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

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose emotionally fragile employee was sobbing at work multiple times a week? Here’s the update.

Thank you, Alison, and the AAM community for your responses. I’ll admit that I was taken back by the intensity of the responses. It struck me that working in a mental/behavioral health agency for years had softened me a bit – more than I realized. I found myself defending Brenda to commenters, which was probably the thing I needed the most at the time. It actually put me in a mindset to be even more compassionate toward her.

When Brenda returned to the office, it was clear that she had used the time to tackle the issues that were causing her challenges with emotional control. With the additional time available, Brenda’s counselor and medical practitioner were able to more specifically diagnose a mental health issue and begin immediate treatment, which included changes to diet and other coping skills, as well as medical intervention. And even though the medicine would not take full effect for a couple of weeks, the difference was stark upon her return to work. While she was as kind, compassionate, and empathetic as usual, Brenda had control over her emotions again – and even more so than prior to the tough season that she had come through.

Regardless, I sat down with Brenda to discuss the affect that her emotions were having on those around her in the workplace – both on our team, but also with those in other departments. As expected, she was very receptive, and was committed to working within the boundaries that I set with her. We implemented a plan with steps that would be taken should her emotions get out of control – time away from her desk to take walks/get outside; shutting her office door occasionally to help with workload; working from home, if necessary; and even what an extended leave of absence might look like, should that become necessary. Brenda is really doing well – our team managed a busy hiring season very effectively, and we could not have done so without her.

Brenda will always be a feeler’s feeler… which, I’ll admit, is not particularly comfortable for me. But I am learning a lot about the way that both Brenda and I are each wired… and together we are working on ways for us to communicate even more effectively. And, as crazy as it sounds, Brenda was and is still very much beloved and respected by her colleagues. They all know that she wears her heart on her sleeve… but they also know that she is a very good worker, and more importantly, they know just how much she cares for each and every one of them. This is truly a special place to work.

{ 147 comments… read them below }

  1. nonee*

    I believe this is the *sweetest* update I’ve ever seen. Thank you, OP, and I wish you and the lovely Brenda all the best!

      1. Caroline Bowman*

        You are a very kind and empathetic person towards your employees and thank you very much for updating us.

        It’s just the best news that the person concerned was able to properly get concerted help for a very pervasive issue. Obviously these things take a bit of time to tackle and get under control, but evidently that’s what’s happened! It’s a good example of the real value of health interventions for mental as well as physical health.

  2. Even In an Emergency*

    Wow. Really happy she’s doing so much better and glad she has so much support (especially yours, OP!)

  3. 3DogNight*

    This is a great update! I love hearing Brenda’s progress, and yours, too, OP. This is a wonderful thing to hear in the midst of all the bleh that is 2020.

    1. OP*

      Thanks! It’s been a crazy year for everyone, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’m grateful for that.

      The meanest thing I’ve ever heard Brenda say was a few weeks ago: “I wish someone would punch 2020 in the face.” We all cracked up… and we all agreed. Here’s to a much better 2021.

  4. Littorally*

    This is a great update. OP, it sounds like you’re a really great person to work for, and that was a wonderful way of handling Brenda’s struggles. And, of course, I’m glad she got the help she needed.

  5. Paperwhite*

    Hooray! LW I am very impressed by your kindness and compassion to Brenda, which undoubtedly is helping her handle her illness. In a business world which holds that crying is the worst thing ever I think we could use much more of practical kindheartedness like yours.

  6. Erin from accounting*

    Is anyone else uncomfortable with how much OP knows about their employee’s medical treatment (especially the diet and medication part)? Just me? Ok, then…

    I’m glad that Brenda is doing better, but maybe some professional/personal separation would be good for all involved too.

    1. Generic Name*

      Yeah, that struck me too. I’m glad Brenda is doing better, but I think that everyone in this situation could benefit from some serious boundary setting.

      1. Courageous cat*

        Agreed. This whole thing kind of skeeves me out for reasons I can’t articulate, but it all seems way too intertwined and not as professional as I would like, were I in that situation.

    2. I'm just here for the cats*

      I dont find it THAT odd. We really don’t know that much details, just that she is on meds and a new diet. Brenda might have said in her meeting that she’s hoping the meds will help with what’s happening. And the diet could have come out naturally. Like if they order food as a group or something and she Brenda said, Oh I cant have X, new dietary restrictions. As far as we know it’s not like Brenda told her that she’s on Xanax and what her diet plan is.

      1. Erin from accounting*

        Coping strategies that are happening during worktime (like walking away from the desk more often and working from home more), I get why that has to be shared with a manager. But medical information can be a sensitive topic and even if the employee is openly sharing the info, generally it’s best for the manager to set boundaries on how much is appropriate for them to know.

