      4. Shan*

        I had a similar experience with a professor in university. She was a very emotionally… heavy person, who also gave off strong Kindergarten teacher vibes when teaching adults (this was a senior level course). Everyone seemed to like her, though, so I made it through the entire semester feeling like I was the only one who felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t until the following year when someone brought her up in another class and several other people started venting that I realised, no, we all thought she was emotionally manipulative and inappropriate, but felt unable to share that at the time.

        1. anon4this*

          I had one sort of like that too. He would literally go off on tangents DURING CLASS about how much he cared about us and wanted to be a mentor to us and “live on in our hearts”.

          Hilariously, this was a fairly technical accounting class — not exactly the kind of environment you’d expect to find deep emotional bonding between teacher and students…

        2. Mara*

          I was fooled by one of these in a grad school supervisor. She was so Caring! She Cared So Much About Her Students. As an undergraduate I loved her, and so did almost everyone else. The reality I learned as her grad student is that she actually wants the validation of being perceived as the Most Caring Professor, when in reality she’s completely self-absorbed. (Example: 1 hour meetings involve a 35-45 minute discussion about her / her life, 10 minutes where she wants to know personal details about your life, and the remaining 5-15 about the work with her being mostly disengaged). It was such a frustrating experience because she has her colleagues and administrators completely fooled.

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            ah yes, I had a friend who Cared Most Deeply about all her friends and wanted to fix us and our problems. She caused quite a few extra problems before I cut her out of my life.

  4. Mel_05*

    I think it’s possible that Brenda really is that well loved. I’ve worked with a couple of highly emotional people and most of the time they’re delightful and build up so much good will that when things go wrong and they’re a mess, all anyone wants is to help them.

    But, the best loved of the two is one who might sob at her desk a day or two out of the year, instead of several weeks. Obviously it *is* disruptive to be trying to help your coworkers while they’re trying to work.

    1. Washi*

      Yeah, this made me think of a coworker I had. She had worked for the organization for like 20 years and was a particular combination of wacky and charming. I would say not so much that she was adored but that she was a kind of organization mascot. She knew everyone, everyone knew her, and everyone had a story about her. She was so much a part of the institution that it was Not Done to ever seriously complain about her, even though she was actually pretty bad at certain parts of her job.

      I kind of imagined Brenda being part of the cultural fabric in the same way, where it would kind of break some norms to actually confront her about her behavior.

      1. fposte*

        People like that can also slip downhill for a while before anybody feels they can bring it up. Folks who’ve stayed there have accepted a certain level of emotionality as being Normal Brenda, so it’s not clear how extreme her behavior would have to be before it breaks that bargain.

      2. OP*

        I love the description of ‘particular combination of wacky and charming’. That’s awesome. Your take that Brenda is part of the cultural fabric is RIGHT ON. It definitely breaks the organizational norms to confront it. We’re too nice around here, most of the time. But we’ve got things to do and clients to serve, which is why I wrote to AMA. I appreciate the feedback.

        1. Archaeopteryx*

          As Stephen Sondheim told us, “nice is different than good”. Don’t get so bogged down by non-confrontational niceness that you enable a problem that really does need to be fixed for everyone’s sake.

        2. Hrodvitnir*

          Hi OP, thanks for engaging so much!

          I wanted to chime in that I see you’re grappling with less than generous interpretations of her actions in this thread. I just wanted to say that I believe you that she’s a genuinely kind person who is very likeable. But nonetheless, your description of the current level of putting her emotions on others (significant sobbing at her desk is 100% putting her emotions on others), and her projecting strong emotions onto you, is still super problematic.

          If she is a genuinely kind and understanding person who is working on this, that just means that significantly upping the ante with expecting her to control her outbursts has a chance of working! Many people here are obviously recognising a pattern of toxic behaviour they’ve seen in the past, but it doesn’t have to be like that for the main drive of the comments to apply – she needs to get it together much more and much faster than is currently being allowed, and your drive in setting up guidelines for her behaviour should privilege a good environment for her colleagues, with good coping mechanisms for her being secondary.

          Good luck!

  5. Bella*

    was this a pre-COVID letter?? I feel like this could be doubly, triply uncomfortable now because of what crying potentially means for spreading a virus. Even if you’re wearing a mask, you’re no doubt breathing in and out much more deeply for extended periods of time.

    My only other suggestion is getting her a room with a closed door. If she can do her work fine and not be heard by anyone, then maybe it can be accommodated like that.

    1. Observer*

      My only other suggestion is getting her a room with a closed door. If she can do her work fine and not be heard by anyone, then maybe it can be accommodated like that.

      OP, if this is possible, I think that a combination of this and part time working from home would be extremely useful everyone. She still needs to get a better handle on her emotional regulation, but it will take the edge off some of it for everyone else.

      1. Christina*

        I’d wonder how she’d respond to this suggestion because I wonder if part of the problem is that she wants people to see her upset/ask what’s wrong/engage with her. The letter-writer already said she doesn’t want to work from home because she’s alone a lot (though being single doesn’t mean by default you don’t have friends or a social circle or are alone?). I get wanting to be around people at work, but she kind of has to pick either getting some control of her emotions or being around her coworkers, because she can’t have both.

        1. SunnySideUp*

          She may well have to get used to WFH at least part of the time. Covid is getting worse, not better.

          (Also, um, really? You’re a social sort of empath so you get a pass?)

        2. AvonLady Barksdale*

          I wonder too. An office is a great option for someone who is dealing with a lot and wants to be free from the questions/wants to be able to cry in private. But someone who relies on work to be social and who expects people to engage will fight tooth and nail against this suggestion. And, quite frankly, part of me says it should be presented as a decision, not an option, no matter what her reaction. If she’s an empath, she should be considerate of the feelings of people around her, right?

          1. Working Hypothesis*

            If she’s a decent colleague, she should be considerate of the feelings of people around her… whether or not she’s even an empath! This kind of insistence on making her feelings into everyone else’s problem because she doesn’t want to be alone is not okay. She may be a charming woman, she may be a genuinely kind one in other ways, but insisting on working at the office in a public environment while knowing that you cannot control your outbursts is not a kind thing to do.

        3. Artemesia*

          People who make this much of a show without seeking out privacy of the rest room or stairwell or a walk around the block are seeking attention. The manager must insist that this public crying stop — find a private spot AND seek medical/psychological help and/or take a leave.

        4. Beluga Sarah*

          Right – you don’t get a pass because you like being at the office. You have to act appropriately or not be there.

      2. Yorick*

        This is what I was going to suggest as well. If she really needs to be there for the busy period, give her a private space to cry in. If she can’t have her own office, find a private place that you can ask her to go to when she’s feeling upset. No one can work effectively while trying to ignore someone sobbing nearby.

        1. A*

          Yup. And while I’d usually get a little prickly about someone getting an office over others because of things like this…. in this case, I’d be willing to bet all of Brenda’s coworkers would support that idea. I can’t imagine anything worse than working in the immediate vicinity of someone openly crying… repeatedly.

      3. OP*

        She often does close her door or run to the restroom – especially if she is crying audibly at all. Thank goodness for that. She tries to stay at her desk, though, because she does try to work through it.

        1. Mad Harry Crewe*

          So instead of her being a bit less productive and leaving her desk so that she can cry in private, she’s offloading that unproductivity onto her coworkers?

          OP, you clearly like Brenda a lot. There are a whole lot of people here saying that what she is doing would harm them, their work productivity, their relationship with her, and their relationship with their management, since management has allowed this to go on for months. It’s true that none of us work with her, but are you really saying that your whole office is a special breed of people who are simply immune to all of these harms?

          I’m reading into the gaps a bit, but based on the comments I’ve seen from you, you seem really resistant to a different take on Brenda’s behavior. You only respond to rebut advice or say ‘don’t worry, we’re already doing that’. I’m still worried, because despite everything you’re doing, this is still happening to, at, and around the workers in your office.

          Brenda’s tears need to go. Maybe that means Brenda goes home sick when she goes on a crying jag. Maybe that means Brenda goes on leave while she gets a handle on her rough spot. That’s for you and her to work out. Your compassion is very kind. Please make sure to save some for your other employees.

          1. Beluga Sarah*

            +100000.

            The OP is not looking at this realistically. There are 100’s of comments here talking about how this would be awful, but doesn’t seem to want to listen.

            I get you REALLY like her. Then help her, by setting boundaries.

          2. Courageous cat*

            Yes. I couldn’t agree with this entire comment more. OP’s compassion is not the right thing to lean into here – this is a workplace, not a friend group.

        2. Greige*

          Attention seekers definitely exist, but I would trust your instincts on that. I’d expect other behaviors to come along if this were attention seeking, like lots of complaining or references to her problems. I can definitely see her trying to push through it rather than potentially create a feeback loop by going to her crying spot when she’s just a little teary and may be able to stop it by distracing herself.

          Assuming this is a genuine issue and not attention seeking, I’m not sure what behavior would make it appear genuine to others. If she left the room all the time, they could just as easily say she was malingering. You can’t win that game.

        3. Yorick*

          If she was actually using her office door appropriately, you wouldn’t know she was crying that much.

      4. I'm just here for the cats!*

        Or if a private office isn’t available is there someplace in the office she can go to gain control. I wo see if she’s having anxiety attack, which can come out as uncontrollable crying. Especially if she knows her crying is affecting her co workers it can start a loop. I had some problems in another job where I would get really upset. We had a few quiet rooms that were used mostly for nursing mom’s but could be used by all. It had a comfy chair and you could dim the lights. If the OP’S office had some place like this maybe it would be a good place for Brenda to go for a few minutes. Also, does your company have an EAP. May e there’s something that’s offered that can help her.

    2. A Simple Narwhal*

      I think a room with a closed door is a good option, I just hope it wouldn’t be viewed as a reward for bad behavior if offices are limited and there would/should be other people in line for one before her.

      But ignoring that I think this is a good option if she has to be in the office.

      1. Wintermute*

        the ADA stamps down HARD on that “reward for bad behavior” argument that’s always trotted out to oppose any accommodation in general. A private office could very well be a reasonable accommodation in this case, and they’re obligated to try to find one.

        1. A Simple Narwhal*

          If it’s an ADA accommodation then it’s absolutely not a reward for bad behavior! But if it’s just an attention-seeking behavior that needs to stop (as others have suggested), and then someone else loses out on a perk because of it, it’s just something to keep in mind.

          1. Sacred Ground*

            And how does one determine what’s an accommodation for mental health and what’s a reward for bad behavior? Seems entirely subjective, as in, MY mental health requires accommodation vs. SOMEONE ELSE’s bad behavior gets rewarded.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Accommodation: The situation is eased for the person in some manner. If it’s not eased the other ideas might become apparent and the next ideas work. (I am thinking along the lines of a person gets a specific chair for accommodation. While the chair is great, something is still not quite right. Ah,ha! A keyboard tray clinches the setup.)

              Rewarding bad behavior: You just get more of the bad behavior.

              I’d like to toss out the idea that while everyone seems sympathetic to her situation, I don’t think the sympathy is helping her.move through stuff. I think the sympathy is magnifying the problem making it even harder for her to process through. This is slightly different than rewarding bad behavior, because this could involve a positive redirect of some type. So the concern is still there but it is displayed in terms of thinking of an appropriate suggestion to redirect as opposed to expressions of sympathy.

              A friend had a serious loss in her life. The kind that weighs heavy for a very long time. So newspaper headlines, large funeral etc. (Sorry have to vague.) Sometimes I think all this stuff makes grief harder because the loss becomes bigger and bigger. People were very kind and sweet. Friend had all kinds of help pouring in. After a bit along came expensive trips and such– big ticket items.
              Somehow this skewed Friend’s thinking. Four years later Friend had turned into a person very few people could deal with. We’d call it a sense of entitlement or controlling others and other expressions like these. I think what actually happened is because of all the TLC, Friend never really processed her grief. It was as raw as day one. She was hyper-sensitive and when provoked, instead of crying, she lost her temper. She frequently lost her temper. And her demands were not reasonable, the demands showed very little understanding of what people actually can do for another person.
              Friend’s friends had effectively built a bubble around Friend. Life in the bubble had nothing to do with what real life was like. The bubble perpetuated a slew of misconceptions.

              I kind of see this employee in a bubble where sympathy is the norm and no one is saying to keep working at things and life will get different.

              Here, somehow this employee has gotten the misconception that she can load her tears and fears into her briefcase/totebag every morning and bring them all to work for others to look at and get involved in. Life does not have to be this hard but right now she seems to think that life is super hard.Which brings me to another misconception, “We have to keep working no matter what!” No. We don’t, not if we need serious help. It sounds to me like she is barely functioning.

              Work is clearly an interruption in whatever life stuff is going on. She might be better off taking a leave of absence to regroup. What she has done so far is not working.

        2. fposte*

          I don’t think it’s clear that Brenda needs a reasonable accommodation to do her work, though; she’s fine with the current arrangement.

          1. Observer*

            Then step one for when she is in the office is that she MUST close the door, assuming that she can keep the crying quiet. She may not like it, but really at this point people need to not have to see it.

            1. allathian*

              Yes, this. Brenda’s crying needs to stop. If she can’t stop it, she needs to hide it from her coworkers. Crying at the office is distracting. Here we are asked to take letter writers at their word, but I’m really not convinced your other subordinates are as unbothered by Brenda’s behavior as you seem to think. Have you asked them? In a way that makes it clear that they’re allowed to express their honest opinions and that you’ll keep those opinions confidential, especially from Brenda? If there’s a strong culture not to bring up issues lest they rock the boat at your office, as there seems to be, it’s entirely possible that they think it’s not worth bringing up because nothing will be done.

        3. Avasarala*

          Why should this fall under ADA? Constant crying is not an acceptable option–even if she has an office, others still have to work with her and feel they can’t because of her emotional outbursts. It’s no better than “Jim is going through a tough time, let’s give him a private office because he yells and slams things.”

          1. Wintermute*

            Emotional dysregulation is a symptom of many ADA-protected conditions, and by disclosing that she’s working with a GP and a therapist about the issue she’s disclosed a disability. The degree to which is is acceptable would rely on how it impacts “bona fide job requirements” not just how people around her feel about it.

            Now, the ability to work with coworkers is an important job requirement, but the first step is to try with things like a private office. The law takes a dim view of companies that throw up their hands and say “we’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas!”

      2. Bella*

        If she’s making this big of a scene, I doubt anyone would really resent it. It’s a favor to them by now

        But at this point Brenda is a definite problem, while resent *may* occur – but won’t definitely. I’m usually on the sign of progress for the best solution rather than throwing out the best solution because of possible perceptions of “fairness” (comes up in Work From Home discussions all the time!)

    3. MissMeghan*

      I was thinking the same. If she can’t be moved to an office with a door, does the office have any small conference rooms or private use rooms where she could listen to music, do some yoga or whatever calms her? Do you think if she removes herself for 10 minutes to re-center and stop the tears that would help at all?

      1. MissMeghan*

        Honestly, that might be nice for everyone to have a space during the busy season to take 10 minutes to themselves, not just Brenda. Especially with the state of things right now.

    4. Katiekaboom*

      Yeah, her own space. or maybe some white noise machines, which frankly, I think every office should have. Especially if they are open plan offices.

    5. Rach*

      Or even a more secluded desk if it’s an open floor plan. As part of my accommodations at work, I was able to get a more secluded desk and one of those cubicle canopies (it took some rigging as I have a desk with partitioning connected to other desks) but it worked wonders. Not only was I less anxious because I was more secluded, if I did have a panic attack or cry, people weren’t right there to see it. The lack of privacy is one of the biggest problems with open floor plans!

    6. Student*

      Yes. It’s clear that her employer values her but the behavior is disruptive, so why not minimize the disruptions? Feelings happen, and they’re not really under conscious control, but if the standard is that Brenda heads to the conference room/shuts the office door/otherwise goes into a private area when she’s crying, and arranges for someone else to cover notetaking etc, that seems like a compassionate way to give her some space without driving everyone else off the wall.

      If I were her manager, I would also mention COVID, saying that with the stress everyone is under right now, the crying could become overwhelming to other stressed people. I get the feeling that Brenda would probably burst into tears to learn she had been disruptive, and this is a way to say “No, you need to change” without also saying “and the last three months have made everyone in the office miserable.”

      1. OP*

        We’ve definitely talked about that. When many of us were working remotely, she remained on site because she lives so close. She knows that her emotions have been disruptive lately, which is why she closes her door, goes to a more private location, or takes walks. We do have a contingency plan in place (me!) when she needs to step out when taking minutes in meetings, which is helpful… but this was set up originally in case we get long-winded and she needs to pee! :) But it has been helpful, lately.

        1. Zillah*

          When many of us were working remotely, she remained on site because she lives so close.

          wait, what?? distance from the office doesn’t really have anything to do with working from home during a pandemic – I’m really confused here.

          1. Kella*

            I read this as, she was one of the only people working at the office and she was an easy option for that because she lives close by.

          2. Armchair Expert*

            This sort of makes sense. If you say “well, two people have to remain in the office to cover tasks that can’t be done remotely” it’s logical to pick people who can walk to work rather than taking public transport, which is a higher risk activity.

    7. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I was working with a person who needed help via the NGO I work with. She was in hospital and depressed about it, and crying a lot. She had to wear a mask in hospital, but managed to ruin them with her tears. Since she had a private room, I suggested that she simply took it off to cry.
      (She has since managed to resolve her issues and leave the hospital. Happiness all round)

  6. Eillah*

    My heart goes out to both OP and to Brenda. Before I was treated for my depression, in my early 20s, I was Brenda. AAM’s advice is good, and I’m sending best wishes to you both.

    1. OP*

      Thank you for your kindness. She is an amazing human, and I am just trying to maintain a balance of compassion and professionalism, which is a bit of a tightrope some days. :) Regardless, the feedback from everyone is very helpful.

      1. Jady*

        I just want to voice a quick thank-you for being so kind, compassionate, and accommodating of her mental health issues.

        Behaviors like Brenda’s would get a lot of people “laid off”/ fired. And trying to deal with these issues while hiding it from everyone around you out of fear just adds an entire layer of stress and difficulty.

        The world would be a much better place with more people like you.

        When you do have this conversation with Brenda, keep in mind to ask her what she thinks would help her. Putting myself in her shoes, I would be so concerned about people/my boss thinking I’m taking advantage.

      2. Courageous cat*

        You’re being too compassionate, IMO. I totally get why you would be in many regards, but this is a workplace, not a friend group. You shouldn’t be holding back on providing this structure/discipline/etc for your employees based on whether they’re an “amazing human” (which is phrasing that seems a bit more emotional than most would use in a workplace, also).

        I dunno, something about your responses here makes me wonder if Brenda feels really empowered to have these crying issues because of your handling of her.

      3. Ellie May*

        I’m unsure OP is maintaining a balance between compassion and professionalism – it sounds like all professionalism has been shelved and the office works around Brenda’s moods. This isn’t something I could tolerate having come from a childhood homelife with similar dynamics. Be assured that some people are avoiding Brenda and some are looking for jobs elsewhere. You are sacrificing office productivity to Brenda’s personal problems and others working for you deserve leadership. Brenda needs help and hopefully a leave of absence will enable her to focus and pursue it.

        1. Wintermute*

          Hard agree here. Given my family history I would be on my way out the door already, I’m just not up for reliving that dynamic again, where only one person gets to have any needs.

          The fact this is HR makes it even worse, because if I was in ANY department of the company I would be really hesitant to bring things to HR that should be brought to them, and when I go right to a lawyer or the government Brenda’s behavior would be exhibit #1 as to why I should be excused from the normal requirement of making them aware first.

      4. Glitsy Gus*

        It is kind of you to look out for Brenda, and I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t. However, just to put it out there, I have anxiety that I have to take medication for. If I were around someone all day every day having the kind of reactions that Brenda was having I would be freaking out and would probably have to up my medication significantly to deal with it. Also, being anxious, I probably wouldn’t say anything to anyone until I was pretty much on the verge of a breakdown.

        I’m just saying this because, while I’m sure your coworkers do want the best for her and have sympathy, this could be affecting the people around her way more than they are currently letting on. Even if there was just the option of letting Brenda go to another room or something while she composes herself may help, but asking others to just sit there while another person regularly bawls at her desk is really asking a lot.

  7. Four lights*

    You said Brenda doesn’t like that people are walking on eggshells around here. I’m a person that has difficulty with strong emotions and have sometimes had a lot of crying fits. What helped me was people ignoring my crying so I could push past it and we could deal with whatever the issue at hand was.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Someone getting a little teary in a meeting, sure! But it’s not reasonable to expect people to work around someone sobbing at their desk multiple times a week.

      1. Fieldpoppy*

        Yeah, I’m a cryer, generally (or I used to be, until I found the right blend of age/seasoning, meditation and SSRIs), and I would be profoundly uncomfortable with someone sobbing so frequently. I know she’s getting care, but I echo the comment from others that say I think stronger meds are in order. I remember telling a colleague casually about 20 years ago that I cried pretty much every day and having her look at me and say “you know that’s not normal, right? that’s a sign of depression.”

        And sure enough it was. And now I cry maybe once a month. Maybe.

        So for the LW, making it clear that this isn’t something that *should* be accommodated is, I think, important — sometimes when we are stuck in this kind of pattern we want to normalize it, and it’s important to hear that it’s actually something that needs more work. I really feel for her, and I’m sure she’s lovely — but I agree 100% with Alison that this requires something more than just letting it go on.

      2. Four lights*

        Sorry, I was a little unclear! I guess what I mean is that often times when somebody’s crying and upset we think the way to help them is to be sympathetic and let them cry and listen to them, when it could be that maybe the opposite will help them.

        1. JSPA*

          Sure, especially if they say, “don’t mind me” or “medication side effect” or whatever.

          But the “we all downplay it” solution only works with full commitment from Brenda and from OP. And I’m just not seeing that, here.

          Brenda has a door she has to be reminded to close, a house close by / in walking distance that she’s not working from for part days, and a manager who’s disproportionately worried about one “admirably sensitive” report’s feelings vs the needs of running a functional office that’s not an emotional minefield. That’s nothing like, “minimize and ignore.” That’s feeding the fire.

        2. Courageous cat*

          But the burden shouldn’t be on other people to ignore something on a very regular basis that’s typically pretty disruptive. This isn’t the other employees’ problem and we shouldn’t shift the onus here.

    2. KayDeeAye*

      Exactly. Being upset or even teary-eyed from time to time is FINE, and often having ones coworkers pretend not to notice is the perfect anecdote.

      But who can be expected to ignore someone sobbing *aloud*? Even once would be hard, but repeatedly? It’s just not possible unless one is a robot.

      I mean, Brenda is clearly going through a rough time, but watching her and hearing her would be incredibly stressful and distracting and upsetting for everybody else. It can’t go on this way.

      1. Batty Twerp*

        The volume would definitely be an issue, especially in an open office. It’s been three and a half months since I last heard The Cackle and I can’t imagine Ugly Crying would be a more pleasant experience.

        I’m a frustration crier, but I take myself off to the loo if it’s a bad episode until I’m settled. Happens about every 2-3 months if that. It never gets mentioned – which might be because I’ve sat at my desk with eyes streaming due to extreme allergies (First time was due to a V.I. Visitor wearing rocket fuel as a perfume I assume. All other occasions have been during spring). Since I usually have antihistamines that take 20 minutes to kick in (can’t take anything stronger, I’ll fall asleep!) people accept that crying doesn’t always mean I’m upset, so I can “get away” with some genuine silent tears at my desk as well. The key word here is ‘silent’ – I’m not disturbing anyone else. It’s *embarrassing* to be called out for having wet cheeks and a soggy tissue in my hand regardless of the reason. If it’s not embarrassing to Brenda, she’s attention-seeking.

      1. Four lights*

        Oh good, I’m glad this was helpful. It could also be that her counselor has some other strategies for her to try. Like I responded up above it’s hard because sometimes our instinct to comfort somebody isn’t necessarily what they need.

      2. JSPA*

        Actually, if it’s an accommodation / health issue, she needs to tell you. You can’t ask.

        Again, this time con brio: you are the HR manager. You are not the emotions manager for Brenda. Your job is to be clear on what the office needs from Brenda. And to be open to suggestions for accommodations.

        Brenda is the emotions manager for Brenda. And the healthcare manager for Brenda. Her job is is to suggest accommodations that will help her meet the requirements that you’ve outlined.

        Don’t make her do your job, of deciding what the office needs. Don’t try to do her job, of coming up with solutions for what Brenda needs.

    3. The Other Dawn*

      I’ve managed a crie. It’s really hard to ignore that and act as though it’s business as usual, especially when you can hear the tissues being pulled out of the tissue box all day long, hear the constant sniffling, and sometimes hear breathless sobbing. If it was just her tearing up in a meeting for a minute or two I could ignore it and finally learned to ignore that completely and not acknowledge it, but tears and sobs for the entire duration of the meeting just can’t be ignored, and I’d argue they shouldn’t be ignored.

  8. Observer*

    People can be both uncomfortable with a person as well as really caring for that person. We had someone in our office years ago who everyone loved. (People still talk about her…) The same people often wanted to tear their hair out about her because she was also loudly emotional and had some other quirks that could be problematic.

    That’s not to say that the OP shouldn’t take the advice here. They absolutely have to! Because as much as people probably do love her, they also know that this can’t keep up and SOMETHING has to change. If you are transparent with people and kind while being firm, people will be very happy that you are taking action.

  9. The Original K.*

    Yeah … I couldn’t deal with Brenda bawling at her desk on the regular. I couldn’t deal with it under the best of circumstances, and right now we are ALL living under COVID-19 trauma. Everyone is dealing with that, plus whatever stuff they’ve got in their personal lives (everybody’s got stuff), and they’re staring down a busy work season AND they have to deal with Brenda regularly weeping “for no reason?” It’s too much. I’m sure she’s stressing out the team. It can’t go on.

  10. On that Academic Job Market Grind is Employed!*

    OK, this might be a bit harsh, but the reminds me of Vanessa Bayer’s Emotional Vampire character in the What We Do in the Shadows TV show– in that that character “feeds” by draining everyone’s energy through sympathy/pity. This would make me very tired and I would certainly avoid Brenda as much as possible…

    1. EddieSherbert*

      I also thought of that!!!

      And regardless of Brenda’s intent or reason (or lack thereof) or anything…. it *is* emotional draining to be around that level of crying all the time.

  11. Saberise*

    The fact that OP and Brenda work in HR may make it more likely that people won’t say anything about the consistent crying. How do you complain to HR about HR? And in a sense could make the optics even worse.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yep, there’s definitely going to be some “if HR can’t even deal with this, how can I expect them to deal with my own complicated situation on my team?” fall-out.

      1. OP*

        That’s a great point, Alison. I don’t want this to undermine my relationships with other departments.

        1. Library Land*

          There’s a very real chance that it already has. You’ve talked about how you adore Brenda and you’ve been defending her a lot in the comments (not a bad thing), but then you also say that it’s having an affect on the offices work, her coworkers are on eggshells, and that previous to this she would have what most consider overly emotional responses to work issues. And your both in HR.

          This next part is strictly my thoughts, hopefully it’s not true to your org. It’s all based on your description of her before this bout of emotional issues, not even going to what it would be now:

          I’ve had to deal with some very heavy issues at work and I could not have done it with someone who would 100% inject their emotions into my issues. I was barely holding on, I couldn’t bear the emotional labor for Brenda too. If I knew this was how she was, and that you, as her boss, thought she was a great employee, that you had no issues with her responses, I wouldn’t have been able to come forward. I would have continued to suffer under an extremely abusive boss for who knows long, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to trust HR as a mostly impartial resource. I wouldn’t have told you this – why would I? With the power differential, my word would mean nothing against your revere for Brenda. If you had asked me at any point if I adored her, I would have lied and said yes, of course.

          I’m not asking you to fire Brenda, or take disciplinary action at all, but I am asking you to consider that while she may be a great person, she may not be a good HR employee. You and Brenda may have already damaged many relationships beyond repair, you two may end up being a reason a good employee leaves. Maybe not. It’s not for me to say, but I really hope you’ll think critically about this.

        2. Glitsy Gus*

          This was my thought. I have anxiety and PTSD, as I mentioned above. Being around someone loudly sobbing on the regular would really cause my own mental health issues to go for a big loop and causing issues that I may need to request accommodation for myself to get back on track. That said, especially if the person crying were in HR, I would be really hesitant to say anything, partly as one of the symptoms of anxiety and also because I wouldn’t really know how to handle having HR being the one I needed help with.

        3. Happy Pineapple*

          You have already undermined your leadership skills to your department by allowing this to continue for months. From the outside it looks like favoritism; Brenda can behave however she likes, and everyone else must tiptoe around her. If Brenda were my coworker I would start job hunting immediately for my own mental health, especially since management has shown that only her comfort matters.

      2. HR Exec Popping In*

        Yes. Because you are in HR you have an even higher obligation to handle this. If it helps, re-frame the situation. If this was not your employee, but a client’s situation, what advice would you give them?
        The fact is, you are not doing Brenda a kindness by allowing this to continue. You indicated that she is getting help, but that is clearly not enough. By helping her understand that the current situation can not continue as it has you will be encouraging her to take the actions needed (whatever those may be) to change her behavior. She most likely needs to go out on a medical leave of absence. And any decent mental health provider would encourage that if they knew she was breaking down and crying at work that frequently.

    2. Pink Glitter*

      OP… please please please tell me she does paperwork processing or other “back end” type work and is NOT liaising with employees who are going through their own difficult situations? At one of my former work places, we had an employee whose husband was murdered and another employee who was charged with child abuse. Our HR person had to be capable of handling sensitive situations like this without letting their own feelings interfere and it does not sound like Brenda is capable of that.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        Especially if she feels “things about MY life that I don’t even feel” as per the OP. That’s a recipe for making someone else coming to her with a problem all about her feelings and needs instead of theirs.

        1. Anonymous Penguin*

          Yes, THIS!! It sounds like her coworkers are announcing sad/serious life news (“I’m getting a divorce/received a serious diagnosis/dealing with a family emergency”) and Brenda is making it all about her with her over-sized emotions. Then the actual employee affected has to console her and/or be ignored. And if they aren’t upset by the events then they’re being gaslit about their own feelings! (“It was a mutual breakup.” “No, this is SOOOO horrible for you that my heart is breaking for you!!!”)

          Look, my mom used to do this to me. Was she legitimately sad? Yes. Was it completely inappropriate to call me crying about how sad my husband’s deployment made HER? Yes. Brenda is being inappropriate in her behavior. Her feelings don’t matter.

  12. The Grey Lady*

    I’m an empath, and so I definitely understand Brenda a lot. But there are resources out there specifically geared towards empaths that help you manage these emotions so you don’t end up breaking down all the time like this. In addition to being disruptive to others, it’s incredibly unhealthy for Brenda.

    Books I would recommend are I Don’t Want To Be An Empath Anymore by Ora North and The Empath’s Survival Guide by Judith Orloff

    1. Eillah*

      Thank you so much for both of these reccomendations, I think these books would be very good for me…

    2. pancakes*

      Isn’t the idea that an empath is extraordinarily perceptive about other people’s emotional states? Being an empath seems wildly at odds with making one’s coworkers this uncomfortable. I can’t comment on whether these are useful books, but empath seems more like a marketing term rather than a framework for understanding or managing one’s mental health. It’s a self-designated label, not a condition or a diagnosis.

      1. Elaine Benes*

        I think the idea is that an empath is so perceptive they feel other people’s emotional states as if they are happening to themselves, and that can lead to overwhelm. And when people are overwhelmed, it’s sort of an inherently selfish state- the focus is on the self. I think she’s likely very good at not making people uncomfortable (thus being well-liked) right up until she tips over into overwhelm, but she likely feels she has no control over when she gets overwhelmed (which isn’t necessarily true but she believes it is, evidenced by this being a pattern).

        1. Dust Bunny*

          If she’s crying this much, she’s getting tipped over more or less constantly, and is probably not as good as she and the LW think she is at not making people uncomfortable.

          1. Altair*

            It may be a feedback loop. She gets tipped over into being overwhelmed, and knowing that now everyone is distressed by her crying increases her distress and feeds into her crying.

            This is, needless to say, a hypothetical explanation, not an excuse nor justification.

            1. snoopythedog*

              Woof. I get feedback loops like this with my asthma.

              Start asthma attack–> nearly settle it–> get pissed/upset that I’m having an asthma attack or that it derailed something I wanted to do–>restart up asthma attack.

              In scenarios with emotionally charged feedback loops, sometimes the best bet is just to throw the towel in. Give up on returning to a normal state and take yourself somewhere safe to just ride out the attack. OP- it sounds like you’ve given Brenda the ability to walk away if needed, but it might be helpful to be reiterate her ability to just leave (go home, don’t try to return to work, let the whole thing settle down and break the feedback loop) for the rest of the day/week.

        2. Avasarala*

          Honestly that’s what it sounds like to me: “they feel other people’s emotional states as if they are happening to themselves, and that can lead to overwhelm.” It’s like the thing is happening to them. But it’s not! Other people feel differently about different things! and also it’s not happening to you!

          It’s very helpful to the “empath” to frame it as “I’m so perceptive and special, I understand people’s emotions so well.” But the actual emotion that person is feeling is “awkwardness.” What the “empath” is actually doing is transplanting themselves as the subject of the story and experiencing the emotions as themselves, not as the other person. It’s actually quite self-centered and unperceptive. Someone says they got married, you imagine yourself getting married. Someone says they got hurt, you imagine yourself getting hurt. The other person and their actual emotions never factor into it at all.

      2. Jill*

        Not necessarily, being an empath isn’t like you just mirror the personalities around you, it’s feeling that and then having your own response to it. So if she’s feeling their “uncomfortableness,” but it’s making her own anxiety too high to mitigate it, plus if that logic worked she’d just mimic the uncomfortable. She might be an empath, idk, but she definitely has high anxiety.

      3. Annony*

        It isn’t necessarily at odds. She can be aware that people are upset and uncomfortable but still unable to control her crying to make them more comfortable.

      4. Mazzy*

        This is how I feel. I went through a phase where I read a lot of spiritual type books and I remember one on people with psychic abilities and it oozed of “we are very special, no one understands us.” Not that the actual people need to be like that, but I disliked the book for that reason. I just checked my shelf and I must’ve thrown it out so can’t check the title. I felt it diminished the emotions of “regular” people who can also be very sensitive. I went from intrigued to annoyed by psychic/sensitive people.

        Also, this doesn’t have a place in the workplace. I don’t want my coworkers feeling my pain and asking me questions to diagnose me because they say they’re an empath.

        1. The Grey Lady*

          I can’t speak for Brenda, but empaths don’t go around diagnosing people with anything. It’s just a state of being, and it doesn’t disappear just because you don’t like it.

      5. The Grey Lady*

        Uh, being an empath is not a self-designated label. There is science to support it. It has to do with the neurons in your brain–specifically mirror neurons–and the way your nervous system operates.

        1. Come On Eileen*

          So I’m curious about this! It doesn’t seem to be anything that a doctor would diagnose — it’s not a disease. So wouldn’t that necessarily mean a person would take it upon themselves to use the label if they felt that it fit?

          1. The Grey Lady*

            Well, most people who are empaths don’t really know they are. And no, it’s not a disease, and it’s not something you’d go to the doctor for. It belongs more in the field of psychology.

            If you think you may be an empath or something like it–due to feeling very strong emotions or something–there are books written by psychologists that you can read and symptoms you can look out for. The symptoms are very specific–not just general stuff like “you feel things,” because obviously that could be anything or anyone. It’s more nuanced than that.

            An empath is basically the exact opposite of a sociopath. A sociopath feels nothing for no one. That part of their brain just does not work. On the flip side, an empath’s brain works in overdrive in the compassion department. They feel a little too much.

            1. pancakes*

              Sociopathy is not in the DSM-5, and neither is being an empath. (The nearest thing to sociopathy is Antisocial Personality Disorder). I don’t doubt for a moment that people who write about empaths at length have nuanced understandings of just what that means, but it doesn’t appear to be officially recognized as a psychological condition in the US, or elsewhere to my knowledge.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              No, empathy is the ability to relate to people and understand their point of view. When training to work as a volunteer in an NGO, I was trained to identify this and to rein it in if it was preventing me from actually being of help. Like, people come to me for help. I do need to show empathy with their situation, but I mustn’t cry, because then they have to comfort me. I show empathy and then kick into action getting the problem solved.

        2. pancakes*

          I haven’t found any support for this besides a handful of articles written about or by Dr. Orloff, who refers to researchers discovering that certain brain cells are responsible for compassion, but doesn’t link to any studies or other materials. She also writes, “Empaths know well that what happens to the earth and sun affects our state of mind and energy.” I don’t see any particular reason to believe this mindset is any more grounded in science than Myers-Briggs testing.

        3. fposte*

          There’s science to support introversion, too, but it’s still very much a self-designated state.

        4. RagingADHD*

          Um, “mirror neurons” are when a subset of the same neurons fire when watching an experience, as would fire if you had the experience yourself.

          You aren’t actually mirroring the other person’s feeling. You are connecting what you see to a similar experience of your own, and reliving your own feelings about it.

        5. JSPA*

          Mirror neurons explain (e.g.) why we flinch when someone in a movie pricks their finger, or when we see someone nearly get beaned with a baseball.

          This can create a basis for greater empathy, but mirror neurons themselves do not “make empaths.”

          Furthermore, while there’s evidence that people on the spectrum have mirror neurons that respond primarily to their own experiences and actions, rather than observed experiences and actions, it’s still decidedly unclear what the causal relationship is. Some people presume that the mirror neurons must be defective; other people argue that the differences are attentional, and upstream from the mirror neurons (that is, you don’t “mirror” what you’re not paying attention to…which is of course also true for people not on the spectrum).

          Or to put it another way, it’s not a function of one’s mirror neurons whether you identify enough only with yourself; also with a specific person you like; with any person; with any primate; with any mammal; with anything that has a head and limbs; with any moving animal; with any living organism; or even with a rock or lump of clay, as far as flinching if they’re hit.

          There’s a lot of formulating far (!) in advance of data on this topic.

          Maybe links to follow (with a warning that the field can be thoughtlessly “othering” to…well, to a lot of us.

      6. Temperance*

        In my experience, plenty of people who call themselves “empaths” suck the energy out of any room because they have outsized reactions to how other people are supposedly feeling at any given moment.

      7. Cat*

        It’s also at odds with feeling things about someone’s life events that the person doesn’t feel themselves. That is by definition not feeling what the other person feels.

    3. OP*

      Thank you, The Grey Lady. :) I will suggest these to her – I may even read them myself to see if I can gain some understanding of what it’s like to live in her head/heart.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        Great. :) Just to be clear, the one by Ora North is a tad woo-woo and spiritual in some parts, but I still enjoyed it because it had solid advice on empathy. The other one is written by a doctor and is more scientific. So, I’d say read whichever one is more your thing.

  13. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I don’t work there, I have no idea who you are, and I don’t know where you work.

    But I can confidently tell you that not everyone “adores” Brenda at your organization.

    The employees who don’t care for Brenda won’t say anything because they will look like a monster and a bully for being annoyed by someone who is constantly in tears.

    Think about it. If someone is constantly upset and crying, how much can you really communicate or effectively accomplish with this person?

    1. SunnySideUp*

      And how much work is Brenda getting done on the days she’s sitting, sobbing, at her desk? Not as much as everyone else, I suspect…

      1. we're basically gods*

        There’s been a couple of days (as in, twice in the past year) that I’ve had to leave work early because I was getting hit HARD with grief and knew I wasn’t going to be much good for anything for the rest of the day. I wasn’t even crying, just dissociating badly, so it wasn’t like I was disruptive, but it still DEFINITELY impacts how much work you get done.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I agree. I have worked with people like Brenda and most people just PRETEND to adore the Brenda because they realize that’s what is expected of them in the office. Everyone adores Brenda, so I must adore Brenda or people will come after ME.

      Eventually some of your employees will hit the perfect nexus between having a trusting relationship and being fed up with the Brenda status quo and start having an honest conversation about what they think of her. Then it will get around like wildfire. No one likes Brenda. They are just afraid to say they don’t like Brenda. The emperor is naked.

    3. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

      I think it’s telling that OP knows the right thing to do by the rest of the team but worries about being “cold.” Whether OP realizes or not, and whether it’s Brenda’s intention or not, her crying interferes with everyone’s ability to conduct themselves professionally in the workplace. OP’s whole letter is an example of that – the question isn’t “how do we handle this,” the question is “how do we handle this without being heartless.” The whole dynamic is around managing Brenda’s emotions, which OP realizes can’t continue but has become accustomed to doing.

    4. Prairie Fairy*

      Seriously! There’s a perpetual victim/highly-sensitive person in my office that no one will outwardly criticize for fear of looking heartless; but, in private, it’s quite clear that she annoys many people and her emotions are an impediment to getting effective work done. I imagine most of Brenda’s coworkers feel like this, too! For me, one bright spot of all the workplace changes COVID has necessitated is not having to deal with this person every day!

    5. Space Camp Counselor*

      Yes. This. This kind of emotional outbursts *multiple times a day* (?!?!???) would come across as manipulative to me.

      1. Mazzy*

        I have to agree. At the very least, other people are going to be thinking “I went through something worse and don’t cry” and it could start a bunch of gossiping that you are not aware of

    6. SMH*

      I second your thoughts loudly! I sat by someone who would have crying fits on the phone because of drama with her adult daughters/husband and she was always the victim. Listening to that was unnerving because it was too much drama, too much emotion over nothing, and I am not a person who expresses emotions especially full on sobbing so it was very uncomfortable. Of course I didn’t believe I could complain because who complains about someone who is clearly upset? Either way coworkers feel trapped and it is not acceptable behavior in the workplace. If she was yelling all day, even when talking about something mundane it was full on yelling, no one would put up with it. Crying is the opposite but still a huge impact on those around them and just as draining.

    7. Hope Springs*

      I’ve never understood the concept of claiming to adore coworkers. I’ve worked places where people where given this kind of put on a pedestal, bordering on mascot status and without exception they were the least productive people on the team. No one should have to walk around on eggshells at work and beyond normal courtesy no one should be made to feel responsible for the feelings of their coworkers.

      1. Pommette!*

        Yes!
        I like and respect almost all of my coworkers, and feel something bordering on genuine friendship for a few. In all cases, I’m happy for them when they share good news, and try to be supportive where appropriate… But I can’t say that I’ve ever *adored* any of them. They’re not my pets, nieces or nephews, beloved elders, crushes, or idols. Adoration is not warranted.
        I’ve had the displeasure of working with mascot people before (what a great description!). They were emotionally intense people who made everything personal, and made all workplace interactions about their feelings (their own feelings about their colleagues, their colleagues’ feelings about them, their feelings about their colleagues’ feelings about them…). It felt like being held hostage by toddlers. Exhausting and unnecessary.

    8. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I would be that monster. I have no poker face and with someone like this, I would not be able to hide my annoyance. I used to work with a woman who would sometimes get irrationally angry if I asked her a question. I wasn’t accusing her of anything, or pointing out a mistake. I was asking clarification questions for work I was completing. When she would get that way I would walk away and let my manager know what happened. We all have bad days and I’m sympathetic to people with mental health issues, but it’s not fair to your co-workers if you’re not willing to seek help and find ways to deal with your emotions so you can act professionally.

      1. Temperance*

        Same. I would probably go out of my way to avoid her, frankly.

        If she’s that ill that she can’t control herself, she likely needs FMLA to deal with her issues. I know it’s “busy season” coming up, but she doesn’t seem to be all that helpful, and I can’t imagine that her presence is anything other than distracting.

    9. irene adler*

      Yes!
      In fact, they will find ways to avoid interaction with Brenda-even if it is detrimental to the work task.

    10. Sparkles McFadden*

      Agreed. Most people are probably, thinking “Not this again!” whenever they’re just trying to get their work done. They will do their best to work around Brenda, which may affect their own work output. Plus, they’ll know their manager thinks Brenda is a wonderful person, so they just have to suck it up. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that some of Brenda’s coworkers are searching for other jobs.

    11. Zillah*

      Agreed. I once worked with someone who described herself as very empathetic who I thought was widely adored because she seemed to know everything about everyone. It later came out that while some people really did adore her, many people felt very uncomfortable with the way she subtly pressured/manipulated people into opening up with her about their issues or something else + the way that she made their issues all about her. People didn’t say anything because they felt like everyone else – especially the higher ups – liked her.

  14. Kalros, the mother of all thresher maws*

    I feel for Brenda because this sounds like a difficult way to live, but “empath” to describe an outsized reaction to other people’s lives isn’t accurate. Feeling things about your own life that even you don’t feel is, by definition, not empathy. I’m glad to hear she’s seeking care, but if she really struggles to keep her emotions under control in the workplace, maybe “she’s social” isn’t a good reason not to pursue a partial work-from-home arrangement for her. It may not be her preference, but you can’t structure your workplace around managing Brenda’s emotions. It’s not cold and heartless to tell her that you have to look out for the rest of the team.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      “Feeling things about your own life that even you don’t feel is, by definition, not empathy. ”

      That bothered me too – she sounds like the manager in a letter from a few months ago who was critical of that LW because the LW wasn’t upset all the time over this or that. Brenda seems to be borrowing reasons to have emotional outbursts/overflows. I would be pretty irritated if she was acting out her emotions to my life situations and it’s probable she’s not only doing this to the OP, unless her coworkers have reached a point where they aren’t talking to her about non-work stuff at all.

      It kind of doesn’t matter if she’s doing passably good work if she’s also not able to control her emotional state more effectively at work. If it’s possible to offer Brenda a leave of absence for at least a few weeks so that she can do whatever she needs to get some control back, that might be best. But something has to change because that office environment sounds like it’s probably tense even on Brenda’s ‘good’ days.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        I would argue too that someone doing good work includes generally being able to be worked *with*, which is the opposite of what Brenda is doing.

      2. IndustriousLabRat*

        I LOVE this statement:

        “Brenda seems to be borrowing reasons to have emotional outbursts/overflows. I would be pretty irritated if she was acting out her emotions to my life situations”.

        It strikes me in a really profound way. I’ve dealt with a Brenda at work, at a tough time in my life (sad/difficult relationship/health combination situation; I had a secret spot behind the big air handler unit out back that I could flee to with a decoy clipboard on the rare occasion that I needed to grumble and scuff my feet in the sand and cry frustration for a few minutes with the excuse of ‘checking the pressure gauges’). Our workplace Brenda was going through some Similar Things of her own that she was not shy about telling me, her sort of colleague at her very new job, and I made the fatal mistake one day, when she was really melting down and I was feeling sympathetic, of telling her vaguely and with no additional detail, “I understand; I am dealing with something similar, I hope it gets better; trust me it WILL get better” And from that point I could not get her out of my office as she had meltdown after meltdown, frequently telling me that she felt SOOO HORRIBLE FOR WHAT I WAS GOING THROUGH”. Like, WHUT!? Stop projecting!! You’re not only making things worse, but there’s something profoundly insulting about theatrically taking on my burden that I never asked you to shoulder, have 90% under control, don’t actually want to talk about, making it all about you, making ME feel guilty about YOUR reaction to it, and really disrupting my work flow as you wail about all of it in my office with half the staff sideyeing through the window. One of us was mortified. It wasn’t Brenda.

        “Borrowing reasons” is a brilliant assessment of how an emotionally unstable person can justify their emotional instability without taking personal full responsibility for the actions, and effects on others, that come as a result of it.

        And the second half of Wanderer’s quoted bit- I have the same gut cringing reaction when someone offers to ”Pray for me”. Nope. I do not give others permission to take an unsolicited emotional investment in my life. It’s infantilizing and patronizing and intrusively intimate.

        My work-Brenda ended up being let go before the end of her 90 days. It was a huge relief.

        OP, I suggest that next time, whether it’s this afternoon or tomorrow or 3 days from now, that Brenda starts getting visibly emotional, you could kindly but firmly invite her to go for a breath of fresh air with you, and while you are outside, set a line-in-the-sand , this-is-not-optional boundary for the level of composure that needs to be achieved before she returns to her work station. There are lots of wonderful suggestions on here from so many posters and all I can add is that you will be doing your other employees and colleagues a real service by taking swift action to remove the drama from their work environment, especially with a busy season coming up, while you explore long-term strategy like physical quiet space.

        1. Courageous cat*

          “I do not give others permission to take an unsolicited emotional investment in my life. ”

          This is a fantastic sentence as well. Some of you guys are absolutely killing it w/r/t eloquently explaining exactly why Brenda’s behavior is so offputting. I’m impressed!

    2. Mama Bear*

      Maybe working a set on/off schedule where she’s at home part time will give her a break from being near people and feeling so deeply. People can also be encouraged to put her on an information diet if news about one’s personal life sets her off.

      Brenda should also be encouraged to take a walk, go to the restroom or otherwise excuse herself when she really can’t control her tears. Teary eyed is one thing. Ugly cry in the middle of the office is another, and it would be better for all for her to step out.

      Also, while part of her work is minutes, there are ways to do so remotely. The federal government often takes meetings over conference calls and Skype/Teams and there are ways to record them if necessary. I think she could do more at home than it initially appears with some accommodations – which I think are justified here. Even if people do truly like her, it would be hard to see someone cry frequently.

      There are any number of things that could be a trigger for her – anxiety, depression, rejection sensitive dysphoria…I’m glad she’s getting help and I hope that she starts to see results of that help soon.

    3. Victoria*

      Yeah I don’t want others “feeling things strongly” about me or my life. That would make me uncomfortable and I would avoid this person.

    4. Cat*

      Also, this workplace sounds like a Covid nightmare. Don’t let people come to work during a Pandemic just because they want social contact! Do your meetings via Zoom!

      1. HR Exec Popping In*

        That struck me as well. Our entire HR team is working remotely with some minimal exceptions and in those cases, they come in only for when they need to be there. Otherwise the work from home. Even the receptionist.

    5. Spencer Hastings*

      “ Feeling things about your own life that even you don’t feel is, by definition, not empathy.”

      So true! We talk about advice column fanfic, but Brenda is engaging in her-own-manager fanfic.

    6. allathian*

      This! It’s unfortunate Brenda’s suffering so much, but her suffering can’t be allowed to make everyone else suffer, too.

  15. Lynca*

    Brenda sounds like my mother. I love her. I love her sense of humor and she is a nice person.

    But I don’t love how she will overwhelm you with her intense emotional responses to anything negative and how emotionally manipulative she will get if she feels wronged. I deal with it because I love my mother and understand she is struggling with her own mental health. But your employees should not have to deal with that in a workplace. It wears out the best of us and I would not be surprised if your employees were afraid to speak up because it would set her off.

    1. Moms, Am I Right?*

      This hit me hard. My mother and I are very, very distant because of this. I realized at some point that I never wanted to tell her anything bad that had happened to me because she managed to make it entirely about herself and how upset it made her. When I told her something that had happened years earlier and she started crying about how bad she felt that I didn’t feel I could tell her, that was my breaking point.