      2. OP*

        That’s exactly how it went down. She didn’t give me much detail, and I certainly didn’t ask. But I think she felt like she owed me an explanation (which she didn’t). I have no idea what the diagnosis, medical interventions, and diet are… and that is fine with me. :)

        1. Caroline Bowman*

          But of course she’s told you because A/ she does share info as is her right to do and B/ you clearly were very worried about her and her ability to work / be okay generally, with extremely good reason. She was able to explain that she is taking a variety of steps to help matters, and because you get on well, she felt happy to say what they were. ”I’m trying a recommended eating plan because it’s meant to help with X diagnosis, and getting fresh air when I feel overwhelmed” is hardly inappropriate or terribly embarrassing. If someone shares that they’re a celiac and so cannot eat A or B, that’s not oversharing, just a simple statement. They don’t HAVE to name their ailment, but people often do in supportive, friendly collegial environments, and why not?

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Agree, it wouldn’t be a reasonable thing to *make* her share, but I think given the fact that they are having conversations about how to manage these things at work it sounds pretty normal that she would give a little bit of info about what she is working on outside of work. It’s certainly not required info but fits into the context and in her shoes I would probably want to share a little bit as well to make it clear I was taking it seriously and actively working on it.

    3. Colleague’s Dog’s Viking Funeral*

      Part of Brenda’s package is her oversharing, talking about every feeling and every feeling about every feeling. If she is comfortable sharing with OP, then that’s OK, but this is also a good time to help Brenda navigate boundaries, including her own.
      It’s one thing for Brenda to tell her supervisor: “OP, I met with my doctor and I have a plan which includes medicine, therapy and diet. I have some trigger moments and I have steps to work through them.”
      It’s another to say, “I’ve been diagnosed with XYZ. I’ve been prescribed ABC and my therapist is having me to 123 exercises.”

      1. OP*

        Yes, she did not give details, and I would have stopped her if she had tried. She wanted me to know that there was a plan, and then our conversation moved on.

    4. LTL*

      The medical treatment info didn’t bother me so much per say, but there’s something about this letter…. It feels like everyone at work is a little too familial.

      1. AKchic*

        This. At the very least, Brenda and OP are a little too loose with their boundaries between each other. It was repeatedly remarked upon in the original letter’s commentary, too.

        1. BonnieVoyage*

          Yes. I’m delighted that Brenda’s treatment is going well but I think there was a lot of good advice given in the original response from Alison and the comments, even if some of it was framed harshly, and it seems like none of it has been taken on board. I am not sure why “hearing any criticism of my employee made me redouble my defensiveness of her” is being presented as a positive thing in this situation and from a manager. Oh well, as I said, I’m glad things are looking up for Brenda.

          1. Frageelie*

            THIS! I was wondering what felt odd. It was the best things for OP to be even more sympathetic? I think commentators were telling them that what they were doing was inappropriate and harmful to their workplace/other workers. It was not ok to be extra sympathetic.

            I think it’s great that Brenda is doing better, but I worry that if she WASN’T doing better or started to slip again that OP would still be able to handle this. It’s being handled because Brenda has handled it, not really the OP as a manager.

      2. Sara without an H*

        I admit that bothered me, too. I’m glad Brenda is doing better, of course, but she and the OP still sound awfully enmeshed.

          1. Tinsel Two*

            Yes, and also, that OP just keeps reiterating how nice Brenda is. That’s wonderful, but that’s not the issue, and it doesn’t matter if she didn’t “mean” to make people upset. And the comment about the “meanest” thing she said. It’s just really weird.
            It really sounds like OP is somehow strangely wrapped up with Brenda and thinks other people are too.

          2. pancakes*

            Yes. “Brenda will always be a feeler’s feeler” seems off, too. People who are very public or freewheeling about their feelings aren’t necessarily feeling their feelings more deeply or admirably more frequently than the rest of us. It’s a difference of temperament and style, not necessarily a qualitative difference.

      3. AngryOwl*

        Agreed. The OP and Brenda are great people, I’m sure, and I’m really glad Brenda is doing better. But it’s really not everyone else’s job to manage Brenda’s feelings for her, and I feel like that got lost a bit in the defending and enmeshment.

    5. Koalafied*

      I noticed, if you will, that part. As in, it stood out in a way more mundane statements wouldn’t. But it also clarifies a lot to know they work in a mental health capacity. When I worked at a health nonprofit we all knew way more about each other’s health and diets and medications than I ever have with colleagues at any other workplace, and it wasn’t as big of a deal as it would have been in every other workplace.

      Talking about health and healing was what we did all day, so it was only natural that we had lower barriers to bringing our own situations into the discussion. We all did a lot of reading on our own time about health issues so it was a smart, well-informed group of people who shared each other’s values, we often felt like we could turn to each other for insights or suggestions on health matters, and there was never any fear that the health information we shared would be used against us or negatively affect our opportunities at work because that would have been so anathema to the organization’s core mission.