  16. LDN Layabout*

    ‘A self-described empath’

    I’m sure one day I’ll meet or read about someone who calls themselves an empath who isn’t ridiculously emotionally exhausting but it hasn’t happened yet.

    Whoever’s let this go on for so long is not doing Brenda or anyone else in the organisation any favours.

    And here’s the thing, Brenda might not be able to help the tears, but Brenda clearly does not have any sense of appropriateness or boundaries connected to her behaviours otherwise she’d be trying to ‘soften’ them e.g. going to the toilet if she really can’t keep from sobbing, keeping a tissue nearby while crying ‘oh it’s just allergies’. That’s the scary part of her behaviour.

    1. Miss May*

      I genuinely cringe when people use the term empath. It is 100% for the reason you listed– I have yet to meet one that isn’t completely emotionally exhausting. And empath or not, societal norms are /a thing/ and crying at your desk isn’t a good look. Especially because the crying at the desk is GOING to make people avoid her and then work suffers.

      1. merp*

        The crying at the desk is just so wild to me, for the exact reasons you said. I went through a few months where I was emotionally distraught a lot of the time, but I either worked to compartmentalize it for another time, or, when I couldn’t do that, I found somewhere more private. I know not all workplaces have very easy solutions for this (I worked on a college campus, so I just had to go outside and wander for a bit) but at least in the bathroom, it would be understood to be private and no one would feel the need to intervene.

        I mean it wouldn’t be great to constantly be sobbing in the bathroom either, I feel like there may have been a letter like that, but it’s better than at her desk!

      2. The Grey Lady*

        I’m an empath. Maybe you should read the science about it, first of all. Second, I do not 1) emotionally exhaust others (I feel things deeply, but keep it to myself), 2) or cry at my desk. Actually, I have never cried at work in over fifteen years of working. I appreciate the judgment and stereotyping though.

        1. Dancing Otter*

          I don’t think it’s the BEING an empath, so much as TELLING everyone one is an empath. At length. Frequently.
          Someone upthread likened it to militant vegans as opposed to those who just eat what they eat with no preaching.

        2. Temperance*

          I’ve honestly only seen stuff on people who call themselves “empaths” from sources that are heavy on the woo and have no basis in solid research.

        3. Grapey*

          If people can hide emotions by “keeping it to themselves”, then maybe people ARE exhausted by you but are also…keeping it to themselves?

          1. Wintermute*

            Bingo, it’s not something you can really call someone out for unless you’re fed up enough and have no desire to preserve any relationship with and tell them to “get down off that cross the rest of us need the wood”.

            So you just avoid when you can, vent to your friends when you can’t avoid, and generally suffer in silence.

        4. Paulina*

          I see the problem being when it’s used as an excuse, especially for lacking basic self-control and courtesy. That’s not how you’re describing yourself at all.

          What I’ve experienced from the aggressively empathic is that they’re completely centering their emotions, to the extent that others get swamped or are expected to be stoic to deal with them. Others’ sensitivity to emotions is ignored or treated as unimportant, which I expect would be a big problem for other empaths.

        5. Hrodvitnir*

          I’m sure this is a difficult thread to read, but it would be good if you could share some articles if there is real research into being “an empath” (vs experiencing empathy).

          If I can be bothered later I might have a look myself, but there being at least one MD in the world who buys into it and some books =/= solid scientific backing.

    2. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Thank you for this. I recently worked with a self-described empath who claimed we were exactly alike. She swore she could tell what I was feeling, and the intensity. I got daily texts and IMs, offering advice or support because she was an empath and just knew these things. I couldn’t block her on work platforms, but ignoring her was still stressful. Even though I wasn’t reading her message, I knew why she was sending it. She got far more things wrong than right, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her.

      This person wasn’t as tearfully disruptive as Brenda, but she did talk freely – in staff meetings, no less – about her empath abilities, her anxiety, and the medications she took.

      1. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Oh my, I couldn’t deal with someone constantly telling me what I was feeling. lol, I have RBF so they would be wrong so often.

        1. The Rural Juror*

          There’s a person like that in my group of friends who I keep at an arm’s length because they do that kind of stuff. I occasionally have to use the “what an odd thing to say, I don’t know what gave you that impression” line from reading this blog. Maybe if I say it enough she’ll start to realize I don’t enjoy those conversations where she’s trying to tell me how I subconsciously feel. I’m not that oblivious to my own feelings! Geez!

      2. Working Hypothesis*

        You’re nicer than I am. I would’ve told her *exactly* what she got wrong. All of it. Maybe after enough of being told she wasn’t as special as she thought she was, she’d put a stop to that nonsense.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          I was on a short-term project and she was one of the client’s team leads, being direct wasn’t an option. Instead, I said I appreciated her caring about me and it seemed to make her happy, so I considered it my daily duty. If she referenced her thoughts again, I just smiled and nodded, and got on with work. But she was a handful.

        2. LunaLena*

          I dunno, I had an ex who thought he could always sense my moods and feelings – he thought we were soulmates and our connection was so deep he could feel what I felt. I eventually had to block his communications because, months after we’d broke up, he would incessantly email and IM me that he could “tell” that I was “sad” or “missing him,” and if I responded that he was completely wrong, he insisted that I was just denying my feelings like a stubborn little kid who didn’t want to admit that the adult was right (if I didn’t respond, it was because he was right and I didn’t want to admit it). People have a remarkable way of finding ways to twist things around until they’re not wrong.

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        She sounds like this woman who came to my house once. She was vaguely related to a friend and so was invited along. She claimed to be clairvoyant and asked what my horoscope sign was. I said if she was clairvoyant she should be able to tell me what my sign was! She then tried to guess and got it right on her -eleventh- guess. As soon as I said “yes”, she said “I KNEW IT”. Sure, then why didn’t you say that first guess? She then rolled off a list of attributes for my sign, some of which are true, and I admitted as much, but then said, but those traits are all traits I learned from my parents who both happened to be a different sign (and their sign was nothing like their personality).

    3. Jaybeetee*

      I feel mean saying it, but I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to people referring to themselves as “empaths” – just in terms of my personal life and people I’ve met, people who referred to themselves as such always seemed pretty self-absorbed and, well, not that empathetic.

      1. Nope Nope Nope*

        You just hit the nail on the head! I know several people like that who are pretty self-centered, but talk a lot about how they care so much about others and do everything they can to help others. It’s kind of exhausting.

    4. AvonLady Barksdale*

      Alllll of this. The person currently in my life who identifies (loudly, I might add) as an “empath” is exhausting and draining.

      I have no problem with someone crying. I have been through periods myself when I couldn’t keep the waterworks in check. I’m probably projecting here, but the crying is not the problem, it’s the added element of ensuring everyone else had to deal with her crying too.

    5. AGD*

      I’m willing to be open-minded, but this whole ’empath’ thing sounds a lot more like Internet personality quizzes than actual psychology. When I hear that from someone, I just assume that at the very least I’m going to have to help them through some bad days and also shrug off their attempts at asking me intrusive questions.

      1. Tex*

        I’ve met a handful. They’re the polar opposite of how Brenda is described – quiet, incredibly perceptive (they just *knew* things) and actually rock solid people that kept their own counsel.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this. I’ve met a couple of these people, too. They projected a sort of serenity and calm that I’ve otherwise only come across in people who meditate a lot. After spending some time with them, I’d go away refreshed, while Brenda sounds absolutely exhausting to deal with.

    6. Space Camp Counselor*

      I was in a long term relationship with ‘A self-described empath’. It was so tiring to never be able to just feel my own feelings without him going on and on about how it impacted his ’empathy’. I instantly space myself from anyone who says they are an empath now.

    7. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      Indeed.
      I’m someone who feels other people’s feelings strongly, the “emotional leaks” affect me a lot.
      And to be honest, that is my problem to fix. And I mean problem. I have to control myself around others and find strategies to handle this. I don’t go around shouting this to the world. I work on it on my own or with professional help.

      1. LDN Layabout*

        This is what I’d expect an empathetic person to do, really. Surely if you’re someone who picks up on people’s emotions…you’d realise that seeing someone in this much distress is in itself distressing?

        1. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

          Yes!
          And if I feel for them, I want to make *them* to feel better, not me. Me crying doesn’t help the other party at all.
          It definitely happens that I “center” myself too much in an effort to seem/be understanding but that too is my cross to bear.

        2. Sacred Ground*

          Which is why an excess of empathy leads one to self-isolate. Isolation brings depression. The awareness that ones depression brings others down further isolates.

          A healthy empath is one who consciously maintains strong boundaries between their own and others’ emotions, and an awareness of the difference. It takes a constant effort even if one knows how to do it or why it’s necessary.

          Most people, empath or no, don’t really do any of this. We just have our thoughts and feelings without examination and therefore without control.

      2. Tenebrae*

        Right? I wouldn’t call myself an empath because that’s too sci fi/superhero-y sounding to me but I’m definitely a highly empathetic person. It’s a nightmare. it’s unpleasant for me, it’s sometimes unpleasant for the other person and I don’t think it’s ever actually been helpful in interacting with someone. I try to rein it in as much as I possibly can.

    8. Case of the Mondays*

      I am definitely an empath but I don’t go around telling everyone that. Most people can read a sad story in the news and think “oh that’s sad” and move on. I read a sad story in the news and I physically feel the emotional pain of the person experiencing it even if I don’t know them.

      I have a friend going through a terrible surprise divorce. Most people say “oh that sucks, he’s a jerk.” I was her sounding board immediately after and I absorbed a lot of her pain. I was legitimately depressed for several days later, imagining/feeling how she was feeling.

      I fully believe people can be empaths but that doesn’t give them license to dump their emotions on everyone else. I just privately mope about it.

      On the flip side, I also share in people’s joy too which can be lovely!

      1. The Grey Lady*

        Thank you for the sensible comment, finally. I agree with what you say. I’m an empath, but do not emotionally dump everything on others or intrude into their personal and emotional lives. I’m sorry if some empaths act that way, but there’s really know need to say you know what all empaths are like just because you’ve met one.

        1. I can only speak Japanese*

          I don’t think anyone is trying to hate on actual empaths. But we’ve apparently all met someone who was a self-proclaimed empath (whether that was true or not) and exhausting.

      2. ThatGirl*

        I believe that you are a sensitive, caring person, for sure. But your example of feeling the emotional pain of someone in the news — that’s my problem with it; you don’t know if it IS their emotional pain. It’s what you/your brain is imagining or interpreting as their pain.

        And again, I think it’s great that you can put yourself in others’ shoes, but you can’t (nobody can) truly know you’re feeling the exact feelings of another person.

        1. The Grey Lady*

          It’s really not kind to tell another person that they’re not feeling what they think they’re feeling.

          1. Alexander Graham Yell*

            It’s funny, this is actually my problem with some of what OP talks about with Brenda. That her emotional reactions to OP’s life are bigger/deeper than OP’s own. I think that’s the frustration many of us are experiencing with this post – that Brenda seems to imply, though her experience of other people’s pain, that they are not feeling *correctly* or *enough*. And it feels a little invalidating of their actual experience.

            Also, Mondays, your post reminds me of a joke by Daniel Sloss about vegans – how he hates *Facebook vegans* (aka the ones who talk about it all the time and talk down about every other life choice that isn’t vegan), and how “Facebook vegans are the reason idiots like me think they hate vegans.” Thank you for reminding me that my issue isn’t with empaths, it’s with people who talk themselves up so much for being empaths that they think they know my emotions better than I do.

            1. The Grey Lady*

              I didn’t get the sense that Brenda was trying (whether purposely or not) to invalidate other people’s feelings, but maybe that’s how it seems from OP’s perspective.

              Side note: I love Daniel Sloss.

              1. Alexander Graham Yell*

                I don’t think she’s trying to, but I think that’s what a lot of us are reacting to – even if OP doesn’t feel that her feelings are being invalidated, it would be good for her to keep in mind that other people on the team might.

                Re: Daniel Sloss – He cracks me up, I quote him waaaaay too often! Hahaha

              2. LooLoo*

                Yeah, I don’t get the sense that Brenda is telling people they should be more happy or sad. More like OP comes in late and tells Brenda they got a flat tire on the way in to work. OP feels irritated at the event throwing their day off.

                Brenda, on the other hand, gets upset (perhaps because to her, this would be a big deal) and spends a lot of time worrying about her own tires, is her AAA membership still valid, does she have a good phone charger in her car so she could call AAA if she did get a flat, how would she handle getting a flat tire, etc. Her upset is focused on her, not on how the OP feels.

                I have a coworker who is similar to the above, and it’s clear they’re a very anxious person, but they don’t project their anxiety on to me, if that makes sense.

          2. ThatGirl*

            That is, fittingly, more or less what I said, isn’t it?

            You know what *you’re* feeling. You don’t know if it’s what *the other person* is feeling.

          3. Heather*

            Isn’t that what the self-described empaths in this thread are doing? Assuming that they know and feel others’ feelings?

          4. Wander*

            Do you think the person in the news story would appreciate you telling them you can feel how they’re feeling? You can’t possibly know how they’re feeling. Is it kind to tell someone you know how they feel because you read an article?

            1. Case of the Mondays*

              I said I keep it to myself. I would never tell someone grieving that I know how they feel. I can tell you though that I feel that type of issue much more strongly than most people. I don’t necessarily feel how they feel. I feel how I imagine I would feel if that happened to me. Trust me, I don’t enjoy this. I wish I could stop it. I avoid a lot of stuff to prevent it from happening. But, I’m not going to stop being a support person for friends and family just because it will make me feel bad for awhile after.

                1. The Grey Lady*

                  I don’t go around telling people I know how they feel, so I don’t really see your point.

          5. Eleanora Pilkington*

            Oh my God, stop being ridiculous. It is PERFECTLY fine to tell someone that they cannot feel exactly what YOU PERSONALLY are feeling. Feelings are personal.

          6. Wintermute*

            If someone said they can read a newspaper headline and know what the people involved are thinking, you wouldn’t hesitate to say “no, you can’t, you’re not psychic, you know what you think they are thinking” and that’s precisely the same here. What people are saying is that you’re not actually feeling the emotions of the people involved, you are projecting yourself, with all your own pychological stuff going on, and putting yourself in their shoes, and feeling how you imagine that person would feel.

            It’s a subtle difference, but far from academic, because the people involved in the story you’re reading about have their own pasts, internal life, and no two people feel the same to the same situation.

        2. Case of the Mondays*

          I should have worded that differently. I feel how I would feel if it had happened to me. You are right that I don’t know how the other person is actually feeling.

            1. SadieMae*

              This might be relevant: I hadn’t heard the word “empath” used to describe this phenomenon (I thought it was more like “psychic”) but – my husband and daughter both are wired so that if they see someone being embarrassed, even on TV or in a movie, they actually have the physical experience of being embarrassed too. Heart racing, flushed skin, twisted stomach, the lot. It’s actually acutely uncomfortable for them to watch a scene where someone flubs a speech or similar. They are both very low-drama people and generally they go with the flow – neither of them would announce something like “I’m an empath so I can’t watch this!” but they will sometimes quietly excuse themselves from a situation where they’d observe something like that. Whereas I can see someone being embarrassed and feel for them mentally/emotionally, but I don’t have the physical reactions, so it’s not uncomfortable.

              1. SadieMae*

                Just realized I wasn’t clear above: I don’t think my husband and daughter are psychic! I meant that, until I read this threat, I thought the word “empath” meant “psychic” – that an empath claimed they could literally feel your feelings even from far away, etc.

                Now that I know that it can just mean having an intense, sometimes physical reaction to the pain someone else is displaying, I understand more clearly.

              2. Avasarala*

                I feel this too, but I think this is a much more common phenomenon in the human experience than the label “empath” and the assertions of “being special” suggest. After all that is why love songs and sad plays and thrilling movies exist–they try to get you to feel those emotions. A great many people are sensitive in this exact way, and it doesn’t give them license to act like Brenda.

      3. OP*

        Thank you, Case of the Mondays. You seem to have Brenda pegged; she feels the emotional pain and feels the joy too. Until these last few months, she had more control over the outward expression. I am grateful that she’s getting some help.

      4. Third or Nothing!*

        Agreed. I am the same way. I have read heartbreaking stories in the news and sobbed about them for at least a couple of days. But it is my issue to deal with and shouldn’t be foisted off on anyone else, except maybe my husband who sincerely desires to help me work through stuff as his partner.

      5. Cat*

        I guess I don’t think I agree with your characterization of how most people react. Most people do feel some of what they hear from and read about other people. I’m sure there’s a spectrum of how strongly they feel it. But it’s a common human reaction. What they might not be doing is letting you know they feel it.

        1. Zillah*

          Agreed. I certainly believe that some people fall on the extreme end of this and that that’s definitely an experience that impacts their lives, but the broad idea that most people can just shrug things off with a simple “that sucks” isn’t my experience at all. That’s why content warnings/trigger warnings exist.

      6. RagingADHD*

        Whatever happened to the term “compassion?” You can feel deep compassion for someone you don’t know, without believing that you are psychically tuning into their inner emotional state.

        TBH, I think the idea that one is somehow absorbing emotions from other people UNDERestimates one’s own ability to be compassionate, imaginative, and caring. You are feeling your own feelings, about their situation.

        They are feeling their own feelings about their situation, and unless you are in communication with them and they tell you how they feel, you don’t actually know.

        I’ve had self-described “empaths” tell me that they are feeling my feelings before, or that they know exactly how I feel. It’s presumptuous and intrusive. And they are invariably wrong.

        Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of them ever wanted to actually listen to me express my own feelings. They were only interested in expressing their feelings, projected onto me.

        1. Third or Nothing!*

          I think the difference between someone who is truly empathetic, and someone who SAYS they are empathetic, is that one will sit with you in your emotions and let you feel what you feel and work through it with you, while the other will spout of what they think you feel and try to relate. From what I understand, an empath goes just a wee bit further on the first front and actually feels your feelings with you as you express them.

          1. Librarian1*

            But …. those are behaviors, not feelings. You don’t have to feel the same feelings as the other person in order to sit with someone and let them feel what they feel and work through their feelings.

        2. Librarian1*

          @RagingADHD – Yes, this. No one ever actually experiences other people’s feelings, but they can still have strong emotional reactions to things that happen to other people. And this isn’t a unique thing that only certain people can feel – pretty much all people do this.

        3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          ooh yes. When my relationship with a colleague was first made public, several others told me “I knew you were in love with him long before you did”. OK so they saw something was up between us, but they had no idea of what I knew about how I felt, nor did they know anything about when we started seeing each other.

      7. Hrodvitnir*

        I would be curious to know why people who identify as empaths think most people don’t experience affective empathy. Once again, I have the same experience of empathy as you describe, I am not discounting your experiences.

        I’m sure people you know well and have empathy for have expressed being emotionally affected by something in the news or someone they’re close to being in pain. The degree of empathy and ubiquity of the response will vary a lot, but I really really do not believe having a strong emotional response is that rare.

        I’d say I’m in a small percentile myself, but the statements by people identifying as empaths on here talk about most people not experiencing affective empathy, or seldom, and that really, really does not ring true to my experience of humanity.

        I hope this doesn’t read as an attack on you! I am just baffled by multiple people claiming this level of rarity.

        1. allathian*

          When I was pregnant and when my son was a baby, I had very strong emotional responses to news about bad things happening to children, because I identified so strongly with what the children’s parents might be going through. It hasn’t gone away completely, and I suspect that it never will now that I’m a mom, but I went for months without being able to watch the news because I didn’t want to expose myself to bad news concerning children.

          1. jenkins*

            I had an emotional hair trigger after having my kids, and found any suffering of another parent or a child really unbearable to watch. I figured it was partly an adaptive thing, in that I suddenly had to be *extremely* conscious 24/7 of this helpless small person, their wellbeing and safety – there was no option to zone out and miss something wrong, so all empathy and awareness had to be dialled up to 11. It hasn’t fully gone away. I couldn’t bring myself to watch an X Files episode the other night because I could tell something awful was going to happen to a toddler in the intro.

        2. RagingADHD*

          Because most people don’t believe that they have psychic abilities. Which is what it would be if you were actually feeling other people’s emotions.

          Most people who think they are experiencing paranormal phenomena are self-aware enough to understand that most people don’t define the world that way.

          Whether you interpret that as “I have powers that other people don’t have” or “this person is mistaken” entirely depends on your belief system.

      8. Eukomos*

        That’s totally normal. Everyone feels sad when they read a sad story. The trick is being able to disengage and move on afterwards. You’re not connecting differently to other people’s feelings than most people, you’re retaining that connection longer than normal. This sounds more like a resilience issue than an empathy issue.

    9. dealing with dragons*

      my narcissistic ex step-father is “empathetic” (note: not diagnosing Brenda, just from my own life). He’d watch the news and something bad would happen, like a mudslide or something, and would begin what I can only describe as wailing and gnashing his teeth. It was 100% performative and about drawing attention about how good of a person he was for reacting so strongly to terrible situations.

      One obviously can’t tell if this is the case from a one-sided letter to an advice columnist, but reading the letter gave me the same thoughts. I am very jaded from growing up with it, so I’m really just not a fan of over-emotional performative outbursts.

      1. Wintermute*

        Narcissists are excellent at being the corpse at every funeral and the bride in every wedding they attend.

  17. Maybe not*

    When I came back to work after my daughter was stillborn, I cried several times a day. Mostly just tearing up quietly at my desk. When I had to cry harder I went to a private conference room to do so. My work was fine. But I could not get through the day without crying.

    This isn’t exactly analogous to the Brenda situation, but if she’s doing her work well, I don’t see why she would take a leave.

    1. Observer*

      Because she really is not doing her work well. The OP is pretty explicit about the amount of work they are doing and the effect on the ability of others to operate.

      Brenda is not just tearing up quietly at her desk, and occasionally going to a private space to cry harder. Rather “she has been a heartbeat away from a meltdown at seemingly every moment.” and “multiple times each day, she is sitting at her desk with tears streaming down her face, often for “no reason at all.” Sometimes it’s “ugly cry” sobbing – several times a week.”

      That’s a lot of high visible (and audible) emotion in public. And this is someone whose job is to deal with people.

      And that’s on top of the fact that she can’t take feedback.

      1. Maybe not*

        I understand your point, but the OP explicitly states she is doing her work well. I just think that should matter.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          Or maybe she’s doing her work well . . . for Brenda, because this is such an entrenched thing that nobody knows how well she could be doing if she weren’t wasting time crying all day.

        2. Observer*

          You know how we often hear from people who say “My job / boss is great. But I have this one problem…” And that problem turns out the be so big that the job / boss cannot be so great? Same thing here. Yes Brenda does her work well, except for the little problem of the ridiculous amount of work the OP describes themselves as doing that the disruption that the OP describes – people walking on eggshells, efficiency taking a hit, etc. That’s part of Brenda’s performance, and the OP needs to take that into account.

        3. Wintermute*

          We run into this all the time though here, people set a REALLY narrow definition of “her work”– in letters like “I manage a brilliant jerk.”

          The problem is managers get a blind spot where they think that the TPS reports being accurate and on time is all that “work” is when in reality things like “not causing co-workers to walk on eggshells”, “being approachable by peers about routine work without them having to worry about triggering a mental breakdown,” and “not causing emotional trauma to your coworkers” are important parts of your “work” as well.

    2. KayDeeAye*

      But Maybe Not, you didn’t disrupt your entire office multiple times. You coped with your own heartbreak (and I know it was heartbreak) by grieving but also taking steps to not force that grief on others. In contrast, Brenda has displayed her heartbreak(s) over and over and over again, loudly and obviously, for everyone to see and hear over several months, with no signs of stopping.

      Something has to change.

      P.S. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    3. Teapot Tía*

      I think because she isn’t removing herself to a private place when she can’t control her tears. She appears to be unaware or uninterested in how she’s affecting the people around her (or how her crying jags might affect how others think of her. Or, if she is aware of all that, she somehow is unable in the moment to take action to avoid it.)

      This doesn’t sound like someone mostly in control who understandably loses it sometimes.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        I don’t think she is unaware of how she’s affecting people – OP says she’s well aware that her coworkers are walking on eggshells around her.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          See, that right there would hard-core drive me to get this under control. I’d be mortified if my coworkers were on eggshells around me.

          1. allathian*

            Yes, me too. That’s the professional response. Brenda’s not behaving in a professionally appropriate manner.

        2. Helpful*

          Yet she’s doing absolutely nothing to mitigate it, which implies that she thinks her emotions trump everyone else.

        3. Working Hypothesis*

          If she’s aware of it and still not choosing to do anything about it, that’s a problem in itself. Especially if the OP is correct that she would try to oppose suggestions like working from home if they were brought up to her, without proposing an alternative plan that achieves the same purpose.

          It’s not okay to make people walk on eggshells all the time, and if you know you’re causing that, you have a responsibility to do something about it. If you don’t like the ways that your boss suggests to fix it, you’re free to come up with plans of your own that’ll work and still let you do your job (or not-do it via an approved leave or similar), but what she’s doing right now is nothing… not accepting anyone else’s suggestions, not proposing her own, not going off to the bathroom when she needs to cry, not doing *anything* to stop making everyone else’s lives difficult. Not cool!

        4. Teapot Tía*

          Well, I was trying to be diplomatic.
          But also, I’m strongly reminded of a person in my life for whom “they’re on eggshells around me” would mean more “people aren’t giving me the attention I want” (or possibly “yes, you are telling me this so I’ll agree with you so you’ll approve of me”) and not “this thing I’m doing which I have been told is the problem is making people uncomfortable and so they don’t spend time with me.” There’s understanding and understanding, is the thing. And someone dealing with (apparently) depression might not be able to make that connection or take the necessary action without help.

      2. Joielle*

        And the OP mentioned elsewhere in the comments that Brenda has a private office with a door, so she wouldn’t even have to go anywhere. If she’s not even closing her office door when she starts crying, then she’s just being inconsiderate.

    4. OP*

      Oh, Maybe not, I’m so sorry for what you experienced. Brenda really does work pretty well. She produces to the level that she should most of the time and she gives excellent customer service. I am ready to discuss leaves of absence or other accommodations, if necessary, but if the in-the-moment can be controlled, I think that will take care of much of the issues.

    5. jiminy_cricket*

      Hey, grief therapist here! That sounds super hard and I appreciate your empathy for Brenda’s situation as well as your insight. The oscillation between “ok” and “not ok” is very normal while grieving. However, over time, grievers hopefully learn to integrate their strong grief emotions into the rhythms of their days with healthy coping. This may include “putting a pin” in their strong feelings so they can be expressed and processed at a time when the griever has space and safety to do so. It sounds like Brenda is having difficulty with this ‘integration’ and delaying aspect — and in fact may not be experiencing loss whatsoever, the OP does not say, but the theory still stands.

      I wish that all grievers were given some flexibility to find what kind of set-up would function well for them and support their grief. Be that time off (not unpaid leave, bereavement leave is often a joke), a private space for an emotional moment, or whatever else was needed. It sounds like your workplace provided that, which is great. It sounds like OP is trying to do that, too, to find what works for Brenda but is not to the detriment of others around her.

      1. Mockingdragon*

        I would be interested in resources about that “putting a pin in it” – it’s something I’ve been through a lot of therapy trying to figure out how to do and never succeeded. A friend once asked me if I’ve ever been able to think “I’ll cry about it later in the elevator/in the car/when I get home” and then stop crying, and I just stared at her. It’s so foreign to my experience…if I’m feeling an emotion, I’m expressing it, end of story. I’ve very much wanted to learn how to NOT display emotion but CBT and DBT didn’t help.

        My DBT therapist and I got to a point where I could use my mindfulness practices to evaluate how I was feeling and what my thought processes were, but I still had no mechanism to *change* them. I ultimately went on medication that’s turned the volume way down on my reactions, but I still have no conscious control and I hate it.

        …Thank you for coming to my TED talk, if you have any books or articles I’d appreciate them.

  18. Christina*

    Ooof. I have friends who are like this – incredibly empathetic, sensitive, and caring – but it’s sometimes even exhausting to be around them, and those are people I choose to have in my life, not coworkers! I can’t imagine having to be around this much constant emotion at work. I second the comments of her coworkers may be more frustrated than they let on, because who wants to be the person who sees a coworker crying constantly and says, “Can you get me the TPS reports by noon tomorrow?” without asking what’s wrong/is everything ok/can I help? But I (and all of us) have enough emotional labor to deal with in normal life right now, so I would just end up avoiding her vs getting drawn into the drama and feeling like a jerk for just wanting to get my work done without crossing the minefield that is a constantly weeping coworker.

    1. Esme*

      These sorts of people are NOT sensitive or caring. They’re self-obsessed and lack boundaries.

      1. pancakes*

        I’m inclined to agree. Someone who is sensitive and/or caring would not routinely dominate their workplace with outsized displays of emotion.

        1. pancakes*

          To clarify, someone who is sensitive or caring could find themselves in that position if they were having a mental health crisis. That seems to be what’s happening here. Whether Brenda is ordinarily a sensitive or caring person or not, it appears that she needs fairly urgent care that her coworkers can’t provide.

      2. Artemesia*

        This — it feels more narcissistic than empathetic. The LW who suffered the awful awful loss of her daughter, sought out privacy when she was overwhelmed. The office weeper doesn’t do that but instead makes a show progressing to ugly sobbing when she apparently isn’t getting enough attention. Just like shouting feels like an assault even if the shouting angry husband or co-worker is not directing the anger AT you. Constant performative weeping will cause the anxiety of lots of people to skyrocket if they are around it constantly. It is the manager’s job to protect the staff from this.

  19. PX*

    Maybe I’m just cold and heartless, but if she’s getting her work done to a reasonable degree? As a coworker I honestly would..not…be that bothered? Maybe I’m just good at compartmentalizing, but if she’s not dragging other people into her crying (eg asking them for sympathy/support/making it a big performance), I am sometimes a big believer in taking people at their word. If she can get her work done around crying, so be it. Would I email her rather than go to her desk? Yes. But I’d still email her if something needed doing.

    The advice on the whole that she probably needs some time off to deal/better coping mechanisms is true. But this is bringing to mind previous letter writers who cry easily and the advice is basically “dont let tears stop you from delivering/receiving a tough message” – maybe thats whats going on here? She cries but then gets on with her work… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. LDN Layabout*

      It’s the extent of the crying and also the social element of it. The easy criers are being told to push through short bursts of being teary eared. Brenda has tears streaming down her face several times a day AND is sobbing at her desk multiple times per week.

      No one can ‘work through’ sobbing so there’s no point of her being at her desk aside from attention seeking, deliberate or not.

      No one should have to deal with this in a shared workspace, the same way they shouldn’t have to deal with someone shouting/swearing loudly at their computer. The office is not a place for overblown emotions.

    2. Environmental Compliance*

      There’s a difference though between just crying and full-out sobbing. I can ignore someone crying (though it’ll take some work on my part, as I sympathy-cry easily), but full sobbing? Nope.

      Tearing up is significantly less disruptive than actual “ugly cry” sobbing events.

    3. CTT*

      To me, it’s comparable to someone who screams and makes a big scene when they’re frustrated. Maybe it’s not directed at anybody, but it’s still exhausting and borderline frightening to deal with.

    4. beanie gee*

      Yeah, I kind of wonder if part of the solution is just having her find a private space when she needs to cry.

    5. Colette*

      She’s sobbing at her desk regularly. That’s at best distracting for her coworkers – and also means she can’t be approached about work. And even when she’s not sobbing, I suspect no one wants to ask her questions because she might start sobbing.

      She’s allowed to feel how she feels, but she needs to have better control of her emotions at work. Sometimes that might mean going to a private place if she needs to cry – but also it means realizing that she doesn’t have to outwardly express her emotions all the time.

    6. Damn it, Hardison!*

      Even if it isn’t impacting her work, it is impacting her coworkers’ work. If I had a colleague who behaved like Brenda I would go to great lengths to avoid asking them any questions or handing off anything to them for fear of waterworks and having to engage in soothing. I would not be surprised if Brenda’s colleagues are doing just this.

    7. MarchwasMay*

      I warn people before they give me (work) feedback that “I might cry — ignore it. I just have an outsized physical reaction, but just keep talking; we’re cool.” I treat it matter-of-factly, like having a strong desire to yawn by even seeing/typing that word, much less the action, or others always feel cold when they hear the air handlers going, or some sneeze in sunlight.

      When I taught, I also told my students it’s ok to have an emotional reaction, and to have to process that before you can cope with the legit critiques. Warn your teammates if possible, walk out of the room if you’re feeling angry, but just remember that the feedback is to improve the writing in this particular situation — nothing to do with your worth as a writer, student, or person. I remind them that their classmates just have suggestions, which can be ignored. My comments are also only suggestions, but with a lot more experience behind them, and my goal is to give As, to help them get the skills needed to create “A”-worthy projects.

      (I also reminded them of the school counselors, which are available to refer them to other professionals if needed, or just to hash out difficulties with roommates or parents without annoying other friends. I tried to make mentioning the counseling center as commonplace as mentioning the tutors at the writing center, flu vaccines, or any other school resource.)

    8. Avasarala*

      If Brenda was just a worker in the back, sure. But she’s in HR. Can you imagine doing anything HR-related while the HR rep is openly sobbing on your behalf?

  20. Jaybeetee*

    I mean, I’ve been through some rough patches in the past, and occasionally cited “allergies” for watery eyes at my desk (whether or not that was believable is a different matter) – but why isn’t Brenda taking her sobbing fits into the bathroom or somewhere else more private?

    This seems like something that should be treated as a medical issue interfering with work at this point. You say her performance is still decent, but she’s quite disruptive to everyone else. It reminds me of that sad letter about the employee trying to work through their cancer treatments, but their performance was declining. It’s tough when they’re trying, and it’s not necessarily Brenda’s fault, but as a boss, I think there is a point where you have to say, “you need to not be at work until this is under control.”

  21. Bobboccio*

    Would it impact anything if she were a POC and this was related to the events of the last couple of months? Because this is occurring in my office, and obviously it is stressful times and I want to be an ally

    1. jjjjjjjjj*

      I think that is different. It’s specifically tied to something harmful and traumatic. Brenda’s emotions don’t really seem to be.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        OP says that Brenda’s over-the-top emotions recently have been related to some baggage from her personal life. That sounds very much like it could be tied to something harmful and traumatic.

        But in the end, the source doesn’t really matter. Alison’s advice is correct whether the tears are from grief, from an uncontrolled mental illness, or because the colour of Mercedes she wants is on back order: there are thoughtful, compassionate ways that a manager can acknowledge that while still ensuring that other employees can work without this disruption. That can range from Brenda going to a private space to some form of leave of absence, but the manager has to be compassionate to the others in the office at the same time as he/she is being compassionate to Brenda.

      2. The Grey Lady*

        Um, sorry, how do you know that Brenda isn’t dealing with something stressful and traumatic? OP says she’s dealing with something in her personal life, but doesn’t specify what. I think we can agree that it’s pretty heavy if she’s reacting this way. Not saying that makes it appropriate for work, but it’s completely out of line to say that she isn’t dealing with anything serious.

    2. Jaybeetee*

      I’m not sure it would, or should, change the bottom line of the advice. There are many excellent, legitimate reasons for people to be distressed, and the fact of being distressed isn’t necessarily bad… but at a certain point, if someone’s personal distress (no matter how sympathetic or legitimate) bleeds into their work life in this way, something needs to be done. A certain level of sympathy and leeway is well and good, but ultimately people need to be able to show up and work.

    3. Bella*

      I’m not sure it changes the answer – it’s not as if the answer wasn’t sympathetic, just the reality that there are certain things you can’t do in a public workplace where multiple people have to work.

      I think if one is taking it on as a personal ally ship, maybe getting coffee outside of work and being an ear could be good, but the Q is coming more from a manager perspective. Even if they get coffee together, the workplace problem still has to be solved.

      Not to mention – surely there’s other PoC in the office, and they deserve to have a workplace that doesn’t sound like trauma is happening – especially in light of recent stressors ?

    4. Yorick*

      No, it’s no different. If POC in your office are a little down or sometimes teary-eyed right now, that’s understandable. If they’re sitting at their desk with tears streaming down their face multiple times a day and sobbing a few times a week, it’s still too disruptive to coworkers. You can be understanding and sympathetic and you can brainstorm accommodations no matter why people are upset.

    5. Student*

      I tend to feel that if a POC is crying at work every day in a way that’s related to the current racial reckoning in the U.S., I would first look at my company. Are there other POC who work there? Do you have employee resource groups? Are there pay or position differences between white and non-white employees? Would you generally describe your POC employees as quiet or private? (Because some people are naturally quiet, but there are people who feel unable to be themselves at work because they feel they have to be the model Black employee.)

      You may be more helpful by spending some capital on changing your office than by taking her out to coffee, you know?

  22. Guacamole Bob*

    OP, what kind of work does your company do? Maybe it’s different because I’m a data analyst in a government agency, but my team basically never has this level of emotion on display. Sure, we get frustrated or even angry when things go wrong, we are sometimes disappointed by feedback we get, my colleague was sad as he talked about his dog dying, people share exasperation with their home renovations or having kids constantly underfoot during COVID or what have you. We’re human, and we experience human emotions. But I’ve never seen any of my colleagues have sobbing meltdowns. Things are just more even-keeled than that around here. We don’t have to talk through our feelings regularly or worry that little things will set each other off.

    I’d be tiptoeing around Brenda for sure, and it would be incredibly distracting and emotionally draining to be around someone who is constantly so emotional. Especially when it’s the kind of emotional where you end up having to comfort them about something that happened to you!

    No advice, OP, just sympathy.

  23. Ominous Adversary*

    So Brenda has managed to center everyone’s attention and concern on her, gotten everyone around her to walk on eggshells lest they upset her, and created a special way that her manager and co-workers have to handle any feedback or stress that isn’t completely positive? She even mines other people’s personal situations for reasons to feel upset, apparently.

    1. SunnySideUp*

      I too am an advocate of the devil.

      I find Brenda’s sort of behavior extremely manipulative and self-centered.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        I’m not trying to be a devil’s advocate here. I’m genuinely saying that Brenda is a bully.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          I’m not positive I’d go that far because I doubt the behavior is fully conscious. But I definitely think that she’s engaged in a feedback loop that works for her, where she doesn’t change the behavior (except perhaps to make it more extreme) because on some level, her brain has learned that it gets her positive results. If it got her reliably negative ones, I’m pretty sure there would have been more obvious efforts to make it stop.

          All the supportive behavior around her in the office is almost certainly encouraging her to continue this pattern, and maybe it should be scaled significantly back for that reason. Anyone who’s raised a toddler knows that it’s a bad idea to reward bad behavior with attention, and this seems like very much the same situation.

          1. Sara without an H*

            Yes, there’s a concept in psychology called “secondary gain.” While the patient/client isn’t deliberately trying to manipulate people, their reactions to her behavior encourage her to keep it going. Most of this doesn’t happen at the conscious level, either.

            It’s going to be tough, but I think OP needs to take a hard look at her own behavior with and to Brenda, and look for some things she can change to avoid reinforcing Brenda’s behavior. In the long run, it would be a kindness.

          2. Courageous cat*

            Agreed 100% – there is some enabling going on here. I would be very curious to know if she’d do this at a new workplace when she’s meant to be on her best behavior. I highly doubt she would until she’s tested the waters, which definitely seems to me like she’s taking her colleagues’ silence on the matter as a “go ahead”.

    2. Laura H.*

      Your comment makes it all sound intentional which really isn’t kind to Brenda or OP. There’s a point that an action needs to be intentionally made (and the OP is there or a little past that) but no one decides to have an emotional outburst. Doesn’t usually work that way.

      We have no way of knowing that the ignition was intentional. Emotions are hard to rein in for the best of us. Now after the fact, and that it’s been this way for some time, yes something should be done- that’s why OP wrote and asked.

      When I feel emotional, I shut myself off and physically away from other people. But recognizing that it’s my normal course of action took me a while and knowing that’s what I need to do to preserve my harmony with those I interact with, that also took time.

      One can make a point without being a jerk about it, and without an implication that the transgression was intentional. Humans are social creatures- we don’t work in a solo anything. Everything I do affects someone else and I’m affected by things I have no control over.

      Kind firmness and some cooperation are the way to go here.

      1. pancakes*

        I agree that trying to handle this situation with kindness would be best for all involved, but whether Brenda’s behavior is intentional or not in any particular outburst, it isn’t work-appropriate.

      2. Susan*

        What makes it highly probable that this is manipulative behavior is that 1) she does not attempt to locate a private space in which to have her, evidently quite loud meltdowns, but just stays at her desk, thereby forcing her colleagues to be, in a very odd way, collaborators with her emotional scenes, and 2) her emotional outbursts and her lack of any attempt at control have akso forced her managers to tailor feedback just for her. Had she any real care or concern for her coworkers, she would act much differently. She is an adult, for Pete’s sake, not a 2 year old in dire need of a nap, and really she should not, without going through ADA channels, be refusing to restrain herself in this way. Are her colleagues allowed to act this way? From what the LW has stated, they are not. Unless and until she had medical documentation and ADA coverage, she should be required to meet the same standards as all other employees.

      3. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        While Brenda manipulating the situation wasn’t my first thought it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. Regardless of the intention though, it needs to stop.

      4. Ominous Adversary*

        “No one decides to have an emotional outburst” is just not true. But of course whether Brenda is doing so intentionally, or even is aware of what she’s doing, is irrelevant to the effects of her behavior and how OP should manage her.

        It’s interesting to me how many comments here again make Brenda and her feelings the center of everything.

        1. Sacred Ground*

          Your second point is just odd. A handful of comments express some, yep, empathy for Brenda and her manager. A small handful at that.

          The largest majority are expressing their exasperation and annoyance with her and people like her. It seems like most here actually hate her or people like her.

          “Brenda and her feelings” are literally the topic of the post. What else would you expect to be “the center of everything” in a conversation about her and her feelings?

      5. Temperance*

        I see you’ve never had to deal with an adult who regularly throws tantrums. I promise that it’s not something they’re a victim of.

      6. Joielle*

        The crying may not be intentional, but choosing not to shut her office door certainly is.

      7. Ethyl*

        Even the most clearly manipulative or even abusive behaviors are almost never undertaken with the person doing them twirling their moustache and thinking “oh honho, I shall manipulate this situation to my advantage!” Mostly what happens is that people learn what works to get them what they want, and for some people, they learn that certain actions produce the solution they want. And when that makes them manipulate and abuse, it’s easy to see from the outside, but the person doing it absolutely never see it that way.

    3. 3DogNight*

      This is what I read into it. People cry at work. It’s usually very short lived, and immediately taken into a private place. All of this from Brenda sounds very manipulative. If this was my co worker, I would be sympathetic for a couple of days, then just sad for them, after a week or two, I would be super irritated, and probably hard pressed not to be snarky. Any goodwill she had built up would be gone by that point, and would never be earned back.
      OP–look at how much attention and just flat out give you have given, and by example, forced your employees to give to this person for 6 MONTHS during an already stressful time in our lives. I would be looking for another job, quietly, because no one wants to be that heartless, but I would be gone as soon as I could manage it.

      1. Ominous Adversary*

        It’s not speculation to observe that’s exactly the behavior the OP is describing?

        1. 3DogNight*

          I’ll admit to speculation on the manipulative piece of it. My gripe here is NOT with Brenda, it’s with the people around her, specifically the manager.
          We’ve all cried at work. Even if it was just a teared up for a minute thing. No complaints there. But the all day every day thing has been going on since January. Manager is modeling behavior that shows that he/she expects everyone to put up with it, or just be super nice about it, leaving them with the idea that they can’t push back.
          When we ask managers to model behavior, this is one of the things that needs to be taken into consideration. We should model good behavior, kindness, that vacations are allowed to be taken, and that boundaries exist. Manager isn’t helping her by allowing this to continue. At this point, it’s not kindness or empathy, because those things need to be extended to the entire team.

  24. Quinalla*

    I’m an easy crier and identify as an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), though not an empath, but there is a lot of shared traits there. Anyway, you just have to, have to, learn a level of control of display of that emotional intensity. It doesn’t mean you don’t FEEL those things still, but you can’t cry/sob that much at work, and I’m someone who does occasionally tear up at work when things get intense either from anger/frustration or overwhelm or sometimes actual sadness/disappointment, but it is usually not from that despite that is what people assume when crying is happening. But if I was sobbing? Dude, I would at least be in the bathroom and likely out the door to my car or home if it was that bad. And I think it SHOULD be ok to occasionally cry/tear up at work, but multiple times a week sobbing and any bit of feedback setting off crying? No, she needs some leave or part time or something so she can get a handle on this. In bending over backwards for this employee you are doing your other employees a disservice.

    I really hope she can get the helps she needs!

    1. Jaybeetee*

      You know, with the “empath” threads above, it occurred to me that people I’ve met who use the HSP label (rarer, IME) tended to be easier to be around than those who used the “empath” label, even though the traits seem similar. The HSP I’ve known just seemed more mindful of how they affected people around them, while the empaths tended to dominate the room with their “empathy”.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        Well, HSP and empath is not the same thing. People aren’t just randomly pulling words out of a hat to call themselves.

        1. Working Hypothesis*

          No, but a lot of HSPs who don’t know that concept can mistake themselves for empaths. I’ve seen that three or four times, and they corrected their self-description when they learned that a HSP is a thing and what it involves.

          1. The Grey Lady*

            Perhaps. There are also people (like myself) who consider themselves to be both.

          2. nonethefewer*

            That’s because “HSP” centers the person who is highly sensitive, whereas “empath”, In My Experience, tends to… require other people. Like HSP is a personality trait, and empath is a social trait.

            1. I can only speak Japanese*

              And sensitive people have often experienced flack for being sensitive. I know I have spent a good portion of my life being yelled at by my parents for being “too sensitive” when I was protesting verbal abuse or injustices. Highly sensitive almost seems like a self-deprecating label, whereas empath seems like a medal of honor to me.

        2. Quinalla*

          Agreed, they aren’t the same, but they do share a lot of the same traits and as you said, some consider themselves both.

      2. Joielle*

        Yeah, same. I know “empath” is a real thing, but I think a lot of people *think* they’re an empath when they’re just… dramatic.

      3. Quinalla*

        I don’t know honestly, I’ve only met one other person IRL who claimed the HSP label and none that claimed empath. I do think both are real things, but you still have to learn to interact with the world, though as I said, the world needs to give a little too honestly. Expectations of zero crying/tearing up at work are unrealistic as well. It takes a lot of work to learn how to thrive in a world that isn’t really set up well for HSP/empaths and this pandemic is straining everyone. The anxiety levels in public are unreal right now and very unnerving for sensitive folks, but still, you gotta do your best to cope and adjust. Again, really hope she gets the help she needs.

    2. Pommette!*

      I’m similar. I cry easily (I sob easily), live with chronic depression, and have intense emotional reactions to others’ expressed suffering. It took me a long time to learn how to handle it gracefully. It’s still a struggle. So I really feel for Brenda.
      But in the end, it’s not OK to make other people live with your raw pain, day after day. It hurts them, too.
      I hope that everything works out for OP, Brenda, and the entire team.

  25. Observer*

    Getting her to work from home is a challenge, partially because she is social and doesn’t want to be alone. She’s single so she spends a lot of time by herself anyway

    This is not your responsibility. Of course, as a compassionate boss, you should try to accommodate people where you can. But at this point, her presence is so disruptive and potentially damaging to others that you cannot place her comfort over everyone else’s ability to function in a reasonably healthy environment. And, to be honest, she would also probably be much better off if she had some sort of social life outside of the office.

    Yes, this is a particularity hard time to forge new connections, but even now it’s possible. And this level of isolation we’re living with is NOT going to last forever.

    And, while this is not really your business per se, I wonder if her intense emotionality is the reason she doesn’t have much of a circle outside of work. The reason I mention it is because I think it highlights how damaging to relationships this kind of thing can be. And while friends have the choice about whether to stay in a friendship, your employees have a lot less choice in the matter. So it’s worth thinking about it.

    1. Lady Heather*

      And, while this is not really your business per se, I wonder if her intense emotionality is the reason she doesn’t have much of a circle outside of work. The reason I mention it is because I think it highlights how damaging to relationships this kind of thing can be. And while friends have the choice about whether to stay in a friendship, your employees have a lot less choice in the matter. So it’s worth thinking about it.

      This was what I was thinking as well.

    2. Yorick*

      I agree – OP’s decision on whether Brenda needs to work from home for a while can’t be based on the fact Brenda is lonely. Brenda’s not doing well at work now – even if she’s getting all her work done (which I doubt), she’s disrupting the rest of the office – and you can’t let that continue because of her personal preferences.

      Since there are things she needs to be present for, maybe have her try wfh for 30-40% of her time? She could work a shorter day or fewer days a week. Hell, you could send her home when she’s sobbing if she can’t pull herself together, the way you would if she came in too sick to work.

    3. Willis*

      I was assuming the “spends a lot of time by herself anyway” part was due to staying home due to covid (when she’s not at work), not necessarily to mean she doesn’t have a social network outside of work.

  26. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Coming from the perspective of someone who has serious mental issues and has had an actual breakdown this year because it just got so bad…..Brenda desperately needs to a)not be at work and b) be seeing a psychiatric professional who can prescribe medications or other treatments.

    Because it sounds like she’s a few steps away from the total shutdown I had. When you’re crying more days than not and sitting with tears streaming down your face is your new normal it’s a big, huge warning. Something is seriously wrong.

    In my case I needed inpatient care (yep, that bad) and some antipsychotics on top of antidepressants and I’m only just feeling like I can go back to work without spreading my negative brain problems all over an office. I’m not in any way suggesting her problems are like mine by the way, that’s a medical professional’s job.

    The kindest thing you can do for her, and her coworkers, is to let her know that this situation now requires serious help and you can’t let things continue as they are. Otherwise, I strongly suspect you’ll have her coworkers starting to show signs of depression and stress as well, and if she’s an empathetic person that’ll make her even worse too.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Means a lot, thank you :)

        (And seriously I hope that if my tale of hardship gets another person to seek help before they get to what I did…well, it’ll be one ray of light)

    1. Jennifer*

      I second the best wishes.

      I hope Brenda has decent enough insurance to get the help that you did.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Damn, I just realised how privileged my post sounds to my overseas friends! (The NHS took care of me). For all those who rely on medical insurance I extra specially hope that the proper care is obtainable and affordable. Fingers crossed for Brenda.

        1. Avasarala*

          It does not sound privileged at all. Saying that you got help, and that someone else needs help, is not privilege.

          Sure not everyone can get help but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it, and I don’t think it’s helpful to apologize for being able to use systems that are available to you and not every single other person. You should be able to talk about your dentist appointment without apologizing to people who can’t see dentists.

          Best wishes to you.

          1. Jennifer*

            I don’t think there was anything wrong with what was said either. They were just stating what happened to them and making a suggestion. I was just expressing the hope that Brenda has the same resources. Being able to go to the doctor when so many are uninsured is actually a privilege, it’s just not one that you should be ashamed of.

    2. Harper the Other One*

      My partner experienced something similar – he missed needing to go into inpatient care by a hair. We were fortunate he had a generous paid leave program which allowed him to get the meds he needed, reestablish some mental balance, and deal with the physical health fallout of what had happened (turns out eating a single bowl of cereal a day for months is… not great for your body.) But he did not go on leave until those who oversee his work came to him, said, “Look, we can tell you are not okay. Here is the leave paperwork, we’ve started the process; go get yourself well.”

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Hope your partner is doing ok these days. I was also at the point of thinking the body could run on 3 cups of tea and an apple per day and nothing else.

        Very glad their workplace acted like that!

        1. Harper the Other One*

          Thank you – it’s been a long road but he improves all the time. I hope that you continue to improve as well.

          And while his workplace is far from perfect, leave and coverage for therapy is something they do very well. I wish everyone had access to what they offer.

    1. Environmental Compliance*

      “She feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.”

      “She gets emotional when given any sort of feedback that isn’t glowing (and even sometimes over feedback that IS glowing) and when Brenda realizes that she has caused a problem of some sort – regardless of how small – she is often teary-eyed for the rest of the day.”

      “Brenda is well aware that her colleagues are walking on eggshells around her and she hates that, but she can’t help the tears. … Brenda’s inability to control her emotions is affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of our team.”

      All of this has a tinge of manipulative behavior to me, tbh. Brenda is putting an emotional burden on others, sometimes on the other person’s life (!), is aware that everyone around her has modified their own behavior to try to ‘help’ her, and is still disrupting those around her through sobbing meltdowns. Additionally, her outbursts seem to be tied to any kind of feedback, which is going to again disrupt a normal workflow & work situation.

      She may not be intentionally manipulative at all. However, when it’s this public, and this *loud*, it’s hard to view it solely as having “baggage to work through”. Brenda needs a lot of help, and her coworkers need to be able to work without this kind of constant disruption.

      1. Jaybeetee*

        I think it’s a common misunderstanding that manipulative people are all deliberately so. Ofc there are psychopaths who deliberately toy with other people’s emotions, or people who do engineer situations in a machiavellian way – but a lot of the time, it’s more… people learning to engage in behaviour that serves them, as we all do to some degree.

        I have a friend who has (largely) outgrown this behaviour over time, but could be described as fairly manipulative when she was younger. Not because she was callously doing those things, but because she came from a certain type of background and had learned those behaviours as a way to get attention/get her needs met. I’ve had to confront behaviours if my own that could arguably be “manipulative”, in the sense of, “this person who is angry at me will become nice if I start crying.” It wasn’t something I was doing with cold deliberation, but it was a thing I was doing.

        1. Jaybeetee*

          Bah, and for all that, I forgot to circle my personal anecdote back to the letter.

          That is, Brenda is likely manipulative to some degree, but may not be deliberately so, or consciously aware of what she’s doing.

          1. Altair*

            Thank you for outlining this distinction. I admit, I get kind of tired of how whenever there’s a discussion of crying people say it’s ‘manipulative’ as if all crying is a deliberately chosen performance. Doesn’t anyone just get that upset? BUT, as you point out, people can learn to act in ways that affect the situations they’re in, because of their experiences.

  27. SMcG*

    This person was already a “missing stair” before January, because of not being able to accept a normal level of feedback. It sounds like the whole office was already well-trained to accommodate Brenda’s excessive emotions, so when everything ramped up – MONTHS ago – the foundations were in place to make it easier to let things continue on, just at a more intense level. Crying multiple times per DAY, and ‘ugly crying’ multiple times per WEEK in front of colleagues suggests an ongoing and severe mental health crisis. Brenda is not getting the help she needs, whether it’s medication, more intensive therapy, or receiving care as an in-patient. The workplace can’t dictate what she needs to do to take care of herself, but the workplace should stop causing harm to everyone else by allowing this to continue. “I’m an empath” also does not excuse someone from behaving reasonably in a professional setting. But people put up with all kinds of crappy behavior at work, because they need a paycheck.

  28. Elisabeth*

    I’m thinking out loud here, but I wonder whether it would be possible to set aside a designated “cry spot” for Brenda? It could be a small conference room, or a little-used office — just someplace with a door where she can go when she feels emotionally overwhelmed.

    A leave of absence or part-time work until she tackles the larger issue might be more helpful, but if that’s not an option, at least going into a different room would stop her from distracting her coworkers.

    1. dealing with dragons*

      the kroll show had a recurring sketch called pubLIZity where one features a crying room – “PubLIZity – Liz G.’s New Look” at about 1.5 minutes in. it’s pretty great and is about how well that would work in practice.

    2. michelenyc*

      The OP mentioned above that she does have her own office but doesn’t always shut her door so OP does it for her sometimes.

      1. RecentAAMfan*

        That to me is HUGE.
        You have a private office with a door, and don’t close it when you’re SOBBING?
        I’m pretty sure that anyone not “seeking attention” would close the door

        1. KayDeeAye*

          Oh, I agree. I am trying very hard not to judge Brenda too harshly here – I mean, clearly she’s going through a very rough patch, and the OP does say that she does a decent job – but…but I cannot imagine why a considerate person doesn’t just shut the dang door! I don’t know if this is her way of crying out for help or if she gets off on being the center of attention or if she’s mentally ill or what, but what kind of person would put themselves ON DISPLAY like that when they don’t have to? What kind of person would put his/her coworkers through this when they don’t have to?

  29. Anon Anon*

    I am sure some people do adore Brenda. I’ve learned through the years, that you can like/love someone personally, but find those very behaviors that make them a wonderful person challenging to work with professionally.

    However, I suspect as others have noted, not everyone adores Brenda, but that those who don’t adore her won’t say anything, because there is the perception that everyone loves her. Which puts them in a bad spot. You also noted that Brenda manages the new hire paperwork. Does she also help orient new hires? If so I’m not sure having someone who is unable to control her emotions is the best idea for that sort of role (at least at this time).

    I would encourage you to encourage Brenda to take FMLA. Clearly, if she’s crying multiple times a day and sobbing at her desk multiple times a week then her emotional state is such that she may need more intensive help that she’s currently receiving.

  30. rr*

    I had a coworker who was sort of a Brenda – she was going through some really rough personal stuff and was crying at her desk quite a lot for a couple months. Not loudly sobbing, but quietly crying on and off throughout the day. She was our department admin, which made it a bit awkward because her job meant that people were always coming by her desk to ask about things, and no one ever knew when she might be in the middle of a cry.

    My cube was directly across from her desk, so every time I got up to go to the bathroom etc. I also felt like there was potential for an awkward situation because I had to see her whenever I passed, and I had no idea what I should be doing. Was it rude of me to ignore the fact that she was clearly in distress? Was she hoping I would ask her if something was wrong? I wanted to be kind and considerate, as I had also recently experienced a personal tragedy, but I didn’t know the right thing to do. I would also overhear multiple personal phone calls throughout the day, after which she would hang up crying. She also appeared to be extremely exhausted, became ill with a cold or flu and kept coming to work while visibly sick. I really felt that she should be on leave for a couple weeks to process some of her grief (and not to mention recover from her illness!), and I tried to talk to my boss about it (though he was not her boss). It sounded like they “needed” her at work because it was annual report season and they couldn’t get it done without her, so they were just letting the illness and disruptions slide. (Note that our company did have a policy for employees to take paid stress leave if it was needed.)

    Things eventually went back to “normal” after a few months, but it was a situation that really soured me against the company and contributed to my eventual leaving.

  31. Bob*

    First thing is thanks for being so nice to her. Many people in this situation would find themselves jobless quite quickly.

    That said this is untenable. She needs some real help. If her counseling is not getting any results she needs a better counselor. It can sometimes take many counselors till she finds the one. I won’t get into my views on medication since this is not the forum.
    But your her employer, not her life coach or her doctor.
    Alison’s suggestions are good ones, try to get her to as involved as possible in any solutions, locus of control is extremely important to every human. I wish i had better options to offer, but you can’t help her medical care beyond offering benefits that include what she needs, nor would it be appropriate for her employer to be a health advocate for her.

  32. staceyizme*

    You can try getting her a coach. One who will help her deal with the feels. Therapy helps. But there are a few hacks to managing strong emotions. Self care, mindfulness, breathing through, journaling. Find a coach with a grief recovery certificate or with a practice centered around family systems or emotional intelligence. Even an Employee Assistance program coach could be helpful.

      1. Lady Heather*

        I think that especially with someone whose emotions are so ‘big’, all-encompassing, have the office walking on eggshels, etc – only someone who is trained in maintaining appropriate distance and boundaries should coach her. More than with any other issue, this seems like it has huge ‘being drawn into the drama’ potential.

      2. staceyizme*

        Coaching for employees varies by the employer. It’s not beyond the realm of the possible (even if it is beyond the realm of the probable). Even as a one-off, it can be deployed for a key employee if there is funding. It’s not considered intrusive in the same way that recommending therapy would be because it’s not a clinical level intervention and it’s possible to center outcomes on performance in the role.

        1. Ethyl*

          I know it’s late in the thread but I wonder where you are located, because what you are describing is really outside the norm for the US businesses that I and my friends have worked at.

    1. Observer*

      It would be totally inappropriate for the OP to “get her a coach”. If there is an EAP, they could help her with this, but that last thing the OP should be doing is getting this involved with Brenda’s treatment.

  33. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

    I worked with someone who cried often and visibly/audibly at her desk about anything she found stressful. We were a client-facing team in a fast-paced office so that meant that her meltdowns were a near daily occurrence. Our boss was friends/co-workers with her in a past life and I think had gotten used to the idea that this was just who “Jane” was and seemed unable to comprehend how much it lowered the morale of the rest of the team.

    I have anxiety that I’m able to manage pretty well under normal circumstances, but being around Jane ramped it up considerably to the point where I would go hide in a bathroom stall rather than listen to her sob for 30 minutes over the fact that someone suggested she take an unnecessary word out of a Powerpoint slide. I tend to internalize the emotions of other people around me, especially when they’re communicating distress, and the constant crying kept telling my lizard brain “There is something really wrong, it’s gotta be really serious for someone to be so upset, oh my God what could be so awful” even though logically I knew her tears were probably because she was asked to use a different colored highlighter.

    She was definitely one of the reasons I was job searching within a year of her joining our team.

    1. AKchic*

      I worked with someone like that at my last job. If I complained, our boss didn’t care. If c-suite or a board member complained, she’d get a reminder to “watch her temper/language”, she’d cuss and complain for a few weeks, tone it down, but mutter darkly and slam drawers instead, smile sarcastically at all of the c-suite in the hall as if she were being polite, and then after two weeks, forget all about it and go back to “normal”.

      It’s been four years since I left. She is still there in the same position, wondering why she can’t get promoted.

  34. pancakes*

    “She’s single so she spends a lot of time by herself anyway” raised my eyebrows. Being single isn’t synonymous with spending a lot of time alone. I can see why Brenda might not have an easy time making friends, but it doesn’t follow that her co-workers need to step up their intimacy with her as a result.

    1. Batgirl*

      Yeah its completely unacceptable if the folks in the workplace have been voluntold as her designated social support.

    2. Mama Bear*

      We all have challenges. Some people are fine alone, and some are not. If Brenda needs social interaction, that’s the job of friends or a book club or something. It’s not the job of her coworkers.

      1. Lalitah28*

        I was thinking the same thing. There are a lot of vulnerable people that use their job as their only form of social interaction and thus off-load there on people emotionally. And because they don’t have the appropriate social skills, if they attempt to make friends outside of work, they fail or are isolated, so work friends are like a captive audience of sorts.

        Sometimes you need therapy more than you need friends at certain stages of life. This is certainly one of them.

    3. CTT*

      I took that as being part of OP’s understanding as to why Brenda doesn’t like working from home rather than justification for why she’s imposing on her coworkers.

      1. pancakes*

        That’s not a great reason for coming to the office during a pandemic! Or anytime, really.

        1. Ethyl*

          It really, really depends. It sounds like the LW works in a mental health situation that provides direct services to people. They may not have a choice about whether someone *needs* to be in the office. However, I REALLLLLY side-eye the whole “Brenda needs to be here to take minutes of meetings,” because those meetings should probs be remote now anyway….

          And I say this as someone who lives in a somewhat rural area in a state with a robust COVID response who feels entirely comfortable with my area’s re-opening plan. Nobody “needs” to be “on site” to “take minutes” for heaven’s sake.

  35. Mockingjay*

    There’s a difference between managing someone’s work and managing someone’s emotions. With Brenda, the latter is overtaking the former.

    We all have emotions and personal issues to deal with while at work,(I took FMLA last year – I get it!), but Brenda’s coworkers and supervisor are not there to provide all-day counseling and comfort in lieu of business. Direct Brenda to her options, whether reduced schedule, FMLA, EAP, etc. while being firm about work expectations going forward.

    Consider: if Brenda’s emotions were expressed by daily yelling and tirades instead of crying, how long would you have tolerated that? Outbursts of any kind are disruptive and disconcerting to coworkers. I couldn’t focus if I had to deal with waterworks every day. It’d get damned annoying quickly.

  36. Jean*

    Unfortunately Brenda is working under the messaging that this behavior is fine to continue, since she’s been allowed to sit sobbing at her desk multiple times a day for what sounds like a long time now, while everyone else around her gets to be uncomfortable and walk on eggshells. So broaching the subject is going to be very uncomfortable for you as her manager, and you will need to be prepared for that. But the only alternative is to just let it continue, which is going to tank the rest of the team’s morale and their level of respect for you as a manager for failing to address this. Suggesting FMLA is going to be your best option here. Definitely make it clear that sitting sobbing at her desk is no longer going to be an option for her! My God. I can’t imagine how fed up the rest of the team must be. Brenda’s coworkers do not get paid enough to cope with an energy vampire in their midst. I would be looking for another job. Good luck.

    1. Kettricken Farseer*

      This is what I came here to say, that by not shutting it down is implicitly teaching Brenda that this behavior is okay and she’s free to continue it.

      OP, it seems like your bending over backwards to accommodate her, but there is a difference between being compassionate and being enmeshed. Being compassionate means acknowledging her and pointing her to resources she can use while keeping boundaries between the two of you. Trying to solve her problems for her or accommodating her at the expense of others is enmeshment and it’s not healthy — for her or for you.

  37. Delta Delta*

    I worked with a Brenda. I didn’t adore her, although I thought she was a perfectly nice lady, and when I run into her in the community am happy to say hello. Here’s an observation I made about my Brenda: her crying had become a habit. It started with being overwhelmed. Then there were people who were sort of mean to her (she often answered the phone and had to deal with cranky callers). Then there was one employee who seemed to set her off. I noticed that when that coworker asked her to do anything – boom – tears. If I asked her to do the same thing – no tears. “Hey Brenda, could you hand me that pencil?” could spark a river of sobs, depending on who asked. But it was hard to walk on eggshells around her, since at first it wasn’t clear what was happening. Eventually she found a new job that was more her speed.

    But it was draining for everyone. Everyone walked on eggshells around her. Even asking her to do her job felt like an imposition sometimes because you never knew what reaction would spark. Boundaries would have been excellent for her.

  38. MicroManagered*

    I worked with a “Brenda” years ago. I am pretty emotional myself, and have days where I (successfully!) hold back tears. Being around a Brenda, who was full-on hyperventilating-crying several times a week, made my own emotions more difficult to manage. You know how if 2 babies are sitting next to each other, and one bonks his head and starts to cry, the other one will cry too–even though she is fine? It felt like that all the time.

    The fact that management allowed it to go on completely eroded my faith in them and made the work environment toxic. Brenda wasn’t the reason I left the job, but she made decision that much easier… It was a huge check in the “or should I go?” column.

  39. Chronic Overthinker*

    This is definitely worth a nudge to the company’s EAP and looking into intermittent FMLA. I feel for Brenda and can certainly understand being empathetic, but the job should come first. This manager is doing a great job of being supportive, but it does come back to work product and overall office productivity. My only other suggestion with regard to remote work is to maybe schedule a coffee/happy hour for staff where Brenda can get the socializing she needs, and still be focused on work.

  40. Emma*

    As someone who struggles with depression, Brenda needs to get her sh** together. When my current episode first hit, I would have to step away from my desk multiple times per day to go cry in the bathroom. But I would never, ever, EVER have sat at my desk just sobbing while my coworkers went about their day. How mortifying! Luckily, the worst of my symptoms are now (mostly) controlled by meds. Honestly I think she almost has to have at least somewhat of an attention-seeking personality in order to be ok with sitting at her desk and sobbing. That doesn’t strike me as healthy behavior at all – at least, not when it’s happening virtually on a daily basis.

    1. AKchic*

      We’re asked not to try to diagnose people, but I get what you’re saying. The speculation doesn’t help the OP.

  41. Cheddarthecorgi*

    If she has medical issues, she might not want to take FMLA or a leave of absence.

    I spent many hours crying at my desk in the past 2 years due to my physical disability. I considered taking leave but I couldn’t financially afford it when 25-40% of my monthly income went to medical bills.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      While I totally sympathise with the health issues thing, when I was acting up disruptively at my desk a lot because of them I really needed my boss telling me to either take it outside/somewhere private or get more help because I was really starting to affect my coworkers.

    2. Me*

      While that’s unfortunate if she doesn’t want to take leave or cant’ afford it, she’s disrupting work and her employer allowing it to continue is untenable. Allowing someone to sob at their desk isn’t and ADA accommodation. And it’s point blank unfair to her colleagues that they should have to tolerate it.

  42. Safely Retired*

    She does seem to be getting help, both from a counselor and her medical doctor for her mental health issues.

    I hope it is effective help, because the lady has serious problems. The right counselor can almost be a miracle worker. The wrong one can make things oh so much worse.

  43. Jennifer*

    Can you ask Brenda to excuse herself to the restroom or outside when she feels overcome with emotion? Very different issues but I’d look at it as anyone who has a medical condition who needs a few extra restroom breaks a day, like some sort of digestive problem.

    And yes, this is a good lesson to remind us all not to let emotional baggage pile up without handling it, if possible.

  44. lmary*

    Is it possible to get Brenda an office or workspace with a door? Giving her some privacy may make everything easier for Brenda, and it would sure make it easier for her coworkers. Most people are okay with crying and emotions as a concept, but sure don’t want to be witnessing and interacting with them daily. Obviously the constant crying is an issue that can’t go on forever, but she is a good employee and this may be something she can work through in the short term.

    1. OP*

      She has a door, and thankfully, she uses it. I am very much hoping that this is a short-term issue she can work through. She is a good employee and this excessive behavior is not typical. She will always be a feeler who cries easily, but the recent behavior is not what I have experienced with her for years.

      1. Observer*

        OK, this has been going on since January. That’s six months! It’s past time for you to push a lot harder on getting this under control.

        Understand this – at this point you are not really helping her, no matter how you feel about it. Worse, you are almost certainly harming others. And if you don’t get a handle on this SOON, you will also start losing your best staff.

      2. Joielle*

        Genuinely curious: if she shuts the door, how does anyone know when she just has tears streaming down her face?

        1. LooLoo*

          Yes, if she is always shutting her door, is she so loud people can still hear her? Or does she have a window that people can see in and that she could get permission to cover it for now?

  45. Raea*

    “The other problem is that she does all of our new employee paperwork, takes minutes at some high level meetings, etc. There are definitely some things she could do from home, but it’s probably only about 30-40% of her job.”

    I’d like to gently push back on this a bit. There very well may be aspects of her job that 100% cannot be done remotely, but I’m wondering if maybe this is more feasible than it appears at first glance? At least based on the examples given by OP, it seems like it might be doable (as a reasonable accommodation / lesser of evils).

    Can the meetings include a call in number? This could eliminate the need for the note taker to be there in person. I’ve often had admins on my teams that work from other states (either from home or other offices), and it’s been no different than if they were on site.

    Does the new employee paperwork have to be done entirely in person? At my current employer, I did all of my paperwork electronically as I’m in a different state than the parent companies HR dept (and much of their staff is also remote). If esignatures are not considered acceptable here, you could have everything completed electronically and then have someone else sign off that’s on site.

    Again, not trying to second guess the OP – I’m just wondering if it’s worth revisiting the idea that it wouldn’t be possible for her to complete all job duties remotely. While it may not have been done that way in the past, it sounds like it might be doable now?

    1. ampersand*

      But should OP go to such lengths to work around Brenda not being able to hold it together at work?

      That’s a genuine question, not snark. I’m mostly thinking that if this ends up being a long-term issue, should OP allow an employee to work remotely because they cry all the time? How much does this fall under reasonable accommodation? Is having someone else sign off on paperwork on site, because Brenda can’t, a reasonable accommodation?

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        Honestly, I think an employer should allow somebody whose work situation permits it to work remotely for any reason or just because they want to. Having somebody else sign the occasional paper isn’t a big accommodation particularly. This doesn’t need to be about “Brenda has such a serious problem that we will have to let her work off-site,” it’s that working off-site is a pretty reasonable ask for anyone whose duties don’t actually involve physical or face to face interactive tasks that have to be done on the office premises.

        The only real distinction here is that she apparently doesn’t *want* to work remotely. Being allowed to work remotely if you ask for it is something that pretty much everyone should get unless the duties of the job forbid it. Being *required* to work remotely, when all your colleagues are free to work either from home or from the office as they please, should be reserved for people who are in some way disruptive to the work being done on the premises if they show up there. That does clearly include Brenda, but the bar is set much higher for demanding that someone work from home than for allowing them to.

        1. ampersand*

          Ah, that’s right–I forgot she doesn’t want to work from home. Making that a requirement could get into some weird territory. Truly, if she’s this fragile at the moment, requiring that she work from home probably wouldn’t help her state of mind.

          I agree about allowing people to work from home if it’s feasible! I wish more employers were open to that. I was coming from a place of: how would it look if one person was allowed to work from home as an accommodation, if other people can’t work from home? In a general sense I don’t know what’s considered reasonable, or is covered by law, etc., in a situation where one person might be allowed to work from home when others can’t. I don’t want to speculate about OP’s workplace and who is working from home and who is not, though.

  46. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    I’m super sympathetic in most cases. But this is too much.

    I have a friend who will work herself up into tears about nearly anything, especially all the family/childhood stuff that she’s been poking at for the last bunch of years, but sometimes both good and bad current stuff.

    It is a burden to have the topic always about her sorrow. I have had luck though, when it gets too much, to point the sorrow right back into her own hands. “That’s something you’ll need to address with your therapist. I’ve got nothing more to offer about it.”

    She may say she’s an empath, but what she’s doing is spreading her emotions all over the place and refusing to take responsibility for the mess.

  47. AKchic*

    Yeah, Brenda lost a lot of my sympathy / empathy at the description of “…a self-described empath, she cries easily and is a feeler’s feeler. (She feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.)”. I don’t need someone reacting to things in my life in ways that I certainly wouldn’t. It feels very… self-centered. Even when they may not consciously mean to.
    People aren’t “empaths”. They are hypersensitive to other people and their cues due to traumas and don’t have the language / emotional intelligence to describe and say that, and it sounds more spiritual to say “empath”.

    I don’t know that Brenda is as loved by the rest of the staff as LW claims. She may have been liked professionally, but it’s hard to stay liked when your personality is a caricature of emotions, and for the last six months, some kind of grieving performance art that they can’t get away from.

    Brenda’s socialization is not the company or your responsibility. Your/the company’s responsibility is ensuring that the employees (the rest of them, not just Brenda) are getting their jobs done safely with minimal disruptions. Brenda is being a huge disruption right now. Others have made wonderful suggestions.
    I leave you with this nugget: For a long time, Brenda managed to deal with whatever it was that has triggered this 6 month long meltdown. As a grown human being, she is capable of reining in her emotions long enough to either cry when she isn’t out in the open, or do so quietly so she isn’t disrupting others. She is also capable of working from home as much as her job duties will allow.
    I think you’re worried about hurting her feelings, and have allowed her tears to be weaponized, whether she intended it or not (I don’t think she did). Ignore the tears. I know, we’ve all been conditioned to want to be sympathetic and help and fix things when we see tears/someone crying. In this case, you can’t fix Brenda’s problem, but Brenda’s tears are now an office problem and that’s something that needs to be solved for the office.

    (I feel like my motivational “speech” might be coming off as a lecture, that wasn’t my intention. You can do this. The office will thank you for it)

    1. Chronic Overthinker*

      Though I appreciate your overall sentiment, empaths are real. I am a highly intuitive person. I pick up on other’s emotions and feelings. If someone is grumpy and keeping to themselves, I too can get grumpy and not know exactly why until I find out my co-worker is grumpy. Heck, I’ve even gotten a headache because my co-worker had one too. Don’t dismiss or trivialize something just because you haven’t personally experienced it. I also have high emotional intelligence and am able to keep my emotions in check while at work. Brenda is likely going through some trauma, as LW had said, and unfortunately the office has been trained to deal with her behavior in the past. Now it’s time for a change and for Brenda to realize her behavior is doing more harm than she realizes.

      1. Working Hypothesis*

        I think we can agree on the issue here — Brenda can’t keep doing this, no matter what the reason for her hyper-intense feelings are. It sounds as if they may be mixed anyway. Even if she’s genuinely an empath, it’s also clear that many of her outbursts are triggered not by echoes of other people’s feelings but directly by her own (for example, crying in response to less than stellar feedback about her work, or whatever this personal problem has been over the last several months). The problem isn’t where her feelings are coming from — regardless of whether they’re about somebody else’s life problems, her own life problems, her work being criticized, or somebody wearing the color green she still has to either get them under control or be someplace where her colleagues aren’t forced to deal with them all the time.

      1. Poke*

        Can you share some research about that? I’m looking for scientific literature about empaths and can’t find any.

      2. Lovely Day in the Pandemic*

        Most humans are empaths, in that they have compassion for others. How is being an “empath” any different than being human? To not have any empathy makes for a sick, inhuman person.

        Besides, what is the diagnostic criteria for the empath label, and who is qualified to make this diagnosis?

        People may feel they are super-special because of their self-perceived hyper emotionality, but they really aren’t. All this talk of being an empath makes it seem like the rest of us are cold-hearted robots.

        I have never worked anywhere that any manager would put this much emotional labor into an employee. OP needs boundaries, while maintaining kindness. Crying elicits a sympathetic response in normal people and will become exhausting to be around if nothing can be done. I get that you really care for your cryer, but don’t allow that to make you blind to the fact that she has become a missing stair.

    2. Joielle*

      I think there are some people who are actually empaths, and a LOT more people who are just very dramatic and self-absorbed but think “empath” makes them sound deep and spiritual (and makes other people feel like they can’t complain). Brenda sounds like the latter.

  48. Senor Montoya*

    Alison, thank you for saying that not everybody may love Brenda. I’ve worked with Brenda. I did not love her. I appreciated her kindness, she was good at our core work competencies, but she drove me batsh!t crazy. I don’t want someone else feeling feels on my behalf (or if they do, they need to keep it to themselves). Any coworker who is very private about their life, or who is very logical and objective, or who wants work to be work, is not going to enjoy working with Brenda.

    Now, I have been that person who had a terrible life situation that made it really hard for me to keep it together at work. I needed to work for the money and health insurance and just to be at work and distracted from my terrible life situation. When I was weeping at my desk (And we have offices with doors that close, so not even out in the open), my boss very kindly but firmly asked if I would be able to pull it tougher for that day and for the foreseeable future. And they offered just what Alison suggested. I was deeply grateful.

    So I’m sympathetic to Brenda, I get it, but it’s got to stop.

    1. Observer*

      I think that there has been too much emphasis on whether people really do love Brenda or not. But really, it doesn’t matter. Her behavior is a genuine problem, and it needs to be toned down SIGNIFICANTLY.

  49. Quake Johnson*

    “she is dealing with baggage from her own life that she has largely ignored for decades. (Frankly, we could all learn a lesson from her on that.)”

    I raised my eyebrow at this sentence. Suppressing things for 20+ years sounds wildly unhealthy. The only ‘lesson’ anyone should take away from this is “Don’t be like Brenda.”

    1. The Grey Lady*

      You do know it’s very normal to suppress old wounds and problems, and that almost everyone is suppressing something, right? I don’t say any of this as a defense of Brenda’s behavior, because it’s obviously not appropriate. But I’m seeing a lot of “holier than thou” comments.

      1. Quake Johnson*

        Oh absolutely. I just find it problematic how the LW is suggesting this is somehow inspirational or something others should aspire too.

        1. The Grey Lady*

          Yeah, that was a weird comment. Everyone definitely has baggage, but I don’t think Brenda should be put on any sort of pedestal (for the record, I don’t really support putting anyone on a pedestal).

        2. fhqwhgads*

          I didn’t read it that way. I thought OP’s point with that comment was “do deal with your stuff” and/or “don’t let it get to this point”.

          1. Betty (the other Betty)*

            Yes, me too. Perhaps the words OP was looking for is, “Brenda is a cautionary tale of what might happen if you don’t deal with difficult problems.”

      1. Harper the Other One*

        That is how I interpreted it as well: that OP was saying that suppressing things for so long has done significant damage, and Brenda’s current struggles are a reminder that it’s better to get help sooner.

    2. Librarian1*

      Quake Johnson- I’m pretty sure that the lesson the OP was talking about was “don’t ignore personal issues for decades”

  50. ampersand*

    I’ve been the occasional cryer at work during extremely stressful times–like when I was getting divorced–and was lucky I had an office door to shut to allow me to pull myself together. I once had a coworker whose young son died unexpectedly shortly after his wife left him, and I would hear him sobbing in his office every few months. He held it together amazingly well most of the time, but those times I could hear him sobbing through a closed door, it was uncomfortable–I was sympathetic, but people usually don’t openly sob at work. The best I could do was ignore it as much as possible and check in on him later (because we were at work and he clearly wanted to be left alone, not because I didn’t care). We were lucky that clients didn’t hear it.

    I really feel for everyone having to listen to or Brenda regularly cry. She needs to find a way to get it together. This problem is going to be compounded when her colleagues’ patience wears thin and they refuse to work with her or start leaving for other jobs.

    1. Quinalla*

      Yes, this occasional kind of thing where people are clearly trying to keep it together as much as possible is something we should all give each other breaks for. When it gets to the level of what OP is describing, something needs to change!

  51. Happy*

    I had a family member like Brenda. She ended up in a 6 week, inpatient, intensive counselling center. It worked and she has a productive life now. It has to be miserable being in your own head when you feel like sobbing all the time!
    We’re going to need an update.

    1. The Bill Murray Disagreement*

      That’s really good to hear. And some people will need to learn from their employers what options are available (paid leave, EAP, support etc) because dealing with the level of personal difficulties that it sounds like Brenda is dealing with can make it very difficult to know how to get better.

  52. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

    Yes to everything Alison suggested. Kind but FIRM. This can not continue. If you had an employee that was quick to anger and get defensive every time someone disagreed with them or told them they made a mistake, would you let it continue? Because to me this isn’t any different (other than the types of emotions others may feel as a result). You have an employee that is causing others to avoid them and walk on eggshells in order to keep her from breaking down. Even if she has a medical diagnosis, she needs to find the best way for her to cope and not expect everyone else to tiptoe around her and avoid setting her into a tailspin. Kindness is needed here, but that doesn’t mean letting one person run so rampant with her emotions that everyone else is on edge.

  53. Batgirl*

    “Is Brenda really adored by everyone in the organization, as you wrote?”
    I’ve got to say that my colleague and I were totally thrilled when our Brenda left the company, even though people liked her as a person
    She put a lot of effort into being liked as a person. I didn’t even get how exhausting she was until we were on the same project.
    She put about 40% of her efforts into connecting with people on a social level, another 40% into communicating to those people in venting conversations how things made her feel (her social isolation, her stress about work, her feelings about other peoples feelings), about 10% into her work (generally solid and factual in nature) and 10% into pushing back whenever anyone tried to tell her a frustration/issue was immovable and we had to work around or past it: “I am a really sensitive person and I can’t do that”.
    Ultimately she had to go. We work in a place where interpersonal skills are just as important as technical ones (isn’t everywhere?) and you couldn’t interact with her positively unless it was social, rather than a work discussion.
    Exhaaaauuuuustiiing………..

    1. AKchic*

      I was dealing with a woman in close quarters like this. She has diagnosed issues, and oh my gods, is she exhausting. She uses her mental health issues as a crutch / excuse to abuse and control everyone around her. Woe to anyone who sets boundaries or refuses to go along with her controlling behaviors (because “I have anxiety!” is her mantra and excuse for why everything has to be done her way and on her timeline). When people distance themselves from it, she starts in on the pity party vaguebooking posts on social media and the melodramatic “why am I not good enough to love” and “why does everyone abandon me” stuff.
      Attempting to run any kind of business with her was a disaster.

  54. OP*

    Thanks, everyone for the comments!! I’m still reading through them, but I appreciate the perspectives.
    It’s been a strange situation, for sure… and thankfully, Brenda’s behavior has not been like this for the duration of her 9 years with our company. She has always worn her emotions on her sleeve and been sensitive/feeling/empathetic, etc., but the emotions have escalated recently to a degree that is challenging for me to lead through.
    We work in the mental health field, which makes the organization as a whole much more sympathetic and able to deal with this behavior for much longer than anywhere else I have worked.
    People really do love Brenda, for the most part. She is funny, and smart, and engaging, and super caring. There are a few folks that get frustrated with her empathy, but most of the staff appreciate her for it, to some degree. For the sake of everyone, including Brenda, I don’t want the situation to get to the point where it REALLY starts to backfire. But our staff, as a whole is extremely patient and empathetic – it’s really a wonderful place to work – and most of them just want to hug Brenda and love her (and anyone else who is struggling) through it. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often, because then, we wouldn’t get anything done!
    I’ve had conversations with her in the past about her emotions and she struggles in the moment, but usually gets herself together and puts on a brave face… but these recent issues are much tougher.
    I am very comfortable with FMLA/ADA conversations, so that will definitely be a part of this conversation going forward. I am working on the plan for this conversation with her and I appreciate the feedback, everyone.

    1. Harper the Other One*

      OP, does your organization have a robust paid leave policy? Especially where you work in mental health, even employees who don’t have direct contact can get burnt out. People don’t necessarily think of how tough fields can affect office employees etc. as well but in my experience there’s definitely a knock-on effect of the stressful field.

      Obviously you need to address what’s happening with Brenda right now, and you probably won’t be able to do this fast enough to benefit her, but please push for full salary replacement for paid leave as a benefit for your staff. It feels much less awful to tell someone they need to take leave when you know their choices aren’t “stay at work and unravel” or “go on leave and rack up debt/lose their house/depend on food banks.”

    2. LDN Layabout*

      OP, I’m going to try to be kind here, but the fact that you and your coworkers are in a mental health field means they need /more/ protection from management in regards to their coworker’s behaviour, not /less/.

      It’s a stressful, wrenching sector to work in and not having respite from it in any place of your working environment because this kind of behaviour is tolerated is pretty horrific on your part.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Yeah, I winced when reading that. This means that they *never have a break* from stress. Their work is stressful *and* their workplace is stressful.

    3. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

      Thanks for responding, OP!

      I just want to draw your attention to something you just wrote, namely this:
      “ There are a few folks that get frustrated with her empathy, but most of the staff appreciate her for it, to some degree.”

      To me, that suggests that you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Brenda’s empathy isn’t the problem here, it’s her behavior. And while her behavior might stem from her being an self-described empath, that doesn’t make it less disruptive and problematic.
      That means that it’s not your responsibility to fix the cause of her disruptive behavior. You can offer support and accommodations but the rest is on Brenda.

      Your co-workers aren’t frustrated by her empathy, they’re frustrated because of how it’s making her act, and that’s a very important distinction. The way you’re phrasing it makes me feel a bit like you want the rest of the office to change and be nicer to Brenda.
      I might be totally off, but it stuck out to me.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        As an empath, I agree with you. The problem isn’t Brenda’s empathy–she can’t change that. The problem is how it’s making her act, especially when there are resources out there that help you manage this very thing.

        1. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

          I won’t call myself an empath but I’m very susceptible to picking other other people’s emotions. And I work hard to control it so that it doesn’t affect those around me.

      2. Working Hypothesis*

        I’m going to add to this the reminder that it’s not at all just the empathy that’s making her break down. OP, you’ve listed multiple things that cause Brenda’s meltdowns and while some of them are her empathetic response to others’ problems, a lot of them are simply things happening to her that she doesn’t enjoy (such as receiving less than stellar feedback on her work), or her open personal problems (such as this old trauma she’s working on).

        That doesn’t mean these things are unimportant, but I want to push back a bit against the image you’ve got going of Brenda as this totally selfless, too-caring individual who melts down all the time simply because she’s too empathic. She melts down because she has no control of her emotions, and you’ve set things up so that she has no obligation to learn such control. But she’s working around other highly stressed people and it’s important that she DOES learn this control, or else accept other solutions such as working from home which don’t further put the burden on her colleagues. It’s her problem, not theirs, and it is not kind of her to insist on making it their problem.

        In addition to having no emotional control and being unwilling to take responsibility for her own behavior, she may *also* be an empath, but that’s pretty much irrelevant to the situation you have on your hands. Your situation is all about her lack of control and lack of willingness to take it elsewhere, and I encourage you to focus on those! Don’t let her empathy distract you from what she is actually doing — whether purposely or not, because it really doesn’t matter that much — to the rest of your team. She can be an empath and still be, independently of that, behaving badly every time she gets upset (over anything, whether her own problem or someone else’s). And she can also be an empath and still need to be held to a standard that requires she stop.

        1. Tau*

          This is an excellent point. Almost all the examples we have of Brenda letting her emotions inappropriately interfere with her work are about HER emotions, not anything she’s picked up from others. To some extent, the “empath” thing is a red herring.

        2. Some Sort of Management Consultant*

          That’s such a good point!
          I loved this:
          “Don’t let her empathy distract you from what she is actually doing — whether purposely or not, because it really doesn’t matter that much — to the rest of your team. She can be an empath and still be, independently of that, behaving badly every time she gets upset (over anything, whether her own problem or someone else’s). And she can also be an empath and still need to be held to a standard that requires she stop.“

        3. office dwelling tanuki*

          Yes so much to all of this!

          As someone who used to have an overdeveloped sense of empathy and no boundaries… empathy isn’t inherently good or virtuous. It just is. And it’s not always that useful. Sometimes it’s actively detrimental.

      3. Sea-Anemone-Enemy*

        Brenda’s coworkers are likely also frustrated by OP’s evident unwillingness to address the problem. I regret to say that it sounds like OP has been conditioned (if not manipulated) to place Brenda’s needs above the needs of the “few coworkers” OP dismisses as outliers in terms of overall opinion of Brenda. I wonder if any of Brenda’s colleagues have mentioned to OP that Brenda’s behavior is problematic—and, if so, how OP has addressed their concerns.

    4. Used to cry like Brenda*

      As someone who used to have a similar set of emotional problems as Brenda (only minus the Empath part), I want you to know that the sympathetic responses to Brenda may feel good, but they are not helpful to her in a long-term sense. She needs to find new ways to be in the world. Encouraging her to remain the same as she has always been will only prolong her suffering.

      For people like myself and Brenda, learning to contain and live in our emotions is a part of growing up that takes longer than normal and is more difficult than usual. The longer her current behavior is nurtured, the longer it will take for her to finish reaching maturity.

      I don’t mean you need to turn cold or do “tough love.” What I mean is that Alison’s advice is not just correct for helping her co-workers, it is also the right thing for helping Brenda, too. You need to believe that she is capable of becoming a more mature version of herself and help her by continually raising the bar for her to do so. Stop thinking that the way she is now is right and good for her. Have higher expectations and hopes for her than that. She can have all the wonderful qualities you love about her and also grow into something even better. Be a trellis, not a cushion.

      1. allathian*

        “Be a trellis, not a cushion.” This should be embroidered on a… cushion. :)

    5. Temperance*

      I think you should probably reframe the issue as “Brenda’s empathy”, because that makes it sound much more positive than it is. “Brenda thinking she’s absorbing the emotions of her coworkers and acting out” is probably more likely.

      I think you really like Brenda, and it might be coloring your view of these interactions. When you say that “most people really love her”, and follow it up with “for the most part”, it signals to me that it’s more likely that people are annoyed with her antics but afraid to say anything because the situation isn’t being handled and Brenda is so kooky and we love her for it.

    6. Observer*

      Yeah. You REALLY need to get a handle on this. If you’re already hearing the exasperation, then it’s BAD.

      I think that the reframing that people are mentioning is important. This is not about her being an empath or not, or any aspect of her “being”. It’s about behavior that is out of control and making life difficult for her colleagues – in a situation that is already hard enough. Please, for her sake and the sake of all of the rest of your staff (even the one who have not YET complained), please work on getting this under control.

    7. February Goshawk*

      Given how much you clearly adore Brenda — for good reasons — I suspect some people in the office are not comfortable talking to you about the negative effects of Brenda’s behavior.

      You walk on eggshells around her, and I suspect some people in the office walk on eggshells around you, in turn.

      People may like Brenda, and they may benefit from her good qualities most of the time, but I think you’re underestimating how disruptive or even demoralizing her current behavior is, because people don’t feel like they can share that with you.

      Maybe not — maybe your office is truly unusual. But it’s worth considering that if you’re this bothered, other people are probably a lot more so.

      1. Shan*

        I think this is really important. It’s clear that OP is very fond and protective of Brenda, and I am sure that’s even more apparent in the office. I imagine very few people would be comfortable approaching OP with their concerns, and given the fact they’re also HR… people probably feel powerless to say anything.

      2. Courageous cat*

        Agreed. Favoring her too hard is not going to help you in this situation. Time to place the same amount of compassion into your other employees who are having to deal with this daily.

    8. Sara without an H*

      OP, one thing I’ve noticed in your comments is that you sound very enmeshed with Brenda. You seem to be doing a lot of emotional caretaking for her. Are you sure that’s really in the best interests of either of you? You seem so fond and protective of her — how do you treat your other staff? Are you, just maybe, guilty of favoritism?

      One of the smartest HR people I’ve ever worked with once told me, “Don’t talk about their feelings. Focus on their behavior.” In fairness to the rest of your staff, it’s time to start focusing of Brenda’s behavior, before she burns through all the good will she’s built up with her coworkers.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        A certain amount of clinical detachment is necessary. It’s obvious that giving into Brenda’s needs (no negative feedback else she cries tc.) and just assuming everyone else is okay with a constantly crying coworker hasn’t helped at all because the behaviour is still ongoing.

        I really hope this has a resolution before her coworkers start suffering from the stress of being around this. Or, worse thought, they already are starting to suffer mental issues of their own and are hiding them because they feel they have to only say nice things.

        1. Sara without an H*

          Yes, I’m concerned about the other staff as well. Years ago, I had a similar situation, although it wasn’t as extreme as what OP describes in her message. I let it drag on much too long, chiefly because this woman’s personal circumstances were extremely painful and I didn’t want to be uncaring. But she was doing things that were really hard on her staff. In fairness to them, I should have intervened much more actively long before I actually did.

          The situation resolved eventually, but it would have been much less painful for all concerned if I’d been more assertive at an earlier point.

  55. SomebodyElse*

    To the OP, if you want to see the other side of this. I suggest you read this letter from an officemate of someone who was having serious issues at work and how it affects the others on the team. You have to get in front of this.

    Original (#2):
    https://www.askamanager.org/2018/06/my-coworker-owes-me-money-and-wont-pay-it-back-my-coworkers-panic-attacks-are-affecting-my-work-and-more.html

    Update:
    https://www.askamanager.org/2018/08/4-updates-from-letter-writers-the-coworker-with-panic-attacks-interviewing-with-hair-loss-and-more.html

  56. coffeeandpearls*

    Whoooboy…. anxiety is awful to be trapped in and deal with. Best of luck to you and Brenda. Perhaps looking into resilience based management might also help in addition to everything else? This wouldn’t just benefit Brenda.

    Also, you should consider letting her take meeting minutes remotely too. I’m able to do this just fine. My personal opinion is that everyone should be meeting remotely anyway right now, but hey! One problem at a time! :)

  57. Robin Ellacott*

    The biggest cringe for me (in a cringe-rich post) was Brenda’s taking on other people’s issues and being more upset than they are about them. I would find that REALLY hard to cope with gracefully if someone did that about me.

    I’d guess that people do pity Brenda but are acutely uncomfortable around her, and probably a lot more irritated than they feel they can express.

    The thing is that poor Brenda is doing so poorly now that even all the accommodation in the world isn’t enough to make her calm at work, so the gentle handling really hasn’t worked. Being direct is a kindness because it acknowledges that and leads into trying something that may work better.

    1. Colette*

      Yeah, that is off. Maybe there are specific situations where someone isn’t outraged when they should be (i.e. a situation where something has become “normal” so the person involved doesn’t realize how weird it is), but in general, you don’t get to be more upset about something than the person it happened to (or if you are, you should not in any way show it.)

  58. Sarashina*

    As someone who worked for a Brenda, shared an office with her, and was told for the four years I worked for her that I just needed to deal with it (and take on as much of her work as I could) because she was “going through a tough time” – this post and these comments are HEALING ME, thanks y’all.

    1. Robin Ellacott*

      I hear you! I shared an office with a person (a counsellor, by the way) who was in tears continually if she felt slighted. She felt slighted by things like the people in the office next door closing their office door because “she felt so excluded” and people coming in to talk to me about my work and “just saying hello to her then ignoring her to talk to Robin.” I didn’t realize how exhausted and angry I was about it until I moved to a different office and office-mate, and it was like sandbags were lifted off my shoulders.

  59. Sharon*

    It’s ironic that OP’s letter is about a sensitive, empathic person, and most of the comments here…. are not. Saying Brenda “needs drugs” or is an “emotional vampire”? Is that how we treat or think of people that suffer from mental health issues?

    Why do these comment sections so often turn into free-for-alls on the subject of the letters? By and large, most of you seem to think you’re just absolutely swell workmates. I can tell you, based on your responses here, that’s absolutely not true.

    Good luck with this situation, OP. But even more so for Brenda, who is obviously dealing with some difficult issues.

    1. Anon Anon*

      I don’t know that is a fair assessment of the comments. Yes, there are some that like that, but most seem to just be taking a firm line about Brenda’s expression of her emotion. The OP not only has to consider Brenda and her feelings, but also her entire department, and everyone who works with Brenda. Brenda’s emotional needs cannot supersede everyone else’s in the organization because she’s going through a rough time right now. Especially when it appears that the OP and the organization has allowed her needs to supersede everyone else’s for months.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        It is a fair assessment of the comments. I totally agree with you that Brenda’s emotional needs cannot supersede everyone else’s, and that something clearly needs to be done here. But there are tons of comments diagnosing Brenda left and right–I’ve seen depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and histrionic disorder, just to name a few. I think we can all agree that Brenda’s behavior is not work appropriate and not healthy for her coworkers (or herself). But these types of comments are incredibly unhelpful and unkind.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I’ve seen far more sympathetic and genuine advice posts than not. A lot of us here seem to have had (or have) mental issues of our own and are merely saying what might have helped us might also assist here.

        2. Detective Amy Santiago*

          I’ve seen a lot of people talking about their own experiences with those particular issues and how they manifested similar symptoms, but not necessarily trying to diagnose Brenda.

          At the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious that Brenda has some kind of issue that is not being properly treated and is likely causing harm to her coworkers. Which means that the advice of Alison and the commenters, that OP needs to come up with a way to make it stop, is spot on.

        3. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I just searched for all those terms on this page and literally no one (thus far) has said she has bipolar. One person mentioned histrionic disorder and I removed it as a commenting rules violation.

        4. Cat*

          Someone said that THEY had bipolar disorder when they exhibited similar symptoms. That is not a diagnosis and it’s not unkind; it is relating their own experience, which is completely ok.

          1. The Grey Lady*

            Oops, I misread that comment about bipolar disorder. Sorry about that–I read it as them saying Brenda had it.

    2. OP*

      Thank you, Sharon. I’m finding myself defending Brenda a lot… people seem to be pretty hung up on the empath part – very much regretting that I mentioned it in my letter. Thankfully, I have received enough usable language from Alison and others that I can incorporate into my conversations with Brenda about her behavior. Emotionally, I am very much an opposite of Brenda, and I care about her enough to want to be firm and set boundaries, but in a way that isn’t hurtful.

      1. Altair*

        By the way, I am really impressed with your caring. Thank you for being the kind of boss who understands that you manage human beings.

      2. Alexander Graham Yell*

        I think that’s really great. I can be a crier, and for some reason my manager triggers my tear reflex more than most people. She’s very understanding, but I hate getting emotional at work so it’s something I’m working on. While I don’t know that it’s your place to suggest specific ways to stop crying, I have found that some kind of physical sensation that overrides the tear response has been useful. (I pinch the skin between my thumb and forefinger like you would to ease a headache.) There are ways to short circuit that response in places where it’s inappropriate to let it out, so I think focusing on the *action* here is what’s key. It’s great that she has feelings, that’s healthy! But the act of crying in front of her coworkers, regardless of the reason, needs to change.

        I think establishing clear boundaries is a kind thing to do here, and I think the whole team will benefit once they’re put into place and enforced. Thanks for being willing to do the challenging thing.

      3. Temperance*

        Even if it’s “hurtful”, you’ll be doing her, and more importantly, the rest of the office, a solid by addressing the problematic behavior.

      4. Oof*

        I think you’ve been doing great, and getting AAM perspective is part of that! We could use a manager like you.

      5. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Here’s the thing, OP. And I’m going to say this as kindly as I possibly can.

        You are being very considerate of Brenda’s feelings throughout your post & comments. And that is not a bad thing. However, you need to be equally considerate of the rest of your employees and how Brenda’s actions could be impacting them. You seem very convinced that no one is bothered by her behavior and that your workplace is very happy, but you need to acknowledge that may not actually be the case. If you are so openly supportive of Brenda, other folks will not feel like they can come to you with their concerns because they will assume that you will protect her at their expense.

        Considering that you have mentioned working in mental health, it really sounds like this could be very dangerous.

        1. Sparkles McFadden*

          This is truly a considerate comment. I hope the OP can try to get a little perspective and think about the other employees and the true role of a manager. The OP has been very active in the comments…but it seems only with those focusing on why Brenda might be in such an emotional state or for an opportunity to mention how wonderful Brenda is and how universally she is loved. If the rest of the staff is walking on eggshells, that is the problem to address. Ideally, that would be in a way that would be helpful to Brenda, but the priority needs to be the staff as a whole. That is the manager’s job and it sounds as if the OP is too invested in Brenda to see that.

        2. Avasarala*

          +1000. I would not feel comfortable going to HR with a serious problem if my rep was constantly crying, and if the manager’s stance was “She’s having a tough time, we work in mental health”… implying that I guess Brenda is also your client, not just your coworker?

      6. Ailsa McNonagon*

        OP, being firm and setting clear boundaries with Brenda is the kindest thing you can do for her right now, and for the rest of your team. They all need to feel held and contained to continue functioning, and whatever it is that is causing Brenda so much pain is spilling outward and affecting her colleagues. Many years ago, I worked in a Mental Health team and one of the nurses was clearly suffering from psychosis- she was angry, paranoid, and very very tearful. This carried on for months and virtually all of her colleagues (including her Line manager and Service Manager) ignored her and pretended she wasn’t sat with her head on the desk sobbing- the atmosphere in the large open-plan office was one of exasperation, fear and annoyance, with everyone muttering behind her back. Eventually she became so ill that she was unable to leave the house, so ‘the problem’ solved itself in a way- but it showed me that I absolutely could not rely on my management to help or support me and was one of the biggest contributing factors to me leaving that job. Even in a profession where people spend years learning how to deal with mental ill-health, a colleague who brings all of their emotions to work with them every day can quickly disrupt a team.

        Have a kind, honest and form conversation with Brenda. She will definitely cry, but don’t be deterred by that- you need to say it and she needs to hear it. Good luck!

    3. Altair*

      In my experience here, the commentariat by and large despises people who cry at work.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think people here are actually really understanding about crying at work — sometimes to a point that I don’t agree with. But this is a whole different level.

        1. Altair*

          I don’t want to sound as if I’m defending Brenda, because I absolutely don’t intend to. This is definitely a whole new level.

          But whenever I see crying discussed here I see people bring up that it’s annoying, which makes sense, but also that it’s “manipulative”. I honestly don’t quite understand that latter — if someone is a good enough actor that they can calmly decide to start crying in order to get their way, and then start sobbing on cue, wouldn’t that be something they do professionally or at least semi-professionally?

          In my experience when people cry at work it’s either because of stressors outside work or because the work is itself stressful. I personally am in several demographics that make people tend to be less sympathetic to me to begin with, and whenever I’ve broken down at work and cried I’ve almost always gotten an unsympathetic and punitive reaction. If I wanted to manipulate people to think better of me I would never ever cry. (I wish I could.)

          1. Avasarala*

            It’s because sometimes displaying behavior that indicates you’re upset get you attention, support, compassion, people agreeing with you and giving you want you want. Whether you’re a toddler who tripped, looked around, saw Parents were watching and decided to cry so you could be picked up and hugged. Or you’re a customer who has discovered that yelling at retail workers gets you free stuff as appeasement. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cold and calculating! Maybe the person is genuinely upset, but they’ve learned subconsciously that certain behaviors get things that make them feel good, and silently counting to 10 and doing deep breaths doesn’t get those same emotional and social rewards.

            Of course being upset is a natural reaction to stress and frustration. And some demographics of people elicit less sympathy from others even though it’s just as deserved. But when the behaviors seem more like a performance of “I Am Upset” than a shedding of internal stress, people wonder whether it is manipulative (intentionally or unintentionally).

            FWIW I don’t think Brenda is being deliberately manipulative but I think she may be unintentionally performative about her emotions, and either way she is out of control.

          2. Mily*

            My grandma cries every time she doesn’t get her way. It means she gets her way a lot, because who wants to see an old lady cry? She doesn’t decide to cry, and she would be aghast if anyone suggested it was conscious, intentional manipulation, because it isn’t. But she also doesn’t try to hold back the tears when someone suggests we celebrate Christmas at a different person’s house. She doesn’t say, “Oh, I don’t know why I’m crying, that’s a totally reasonable request. Let’s go to Kathy’s and I’ll bring mashed potatoes.” She isn’t some great villain, turning on the water works to manipulate us like puppets, and I doubt she could cry on command if anyone asked her to. But it isn’t the crying itself that is manipulative. What’s manipulative is that she uses other people’s discomfort with her tears to get what she wants.

      2. The Grey Lady*

        My boss has a heavy situation with her son, and sometimes she cries in her office. From my perspective, sometimes I have to go in there and ask her about something that is bland and work-related. On one hand, I feel like a total jerk for doing that. On the other hand, the work still has to get done. I think the dislike of people crying at work stems from not knowing how you’re supposed to react to it. Should I ask if they’re okay? Should I say nothing and get on with business, or is that callous? Most of the time, people just don’t know what to do, and that leads to frustration and resentment.

        1. Altair*

          Your analysis makes a lot of sense. What I keep being mystified (and a little scared) by are the people who would, for instance, say your boss is trying to manipulate you somehow because she cries about her heavy personal situation.

          (also, I really hope things get better for her and her son.)

          1. KayDeeAye*

            I don’t know. I don’t think most of the comments have been unkind, and few have attempted any sort of diagnosis. But…the fact that she not only cries at work but makes no effort to hide it really pushes my buttons – and I’ve definitely cried at work myself (though admittedly not very often).

            She has an office with a door that closes. Why why why would she sit there sobbing with the door open? That really does seem manipulative to me. Maybe there is another reason why she puts her grief on display like that – maybe it’s a cry for help or something – but it does seem like the most likely reason is that she wants people to know how sad and tormented she is. And seeing this over and over again REALLY would cause her coworkers to be upset and disturbed, and that’s NOT RIGHT. It’s making Brenda and her problems the focus for the entire office, and that’s not right, either.

            1. Altair*

              Oh, definitely, I’m not defending Brenda. (What I wouldn’t give for an office door that I could shut…) I agree with your analysis of the current situation. What I’m poking at is the more general equation of crying with being necessarily manipulative. I see that often, both here and in many other places, but my personal experience of people who are upset enough to cry, both myself and others, is largely different.

              1. LDN Layabout*

                Something doesn’t need to be deliberate to be manipulative.

                Crying (usually) is an action that elicits sympathy. The vast majority of people don’t want people to be sad or upset. It can also make /them/ sad or upset.

                ‘when Brenda realizes that she has caused a problem of some sort – regardless of how small – she is often teary-eyed for the rest of the day’

                Brenda’s reaction to causing a problem is not to fix the problem itself, it’s to reaction in a way that commonly leads to sympathy/reassurance from the majority of people.

                A friend of mine would do this in interpersonal relationships. Any mistake or misstep was met with a disproportionate ‘You must all hate me, I’m worthless etc’. So you could never bring up an issue without a meltdown. She wasn’t doing it on purpose, it was mental illness, but it did mean a lot of people pulled back on their friendships with her because it /was/ manipulative, even if it wasn’t deliberate.

              2. KayDeeAye*

                Oh, I see. I think it could go either way. There are people who use tears for manipulative purposes, but of course that doesn’t mean that tears = manipulation. Most people cry because they have a reason to cry. It’s probably a minority who cries to manipulate other people, but I have no idea what proportion that is – 5%, 20%, 30%? Who can say?

                But I do think the persistent and public nature of Brenda’s crying – and the fact that it’s so flagrantly public even though it doesn’t have to be – is what’s really moving the needle on the Annoying Coworker Meter.

              3. Librarian1*

                Altair – I see that attitude a lot too and it’s super frustrating. Sure, some people are being manipulative when they cry – some people are also being manipulative when they get angry – but not everyone is.

    4. Batgirl*

      I dont see your suggestion for helping her pull through and do her job though. Thing is, if this were a physical issue incapacitating Brenda then nobody would expect her co-workers to overlook that she is visibly and distractingly in need of urgent help. No one is saying that Brenda doesnt have a hard time and no one is unsympathetic of that. But I’m really perplexed as to how allowing a situation where she is regularly sobbing at her desk and putting colleagues on eggshells can do anything but make it worse. Taking some time off, working on it with the professionals sounds positive. Assessing whether the job makes her happy or how it could make her happier could work. Coming back to work with a solid plan in place from her treatment programme also does. But just asking people to ignore that it’s an issue out of sympathy sounds neglectful of everyone’s wellbeing tbh.

    5. Wintermute*

      I think the problem is, ironically, that this letter represents a critical empathy failure, in a way that a lot of us have encountered, and suffered for badly. The problem is that there is boundless concern and attention paid to Brenda, who is behaving poorly, and NO concern for the suffering of her poor coworkers.

      Since many of us have found ourselves in the coworkers shoes and their point of view seems to have been missed in the letter and in much of the response, that stings and people are reacting to that.

  60. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    Brenda doesn’t want to work at home because there is no audience at home. Don’t allow her to hold the rest of your employees hostage to her emotional scenes.

  61. Donuts and Llamas*

    I work with someone who cries at the drop of a hat. Everyone in the office (mostly women, in a woman-dominated industry) has gotten weary of the waterworks at some point. And it is nowhere near the level that OP describes. Good grief – please take pity on the others in the office. I guarantee that it is as Alison describes – they are all walking on eggshells around Brenda and her actions are affecting everyone’s morale and effectiveness.

  62. earl grey aficionado*

    I was part of a very dysfunctional college friend group where we were all at least a little Brenda-like (but some of us were more Brenda than others). The threat of intense emotional outbursts turned every conversation into a minefield. I’d catch myself thinking things like “Oh, right, I can’t mention [normal, common, not-obviously-traumatic topic] because it’s going to remind Percival of [current event that doesn’t directly affect Percival, he just feels strongly about it] and then he’s going to have a meltdown and that will be my whole afternoon.”

    None of this had ever been stated outright. We had all just used our outbursts like shock collars to train the other people into self-editing. It was bad enough in a friend group, but then most of us joined a large student org together and took on leadership positions. It went VERY BADLY. Budget meetings became proxy fights over one friend feeling unsupported by the other friends. Event planning became an exercise in bending over backwards to support everyone’s most obscure, unstated needs (which would then turn out to be totally unnecessary because that person wouldn’t even show up to the event!). It was exhausting, it was seriously embarrassing, and it ended up killing the friend group (and doing serious damage to the student org) in the end. Oof.

    I say all this because OP mentions that Brenda is beloved. Like Alison, I’m skeptical that that’s really the case, but even if it is (as it was in my friend group–we all did genuinely care for each other), I wanted to impress on the OP that the behavior is inherently poisonous no matter how nice the person doing it might be. Focus on the behavior and its impact on the workplace, not on Brenda herself. Intentionally or not, she’s training people (including you) not to be honest with her, and that’s a HUGE problem–in HR in particular!

    1. we're basically gods*

      This is completely unrelated to the actual post but my friend group is currently dealing with the fallout of an intensely emotional and self-centered college friend…named Percy. I’m sure it’s coincidence but it sure did giver me a chuckle!

  63. KimPossible*

    Several years ago I was in this situation as a manager. My admin, who was the first people saw when they walked into the office, had a difficult period. She didn’t like change and had to endure some change to our set up (where our team was located) as well as some personal problems. Our one-on-ones would often devolve into crying jags and, at times, she could be in tears at the front desk. I worked with our HR rep for the right language to use with her w/r/t setting boundaries, what was appropriate for the front desk, encouraging her to meet with a counselor, FMLA if she wanted to take time away from work, all of it. It would improve for time and then go back to where it was before. I know for sure my boss would never have permitted holding her accountable so I did the best I could to have her let us know when she needed to step away, gather herself, and then go back to her desk. It WAS exhausting. Had I been reading this blog at the time, I would have worked to spend the political capital to push for a performance improvement plan – but because my job was somewhat toxic, I left the position. The person who replaced me had the same issues and the same lack of support from the upper administration. Fortunately, due to some other changes that transpired, which made the concerns all the more visible, the person in question decided to retire.

  64. LCH*

    it was tiring reading that, i can’t imagine! poor brenda! crying every day is serious! brenda needs help, help that her workplace can’t give her, but she could get somewhere else if she was out on FMLA. because this situation is not tenable.

    1. Observer*

      Well, the OP is perfectly willing to let her take that. This is not a situation where the employer needs to be forced to let an employee take care of themselves. So, that’s the good thing here.

  65. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Hey OP. I saw your reply to the comments, and it sounds like you have a good handle on it, especially with Alison’s advice. I’d add one thing:
    With the understanding that I am NOT armchair diagnosing her, based on what she has told you, she seems very confused, such that — perhaps — I think she’d see you laying out her options for her as a relief. She has said to you that she likes to be around people, but she’s also embarrassed about her behavior. She said she was aware of the problem, but she doesn’t hie to the bathroom when the crying starts. Personally I don’t see this as manipulative but rather confused — so much so that she literally does not know what to do. If you compassionately lay out the FMLA/ADA plan, expressly giving her the time and space she needs to work with doctors and possibly medication, I’d bet that she’ll thank you profusely and follow your instructions. This is just as exhausting for her. She sounds like an over-conscientious person who needs to be directly told that she can go away from the office and still have a job where people like her. While it may seem obvious to you, she might not know that.

    1. OP*

      Thank you. I think you are right on here. It IS exhausting for her… yes, it is for the rest of us too, but I’m grateful every day that I don’t live in her head. Thankfully, she does try to get away when the crying is audible, but I need to be more direct with her about how to handle these situations. But ‘gentle’ isn’t always my strong suit, and I want to be able to provide boundaries and feedback to her in a way that does not inflict additional pain, which is why I wrote to AMA in the first place.
      Thank you for your feedback – I appreciate it!

  66. mreasy*

    This is a tough one. I have severe, treatment-resistant depression, and back in the office days I cried at work relatively often (remote work has been a godsend). But if it was anything beyond a stray tear, I would go to the bathroom, ideally the single stall bathroom, to avoid exactly what Brenda is doing by openly sobbing – making my colleagues feel uncomfortable and responsible for my mood. It sounds like as much as Brenda wants to be around her colleagues, she can’t handle it right now. I think it would be a kindness to explain that, and offer a medical leave or part-time option. But it’s odd that Brenda doesn’t realize that a person can’t just openly sob at work, as that seems like basic professionalism. Maybe simply explaining the impact her expressions can have on her coworkers would help her realize she needs to manage this better?

    1. OP*

      Thanks, Delphine. I’m trying. If Brenda’s current behavior was typical for her, I would have remedied the situation years ago… but it isn’t… which is why I’m trying so hard. She needs boundaries, but she also needs HELP. She is getting that outside of work, but there is no reason for me to ‘pile on’ at work. While I don’t believe that I am rude, I also realize that gentleness is not a default setting for me, which is why I have reached out for feedback on this; it’s important to me to find a way to do so that is not hurtful. Thank you for your kindness.

      1. The Grey Lady*

        I think you’ve done a good job so far of being gentle and kind. You’ve obviously care about Brenda and your other employees, and you’re trying very hard to handle this in a respectful and appropriate way. It’s definitely not unkind to establish boundaries or talk about things that need to change in an understanding way.

      2. KayDeeAye*

        OP…I do admire you very much. And I have all sorts of feels for poor Brenda. But it really does sound to me as though you’re underestimating the effect Brenda has had on your entire office. You said, “She gets emotional when given any sort of feedback that isn’t glowing (and even sometimes over feedback that IS glowing) and when Brenda realizes that she has caused a problem of some sort – regardless of how small – she is often teary-eyed for the rest of the day.”

        If I am reading this correctly, this was the way things were even before her current crisis. And even though this is a lot milder than her recent behavior, it was STILL untenable. Brenda is going through some bad things, but the other people you manage have put up with a lot. I mean, a LOT. For their sake as well as hers, things have just got to change.

  67. Bradjelina*

    We had a Brenda situation at work a few years ago. A very nice person with lots of mental health issues compounded by childhood traumas. The department took them under our collective wing–this was a touchy-feely nonprofit so not out of our norm. As they grew more comfortable, they went from people-pleasing and shy to more emotional and openly unstable and began to share more than was appropriate at work (suicidal ideation among other things). After several months of escalating behavioral issues one of the team members found this person sobbing at their desk in the open plan office. This person alerted HR that another employee was in distress, and when HR came the person had crawled under the desk and was refusing to get up. The day ended with them screaming, “I quit!,” storming out of the building, and then returning to hide in a storage closet.

    After they finally left for good the atmosphere totally changed; there was a palpable sense of relief from the team and other issues with the employee’s work came to light and were easily resolved.

  68. username required*

    I can’t tell from the OP’s post but are the new employees having to deal directly with Brenda and witness her tears/sobbing. Because I have to say if I was a new employee and my introduction to the company HR dept was Brenda I’d be very concerned about the company I’d joined. From the viewpoint of – that poor woman needs help but also how can her coworkers be expected to work in this environment.

  69. Tau*

    So the advice has understandably focused on Brenda’s current crisis, but I’m going to be honest with you: even your descriptions of her pre-crisis feel… off… to me.

    I think one of the basic, necessary skills required for any job out there is to keep your emotions from impacting your work or your workplace as far as possible. In practice, that means that my emotions are sort of… muted. Negative emotions in particular should be capped at, like, annoyance or frustration. I expect this of my coworkers as well. I need to know that I can point out problems in their work (review is a standard part of our workflow) or disagree with their proposed approach to things without it becoming a big thing or their feelings getting hurt. Nor do I want to get dragged into their deep personal problems and old wounds, or have them poking at mine. We’re here to WORK.

    Now, obviously, this isn’t always achievable. But from everything you’ve said here, Brenda was pretty far distant from this even before the current crisis started. Reading your description in the first paragraph, I’m… not sure I’d be comfortable pointing out issues or disagreeing with her. That’s a real problem. In fact, from your description of her, the crisis is actually pretty unsurprising – if she has problems with her emotional control to the point where she tears up anyone criticizes her normally, of course that’s going to spiral once she’s dealing with serious stuff in her personal life.

    I know you’re focused on getting through this crisis so Brenda can get back to her work-normal, and I get why. But I did want to raise that doesn’t sound like just a case of “otherwise excellent employee slips during personal crisis”, it sounds to me like even Brenda’s work-normal had significant issues that need to be addressed.

  70. WellHiii!*

    OP let me say that I admire your patience and tenacity (and kindness) in seeking a way to help and manage Brenda appropriately. This is probably more of a vent for me than helpful for you (sorry), but I had a manager somewhat like Brenda and it was…awful. The power dynamic made it difficult for her reports to address, and her habit of crying at the drop of a hat (over everything) or upon hearing ANY feedback she didn’t like was never really dealt with, and everyone just shrugged with explanations of ‘That’s just Sharon!’ It was ridiculous and demoralizing for the rest of us, and limiting both for her career and for her subordinates (especially for her subordinates, because she couldn’t manage and several of them lost their jobs in our very competitive environment). To me it became manipulative and absurd and also disturbing–we worked in an open plan office! But what do I know, she still rose to a fairly decent level while I could never find any purchase and my own career has been a joke. *shrugs*

    1. Wintermute*

      Note that I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that she rose to a high level. This IS a manipulation tactic. It’s not always an intentional one, but it is deeply manipulative. Language controls thought, when you have a subordinate you have to soft-pedal feedback of any kind to, you can end up doing a kind of self-gaslighting where, to avoid the unpleasantness of their reaction, you plan to say it’s not really that bad– and then you talk yourself into thinking it’s not really that bad too! I am sure her rise stops when she gets to a level where her peers are expected to be experts at handling people, feedback and relationships, if that level exists in the culture of that company. Ideally it should at some point where you hit people that manage supervisors, interact with vendors and have to see through BS, and are involved in business negotations, where high EQ is a job requirement, but some companies don’t have that culture.

  71. QuirkyAndCharming*

    OP, I once worked for an organization that had several “quirky and charming” characters who had been there for decades. The organization itself took pride in its “family-like” atmosphere and a lot of personal and professional boundaries were blurred, almost as a cultural norm. It wasn’t uncommon for people to say “my best friends work here” and hear about weekend camping trips, vacations, rec leagues, etc. among coworkers (there were also lots of less-professional activity rumored). I say all this because I lasted there for 3 years and I went along with a lot of these “characters” – some who actually made me deeply uncomfortable and who in retrospect I should have mentioned to a boss or HR – because they were beloved, had been there for ages, and I had little standing as a newer staff member. To challenge them would require me to spend all of my meager capital.

    So, I left. That wasn’t the driving factor, but it was a huge influence on my decision to act on a new opportunity and jump ship. I know others have mentioned this, but I really don’t want you to underestimate the impact Brenda’s behavior may be having on staff, especially newer staff.

  72. Rosy Glasses*

    We had a Brenda at our work. She was strongly empathic and was also going through some very difficult personal situations. I was managing her at the time, and although it felt very harsh, I had to lay out some firm boundaries around her work (in her case, her work was NOT solid and it was falling to the rest of the team to try and fill in the gaps, often with unhappy clients) and expectations. We offered leave which she declined, and it came to the conversation of we need you to take leave, or this may not be the job for you to remain in. She opted to quit and it sounds like (through 3rd parties) that she is much happier in her life for it. Most of the friendships that she had managed to make at work did not last through this period – so the idea that Brenda is adored may have been true, but may be strained to the point where folks are laying down their own boundaries by no longer engaging.

    Allison’s recommendations are correct – and I wish you all the best in that conversation. It will not be easy, but the rest of your team will appreciate the relief.

  73. RagingADHD*

    If Brenda was loudly vomiting at her desk multiple times a day, multiple times a week, would you address it? Or would you expect the rest of the staff to just hold her hair and mop up after her, indefinitely?

    She is not well enough to be at work. She needs medical help, not backpats and vague sympathy.

  74. HarvestKaleSlaw*

    This is going to sound like an off-the-wall suggestion, but does Brenda have a dog? Can you let her have the dog in her closed-door office with her?

    Not all dogs are great for this situation, but a mellow-tempered, people-oriented dog could be a tremendous help. You can pet the dog and feel soothed. You have another being who is there, and emotionally responding to you, but with more simple needs for you to meet. If you are in a place where you can’t be around other people (because you’re weeping uncontrollably), you are still not entirely alone.

  75. Hit the ground flailing*

    As someone who has gone through intractable crying jags I can tell you – as much as you hate it, she hates it more. As bad as it makes you feel badly, distracted, uncomfortable, it make her feel worse. Just keep that in mind.

    1. Colette*

      I actually think the OP should do less worrying about Brenda’s feelings. Brenda may feel terribly about crying, but that doesn’t change what the OP needs to do – the OP needs to be clear that the sobbing at her desk and having other people tiptoe around her feelings cannot continue. Maybe Brenda needs some sort of help to get past this, which the OP should support, but she still needs to change, no matter what she feels about her current behaviour.

    2. Observer*

      Why should the OP be focusing on that more than on the harm being done to others? And make no mistake, even before things took a downturn, she was a problem. This current behavior IS harming others.

    3. RagingADHD*

      How does that help the management issue?

      I don’t think OP’s problem is that they haven’t centered Brenda’s feelings *enough.* Brenda’s feelings are the center of the entire office at this point.

    4. Altair*

      I absolutely know what you mean, and I think the unsympathetic nature of the responses you’ve gotten are very telling. I’ve been there, crying already while my supervisor stood over me and threatened to call security and dock my pay for it, and that definitely didn’t help me stop crying.

      1. Altair*

        I left out the middle of my comment, heh. What I meant to put between the first sentence and the last was this:

        All you’ve pointed out is that crying is unpleasant for the person crying as well — you haven’t defended or justified the current situation in any way — and I think it says a lot that people responded with hostility. In my experience many people think the appropriate response to inconvenient behavior is always scolding/punishment, but that doesn’t always work.

        1. jenkins*

          I don’t think people are really advocating scolding or punishing Brenda either, though! Standing over a crying person and threatening them is completely inappropriate and shouldn’t have happened to you. I don’t think Brenda’s at risk of facing anything like that, however. It’s simply the case that *however* bad she feels when she cries in the office, things just can’t continue the way they are. Maybe she’s not well enough to work her current hours. I don’t know what options there are for dealing with this. But the status quo is untenable, and who feels worse about it doesn’t really make a difference.

  76. office dwelling tanuki*

    OP, I think you’re underestimating the negative impact that Brenda’s six months of crying multiple times a day has had on the rest of your employees. You obviously care about Brenda a lot, and like her a great deal, so I understand why you might struggle to look past her pain, but I think you aren’t paying enough attention to what this is likely doing to office morale. I’d be extremely curious to hear what your conversations with other employees about Brenda have been like.

    Working with someone who is “a heartbeat away from a meltdown at seemingly every moment” would be taxing and unpleasant. And again, this has been going on for six months, per your own admission. I would seriously consider looking for a new job if Brenda was my coworker!

    (I feel bad for Brenda and hope she can get help but also, you know, I’d find this level of emotionality difficult to deal with from someone I had actually chosen to have a relationship with. From someone I’m obligated to be around to earn a paycheck? Boyyyy.)

  77. Det. Charles Boyle*

    This is a good point. If this was the case, I would have a lot more patience with her. But I would still be firmly kind and use some of the suggestions from Alison.

  78. PlainJane*

    This sounds weirdly performative to me–especially with the “self-described empath” bit. “Look at me! See how much better I am that I feel all these things so deeply!”

    Maybe it’s not, and it doesn’t matter since you’re pretty much obliged to at least pretend to believe it even if you don’t actually believe it. But I feel like I would be suppressing a whole lot of feelings to not express my actual ones about thi kind of behavior. (And it’s probably a good thing that I do so.)

    If this isn’t performative, then there’s a real emotional health problem that should be addressed. Does the company have an employee support system?

  79. Dagny*

    If you want to keep her as an employee, offer her part-time, from home, using intermittent FMLA, and hire a part-time temp to take over the rest of her work. Whether or not she wants to work from home because of the social aspect is not really your issue; it’s not feasible to have her in the office like this.

  80. pcake*

    Could Brenda work from home 2 to 3 days a week to help her decompress and work at work the other days for a feeling of social connection?

  81. Elizabeth West*

    It’s not a punishment to ask her to do her work from home, at least part of the time. I have been in a situation where it was exceedingly difficult to keep from crying at work; unlike Brenda, my job at the time was not one I could do from home. If it had been, I would have welcomed the respite, even part-time, because running to the bathroom every thirty minutes was not only disruptive to my coworkers but made it really tough to get through the day.

    If she can cry and still get it done, then being at home is the logical choice while she’s trying to get a handle on this — be it mental health issues, a physical thing, or whatever. If for some reason it is attention-seeking behavior, then the part-time remote status could be a wake-up call if she wants to continue to be social and come to work. No matter the reason, it’s causing problems.

  82. Middle Aged Lady*

    At first I felt sorry for Brenda. After 30 years as a solid suck it up professional, I had a few months of personal issues exacerbated by a lying, shitty big boss. My direct boss fired me for being ‘difficult’ because she believed the boss’s lies and I cried because I couldn’t convince her, and I had a breakdown from losing my employment and a concurrent separation from my spouse, and have not worked since. Then I reread. Brenda has always been so emotionally fragile that is affects work. The current situation is nothing new. She needs help and if she loses her job she won’t have insurance to get it. A short leave and a private place to cry would be ideal, as well as others being honest about it being hard to approach her when she is easily upset. No different than telling an angry employee, or a sullen one, to pull it together.

  83. Very anon for this*

    OK, I am sometimes considered an “empath”. It actually sucks: Getting swamped by other people’s emotion that they may not be showing, and trying not to show it. Having to work at blocking out other people’s drive by rage or fear. Minding my own business and getting sucked in by others’ grief.

    If anything, I work *harder* at controlling my display of emotion, because I hate crying at work. I work harder to know whether what I’m feeling is me or someone else, and trying to damp down on the other people stuff so I can, you know, help them with it.

    Crowds suck. Funerals are sheer hell. Even big weddings are awkward. Trying to find the best ways to “armor up” emotionally is a serious chore. I’ve had years of practice, and it is still hard as hell.

    A little empathy is good – it makes you not a sociopath. It makes you aware of how your actions affect others. It helps you to understand where others are coming from.

    But a lot? Blows goats.

    Without any control, it makes you doubt your own sanity. Every bit of anger at you, no matter how silly, is like a body blow. Bullying in school, the other kids don’t even have to touch you to hurt you. The hate pushes straight inside to the point where you hate yourself, and everything they say and feel at you is internalized. You start to lose yourself to the feeling of others until you learn to cut it off, avoid people, and have rigid control to stop the cycle. It’s depression, rage, self loathing, grief, jealousy, amusement, joy, etc, all rolled into one mass of jumbled emotion that is hard to even think though. You can’t even be sure that what you feel is yourself unless you are alone and have shed the shit from others.

    However, I doubt Brenda has this problem. How do I know? Because if she actually was an empath, she would know how much her performative crying jags screw with other people, and take steps to rein it in – whether dashing for the bathroom, going out to her car, etc.

    IMO, she’s needing attention, and using her empathy to get it. This is not a good thing for your office in the long term. My advice would be to have her take FMLA until she can work out with her doctor whatever is triggering her problem, and get it under control.

  84. FuzzFrogs*

    OP, consider this: when you give Brenda feedback and she’s teary, does that derail the feedback, or meeting? It kind of sounds like it does; at the very least, it sounds like you put in a lot of extra work with Brenda to address and talk out her feelings, work you don’t do with other coworkers.

    Alison’s advice I think hits on an interrelated point, here: the emotions cannot be allowed to ultimately derail the conversation. First, because it’s unproductive, but also because it’s not going to help Brenda long-term. It sounds like it’s rare Brenda gets through a fraught conversation without crying, and if that crying derails things, then she probably doesn’t have a lot of experience with dealing with fraught things until their constructive conclusion. Which might be part of the problem–difficult conversations always ends up being A Thing where her emotions become a focus, so they’re probably very stressful for her, and without more experience working through them, it’s going to be hard to mediate her emotions. It sounds like you really do need to plow through certain conversations. It might also help to ask later, after this initial conversation, if there’s something you can do that will help make these conversations easier for her to get through constructively–maybe just letting her tell you when she needs to take a break when she’s getting overwhelmed. It might be helpful to reach out to your work’s EAP program or a counsellor yourself, to get advice on how to best navigate these situations for both your sakes.

  85. Aggretsuko*

    I have turned into a crier like since the pandemic (I’m starting to not cry most days of the week now instead of the other way around, but that took most of three months to start drying up), and man, I’m so glad I’m working from home so nobody’s seeing it now. God knows i don’t want to be doing it, but it wasn’t under my control for a while.

    Whatever issues she’s having on her own, I assume the pandemic and working in mental health probably isn’t helping either. Not to mention physically going into work these days, which I guess is still happening here?

  86. Deborah*

    It’s Evie Russell, the emotional vampire from “What We Do In The Shadows.”

  87. LizardOfOdds*

    I worked with a Brenda at a previous job. She started out as universally liked and was doing good work. Then she started crying unpredictably and sometimes sobbing at her desk. She brought in doctor’s notes, and we tried to accommodate her with private work space, part-time hours, options to work from home. Unfortunately, crying escalated into other emotional outbursts – yelling at her computer, yelling at her manager, stomping away from a conversation and slamming doors. Because we’d bent over backwards to accommodate the crying fits for so long, it became difficult to take action on the other behaviors later. According to her doctors, the cause of all of these behaviors was the same mental health issues, and HR wanted to handle the situation very delicately. The collateral damage was the trust of other employees, as they thought we were callously allowing this person to suffer at work and negatively impact the group’s morale and mental health – and we obviously couldn’t tell them otherwise for privacy reasons.

    Don’t be like me, OP. Draw your boundaries now, because this could get worse and more messy to untangle later.

  88. Beth*

    OP, I hear that Brenda is very likeable and charming, but I’m really not convinced that she’s as good and kind as you say. This line gives me some pause here: “She feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.” If this is a thing she does regularly, that’s actually pretty manipulative? It has a lot of potential to send messages like “I’m right about this thing that’s happening to you (and if you don’t react like I’m reacting, you’re wrong about how you’re handling it)” and “I know this thing technically happened to you, but me and my emotions are the important thing here, so let’s keep discussion focused on that.” Those kinds of messages are often layered below outward shows of concern or excitement or support, depending on the event at hand; they may even sincerely be meant to be supportive, at least on the conscious level! But…well, someone who was actually seeing you as the center point of your own life and experiences would be responding to how you’re reacting to your life event, not overwhelming your reaction with their own feelings. This centering of herself is going to be off-putting for a lot of people.

    In fact, it seems like a central point to Brenda is that her emotions are the star of the show whenever she’s around. She gets away with this (which, it’s a behavior that usually drives people away, because it’s exhausting) because she’s otherwise very charming and likeable. But that doesn’t make it acceptable behavior. She needs to find ways to manage her emotions and keep a mostly-even keel at work, or she’s going to continue to be disruptive and exhausting for you and everyone around you. It’s not really up to you how she chooses to manage it, but you can tell her that it needs to happen and give some examples of what success would look like. It sounds like you already are prepared for that conversation, in terms of knowing what you need and knowing what resources you can offer. You just need to sit down and have what might be an unpleasant conversation.

  89. Not So NewReader*

    OP, I have not read all the comments and probably won’t be able to tonight.

    I do have a thought for you to kick around, as it may or may not apply. People tend to follow leadership. You are a leader. If you come across as thinking this employee is very dear and should be handled with kid gloves, then others will copy you. This could create an environment where it appears everyone loves this person. They may or may not, but that is secondary to the idea that they feel they should follow your lead. I’d be willing to bet that if you change what you are doing, they will change what they are doing.

    I think if you start to project the attitude of “Yes, you can get through this! Yes, you can build something better for yourself!” people will copy that message.

    To me she sounds exhausted like she has no resilience left. I remember a point in my life where I could have been her. It ended up being exhaustion, slow thyroid and thus slow heart, lack of minerals and grief. Digging out took a bit. But the crying stopped early on. I started to regain ME and started being able to control my reactions.

    Maybe you can consider how you want to tweak your message to her and what type of message you want people around her to hear you saying.

  90. Courageous cat*

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice; however, taking into consideration the idea that mental health is an illness like any other, why is it not ok that she cries all day long, but (in past letters the advice has seemed to imply that) it’s ok for a pregnant or otherwise sick colleague to puke into a trash can in the office all day long?

    In both scenarios, neither person can “help it” (which I tend to beg to differ on), and they’re both illnesses, so what’s the cause of the discrepancy? As someone who’s highly emetophobic and would have to quit my job if someone was allowed to throw up near me even once, I am genuinely curious about this.

    1. Courageous cat*

      I don’t beg to differ on their illnesses, for the record, but the symptoms- I think either something is REALLY profoundly wrong if you can’t help the symptoms (the crying/puking), or otherwise you need to exert a little more self-control (maybe go into a bathroom for both).

      1. Cat*

        I mean, you can’t always make it to the bathroom. And you can’t really “not allow” someone not to throw up around you once. That’s literally impossible to forbid.

        Of course you shouldn’t have to work in an office with a pregnant woman constantly vomiting though. Any decent workplace would make accommodations for that.

        1. Cat*

          Also a pregnant woman vomiting suddenly is not a sign that something is really, really wrong or that she needs to exercise self-control (how incredibly offensive). It kind of goes with the territory.

          1. Courageous cat*

            Haha ok at “incredibly offensive” (goodness) but by self-control, I certainly don’t mean she shouldn’t vomit, I mean she should try to find somewhere private to do it if it’s happening literally multiple times throughout the day.

            As a thought, ultimately what’s the difference between someone vomiting and someone, like, shitting because maybe they have food poisoning? Would you not want someone to (by using self-control, no less!) attempt to make it into the toilet if they were your office-mate and doing it into a trash can five feet from you?

            I’m just saying, for people who have phobias of it (and I’d appreciate that not being dismissed as well), being around someone’s bodily fluids on a regular basis is really, really bad, and I wonder where the line is drawn for all of these things.

            1. Observer*

              but by self-control, I certainly don’t mean she shouldn’t vomit, I mean she should try to find somewhere private to do it if it’s happening literally multiple times throughout the day.

              I guess you’ve been lucky enough to never have to deal with that kind of vomiting. The reality is that “finding someplace private” generally is not in the control of the person who is vomiting. For one thing, it tends to be FAST – like even when I know where I can go I generally can’t get to that place in time to puke.

              For another, the sensible alternative – giving the person who is vomiting a somewhat private space and the time to clean up (so no one has to see or smell the results) – is not up to the person vomiting. The employer is the one who in control.

              1. Courageous cat*

                So by the logic of your first point, the only thing one can do then is say, sorry, you have to deal with an officemate puking in your shared trash can?

                I dunno, I had cyclic vomiting as a child so I get it to some extent, but nausea tends to precede vomiting by at least 30 seconds if not much more, so it’s hard for me to imagine many situations in which someone couldn’t make it to a bathroom in that time.

        2. Courageous cat*

          I’m talking about the letters where someone’s office mate was routinely throwing up in their office daily. I think your first point is kind of snarky and your second point is … literally exactly what I was referring to.

          Obviously you cannot prevent a one-time instance of food poisoning that snuck up on you, BUT you certainly should “not allow” aka make accomodations/move/etc constant vomiting, IMO.

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      Ugh. I tend to sympathy vomit. If I was near someone puking into a trashcan all day, I would probably puke as well. Sure, I’ve held friends hair when they puked into a toilet when intoxicated in my misspent youth, but I was braced and didn’t look. But nowadays I have to look away when my cat pukes up a hairball, or my gorge starts to rise and I need to distract myself very quickly. Someone puking a lot at work, even though they can’t help it, would probably make me quite nauseous, unable to focus, and possibly ralphing into a trashcan too.

      1. Courageous cat*

        Yuuuup. I’m not only terrified to absolute death of it, but I’m almost certain it would start a chain reaction. For some people vomiting is kind of a casual part of life, but for some of us it is very, very upsetting and/or impractical given how sick you’d be!

    3. Courageous cat*

      To clarify, I am asking this out of genuine curiosity as I said, not to shame people who are sick. This is a real problem for me in my life and I feel like, despite not sounding like it on its head, these situations are fairly similar.

      1. Courageous cat*

        Kindly, I don’t think this really needs saying, but the heart of my question is: why do we say symptoms of a PHYSICAL illness are ok to display at work if there’s no choice, but the symptoms of a MENTAL illness are not?

        It is not a rhetorical nor is it a pointed question, I am literally curious as to where and how we draw those lines, if mental illness is treated exactly the same as a physical one. It does seem like they are getting treated differently to me but I’m trying to tease out why.

        1. Avasarala*

          The symptoms of ANY illness are OK to display.. to a point.

          If you have a headache, you’re allowed to have a headache at work.
          If you have a broken leg, you’re allowed to have a cast on at work.
          If you’re pregnant, you’re allowed to have a big tummy and food cravings at work.
          If you have depression, you’re OK to feel down at work.
          These don’t affect anyone, or they require only a little understanding and accommodation from your coworkers.

          If you have a headache, you can’t ask your office to turn off all the lights in the building to make you more comfortable.
          If you have a broken leg, you can’t prop up your leg so it blocks the hallway.
          If you’re pregnant, you can’t vomit constantly at your desk and leave the puke stinking up your office all day.
          If you’re depressed, you can’t loudly sob all day and make your coworkers walk on eggshells around you lest you have another meltdown.
          You’re impacting your work (what you’re paid to be doing) and affecting the work of your colleagues. That is where the line is.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      What past letters are you thinking of? I don’t think I’ve ever advised that you’d need to be okay with someone regularly throwing up in your presence!

      1. Courageous cat*

        Oof, I wish I could remember, but there was one where someone’s office mate was repeatedly puking in their shared trash can. I can’t remember your exact advice but it was either something like “there may be only so much you can do if it’s a health condition” OR it’s possible the commenters put that idea in my head.

        Basically multiple people at some point gave me the impression that sometimes you just have to deal with that kind of thing (like if it’s morning sickness/avoidable for some reason), and I was concerned!

        1. Courageous cat*

          I will also admit that it is within the realm of possibility this was on a different site like Reddit or something, but I felt at least 80% sure it was this.

  91. LifeAfterBurnout*

    I was very much like Brenda a few years ago. Physically, emotionally and mentally wrung out, exhausted and at my wits end trying to keep all the balls in the air and keep going. I empathise with how Brenda may be feeling and I empathise for the OP. But let’s take emotion out for a moment and look at the known points.

    Current behaviour is not normal. It is affecting the work, the workplace and the whole team. Steps have been put in place that are a great start. More are needed. Time is also needed for the steps to work. So what is needed right now and what can be done right now?

    Help for Brenda. Her behaviour sounds like it is a massive cry for help. OP, you’ve mentioned boundaries. This is good. What are they, how are you going to enforce them? Are they clear, measurable, attainable and have little steps to reach the goal? What other help can work reasonably provide? The previously-mentioned information diet is a great suggestion. Limiting the emotionally-charged info Brenda receives from staff and from her work could be useful here, eg does Brenda deal with leave applications? Could that task not be Brenda’s?

    Brenda’s reactions sounds like she is exhausted, (based on my experiences). How can she recharge her resilience and ability to self-modulate her reactions? Exercise, healthy food and rest, continuing to work with her Doctors, medication. Love the Support Animal idea.

    Things I did that helped me stop crying uncontrollably at work:

    Stop, breathe, choose how I wanted to react.
    Acknowledge and name the emotion, then put it aside for later outside of work.
    Take leave, physically and mentally rest. Dig into my past and life crap with therapy. Accept it was awful and choose to keep going, in spite of.

    And what does Brenda want? Does she have a plan to work towards achieving that, both personally and professionally?

    Good luck OP.

    1. Observer*

      What exactly in this list is actionable for the OP? I’m not being snarky. The reality is what YOU did is what BRENDA needs to do (assuming it’s appropriate), but the OP cannot make her do it, and she can’t even suggest it.

  92. IWasABrendaOnce*

    I know there are a lot of comments, but I wanted add my thoughts from the other side.I was sort of a Brenda once. I will not attempt to diagnose Brenda, I will only speak from my own personal experience. I was neck deep in an extreme case of depression. I cried for hours a day, crying myself to sleep nearly every night for almost a year. I literally had no control over myself, which was terrifying. I was so exhausted with myself. I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must have been to be around me! My manager was able to work with me to provide accommodations that benefited both myself and my colleagues. After months of therapy/medication, my condition improved. I hope OP can work with Brenda to find a reasonable solution. Be prepared because that solution may involve a LOA or Brenda needing to resign. Good luck!

  93. we're basically gods*

    Dealing with grief and depression and working, I’m doubtful of the notion that absolutely everyone loves Brenda. I know that having an emotional meltdown at work is not appropriate, especially not on a regular basis, and I can’t describe how frustrating it is to have to manage the emotions of people unwilling to manage their own when I’m barely holding *myself* together.
    I don’t doubt that Brenda is hurting and needs help. But I also desperately urge you to not downplay how much of an impact this might be having on other employees; you don’t always know all the facts.
    (A coworker once got into a huge funk, needing comfort from everyone in the office, after having to put his dog down, and then started acting…just bizarrely, honestly. I didn’t want to seem cold in person, but my sympathy was limited, having lost my own mother recently and having intentionally kept it away from the office, because it’s not the time or place for it.)

  94. RB*

    Oh, man, this was hard to read and I’m so glad Alison took a somewhat hard line on this. I can’t even go to bed if my neighbors are arguing. I avoid relationships where I might have to navigate a lot of conflict. I can’t even imagine working with someone like Brenda. That would push me over the edge into, I don’t know, complete avoidance or something.

  95. anomynous*

    So many comments, I’m sorry if this has been asked (a million times!) already… But why is a disruptive-to-others mental illness different than a disruptive physical illness?

    1. Courageous cat*

      That’s kind of what I’m getting at in my comment above. It seems like there’s a tricky… line? here, because mental illness and physical illness symptoms should typically be treated the same, but it seems like it’s often difficult to execute. I dunno.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      It’s not. If you had an illness that for instance caused you to cough loudly and uncontrollably for most of the day you’d not expect your coworkers to just deal with the noise. Or I don’t expect my coworkers to be okay with me howling in pain all day (been in pain for 25 years) for another example.

      Reasonable accommodations stop where you start seriously negatively impacting others. Same is true for mental and physical prob,ems.

  96. Not A Manager*

    I read a bunch of the comments and the OP’s further explanations. Brenda sounds like a generally awesome colleague, but right now she’s in crisis. From what you say, she’s too impaired to be in the office. If your company can handle it, I think you should put her on some kind of paid medical leave and give her clear guidelines for what kind of shape she needs to be in when she returns.

  97. cncx*

    ugh i used to be a brenda and i’m so grateful to my boss for not being a bad boss over this.

    i’m sympathetic to people, being one of them now myself, who find emotional situations very jarring and disruptive.

    there’s not a good answer- paid leave, paid therapy are what helped me. and generally just basic human empathy. it’s hard, it’s long, it’s disruptive, but in the end it’s a kindness. and people aren’t basket cases their entire lives- i’m still in the same job where i was the brenda.

  98. Luna*

    I feel bad for Brenda. I’ve gone through times where I was incapable of holding tears back at work. It was likely horrible and awkward for my colleagues, but it was just as horrible and awkward for me. I hope Brenda’s help can really help her with whatever she’s going through.

  99. IHATEDRAMA*

    Just reading this gives me PTSD from dealing with overly emotional employees as a supervisor. Our profession attracts too many of these types and it is exhausting to the point of abusive to work around it each day. She needs to be out of the office – by LOA or firing if necessary.

  100. Pumpkin215*

    If I worked with a Brenda, I would have found another job yesterday. But I’m also a cold-hearted finance person and I have no time or patience for that! Work is work and there are things that need to get done. Keep your emotions in check in order to get through the day because that is what grown-ups do. Then go home after work and cry into a bottle of tequila like the rest of us.

  101. EmotionalBurnOut*

    I can guarantee you, Brenda is draining your entire team. I had someone who was constantly furious on my team – we were all afraid of him. We had a chronic crier – by the time I found out as team leader, everybody had been doing her work for her because a simple question like “Jane, do you have staples for the stapler?” would set her off.

  102. Anon for this*

    I had a really interesting discussion with some neuro experts and psychology folks once about the idea of empaths. Some people just have a very level of high emotional intelligence, of course. But they said often “Being an empath” can be a sign of hypervigilance. It can be a response to long-term trauma, like child abuse, or shorter-term sustained trauma like military combat. In those situations, being constantly aware of another person’s emotional state and picking up on the most intricate details is necessary for survival. It becomes a coping mechanism that you can’t stop. But if you don’t learn how to manage it and reign it in, it can become really dysfunctional, and you can end up sobbing in your workplace because it’s failing you and falling apart and you don’t know how to have boundaries or manage your emotions anymore. I thought it was a really interesting observation. And I’m not at all trying to armchair diagnose anyone or say that everyone who is highly empathetic has past trauma, some people are very emotionally intelligent. But it’s something to think about.

    1. AnonymousGlasses*

      Thank you. I am an empath (a term used freely with regard to my mental and emotional processes by all of my relevant medical professionals). I do not announce this to almost anyone – and it is certainly a trauma response to a childhood full of abuse. I don’t feel things from news headlines and other people’s day to day emotions, which I would describe more accurately as being empathetic. I can actually feel the feelings of people with whom I am emotionally close, somewhat dependent on my distance to them, and how much of a “projector” they are of their own emotions. When I was walking home from school as a child, I learned to closely attune myself to the feelings coming out of the house; if my father was in the house, I could discern his mood from a block or more away, and I HAD to learn to do that in order for self-preservation. Occasionally, when there is a BIG emotion happening to someone with whom I am very close, I can feel it over a distance; I felt a friend’s extreme panic at a strange point during a work day once and texted her – she was having a seizure. Therapy has given me tools to go through most days “bricked up” – I have mentally trained myself to build an emotional wall to keep out the day to day emotions of other people in order to get through the day. Of course, there are times when you do want to be inundated with other people’s feelings – times of great joy or moments of important emotional connection with a partner, for example – and I mentally have to remove those bricks in order to access communal emotion. I get along with almost all people, but do occasionally have a startling, immediate, visceral negative reaction to someone upon meeting them – less than 5 times in my life. But every time, those reactions have been dead on.

    2. Used to be a Brenda*

      Yup, exactly this. I have complex PTSD as a result of longtime childhood abuse and neglect, and realizing that what I had defined as empathy was actually hypervigilance and approval seeking changed my life. I am an empathetic person. I am most certainly not an empath.

  103. J.B.*

    OP-I appreciate your sympathy for Brenda. As someone with anxiety who has kids and other relatives with anxiety I’ll say that you aren’t doing her any favors. People with anxiety need boundaries. NEED THEM.

  104. Des*

    [ (She feels things about MY life that I don’t even feel – especially to that depth.) ]

    I guarantee she “feels things” about other coworkers as well, exhausting them to the point they’re just “lovingly cheerful” whenever they can’t avoid encountering her! It almost feels like a form of control, like she’s going to FEEL THINGS at you all the time. It may not be that bad, but reading this letter I can imagine a lot of her coworkers feeling trapped.

  105. Nopenopenope*

    So based on LW’s heavy defense of brenda even in the face of open criticism and comments about how awful this behavior would make a workplace for everyone, I have two major concerns.

    1. “Everyone adores Brenda” only even when faced with a plethora of open statements of “Brenda’s out of control mental health problems would affect my quieter but still very real mental health problems/would make working with her awful/ would make me find another job”, LW is brushing off/ignoring comments saying this needs to be dealt with, not worked around. This gives me no confidence anyone in that office would be heard even if they *were* willing to risk complaining about a favorite of LW’s – and I strongly distrust LW’s willingness/ability to pick up on hints or other subtle clues about how this affects others.

    2. Brenda’s reasons & motivations for her issues aside, I would be running SO HARD from a business whose idea of supporting mental health crises where someone is crying multiple times a day EVERY day is to give them a door so nobody else had to see it/suggest she cry in a bathroom/hallway. I dont want to work with employers cool with letting me come in and break down over and over again and whose support is displayed as “okay, but can you do it quietly?” Like holy Jesus, would I run. Alison’s letter and the comments contain a plethora of solutions to this problem that are not “keep everyone tied up in a aura of daily negative emotional stress.”

  106. Olive*

    I knew someone like this in my previous position. She seems to ALWAYS be crying. At first I was pretty sympathetic because she had a lot going on but after a few months of it, it got to be sooo infuriating I would just avoid going by her cubicle because I knew she’d be tearing up about one thing or another. I definitely didn’t adore this person and her blubbering was one of the main reasons why.

  107. genevieve*

    OP, I know this is a few days late, but there’s a point that feels important that I don’t think has been made yet. Your compassion towards Brenda is truly admirable. However, as mental health care providers, you are also presumably aware that there are many people with severe mental health issues who put years of work and develop detailed coping mechanisms to be able to function “normally” (I am one of these people!). Having a condition under control does not mean it’s gone. Consider, there may be some other employees who are having to expand extreme amounts of effort to keep their own issues under control in an unusually stressful environment. For me, personally, no matter why the tears are coming, hearing someone sob does trigger a trauma response. I have to work through my personal methods and coping skills. If I had to do that every day? I wouldn’t say anything to the person, but I would start to deteriorate.

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