      It was a very unique situation that I don’t think directly translates to workplaces that aren’t fundamentally organized around promoting health and/or healing.

      1. Jackalope*

        Yeah, the fact that they’re working in a mental-health related field is really relevant here. That’s the sort of thing that people are much more likely to know about each other in that situation.

        1. OP*

          I’d never worked anywhere but corporate-America type of organizations until this mental health agency. Took me awhile to adjust, frankly! After many years, I’m still not always comfortable with the amount of sharing… and I definitely keep pretty strict boundaries about what I share. I will often bow out of conversations that I think are getting too personal.
          It is, however, the most kind, supportive, and selfless place I’ve ever worked, and it’s pretty cool.

      2. allathian*

        Yeah, I’m sure the field they’re working in has a lot to do with it. But no details, as LW’s posts confirmed. No doubt Brenda’s coworkers are also relieved that she’s no longer crying at her desk several times a week. This is also a case where dealing with difficulties themselves may make someone an even better and more understanding employee.

    6. Momma Bear*

      My spouse was a senior manager for a long time and the amount of freely-provided personal information about his employees was a bit shocking at first. People sometimes divulge a lot that you would not expect. It’s probable that Brenda gave this information on her own, perhaps to help OP understand the scope.

      I’m glad that things are going so well for OP and Brenda. Especially Brenda.

      1. LGC*

        Totally agreed. I don’t want to scare anyone here but it’s not impossible to draw conclusions from even background information.

        In this case it sounds like Brenda shared a couple of bits with OP and she connected the dots. Like most people would.

    7. Insert Clever Name Here*

      {shrug} they’re in HR, so it kind of makes sense that they may go into more detail out of professional curiosity/interest — I write contracts for work and I know all the weird stuff in rental agreements or Little League release forms my coworkers have signed because it’s tangentially related to our field.

    8. Blaise*

      Some people just don’t feel the need to be so private. I got really sick a couple years ago with a chronic illness, and everyone at work obviously knew because I suddenly looked sick all the time. When I finally got in to see a specialist, I was happy to share my treatment Olán- also diet changes and a prescription- because I was so excited to start getting better and because everyone I worked with cared about me and would be excited too! I don’t believe in keeping secrets just because other people would if they were in the same position.

      1. PT*

        I’ve worked places where being private worked against you. If you said, “I’m getting treatment for a medical condition,” the information gaps (the condition, the treatment) would be filled in with wild gossip and speculation of most dramatic scenarios. Transparent disclosure was usually in your best interest, because the vast majority of health issues are way more boring than what the Busybody Network can come up with over the water cooler.

      2. Not playing your game anymore*

        Yeah I grew up at a time when you read in the news paper that Mrs. Smith was admitted to the hospital again and that Mr. Jones was home after treatment for his heart issue at the Mayo. Little Tom Johnson was diagnosed with… So this insistence on medical privacy isn’t second nature. I do understand why its preferable in many cases. Just as it’s better not to list peoples travel plans (Fred and Martha King will be visiting her sister in Gulf Shores, Alabama for the holidays) so as to not invite house breakers.

        1. Wisteria*

          At my company, we are prohibited by policy from even saying something like, “Joe’s heart surgery went well.” Sometimes I think the pendulum has just swung too far in the other direction.

      3. Tau*

        I feel this, but at the same time I try to make a habit of being reasonably private at work even when I don’t need to in order to cover for the times I do need to. You may be OK with talking about your illnesses and then discover you don’t want to disclose your newly acquired mental health issues, say, but if you’ve been open about your health and why you’re off all along then a sudden “oh I have an… appointment…” sticks out and may make people speculate where they wouldn’t have if you were vague as a matter of course.

        And it’s weirdly easy to start feeling like you have to share because you’re usually an open person, in my experience. My last major health crisis I couldn’t really talk about at work because it was next to impossible for it not to come across as TMI (let’s just say that it was a gynecological issue causing increasingly severe anaemia, and I work in an extremely male-dominated field). It was a little off-putting, as someone who firmly believes in everyone’s right to medical privacy, how difficult it felt not to go into detail, to stick with “I’ll be out for a medically necessary surgery on X date, expected recovery time two weeks, don’t worry it’s nothing major”. It was like part of me felt I owed my coworkers and boss the full explanation because I’d given them one when I got ill before.

        None of which is to say it’s *wrong* to be open, these are just things I think about now that I didn’t before that experience.

    9. ElizabethJane*

      I mean Brenda could have said to the boss “Thanks for the time off – I want you to know I’ve worked out a comprehensive treatment plan that even includes a new diet LOL” which might be awkward but I could see myself being awkward when trying to reassure my boss that I’ve got things under control.

      On the other hand given the OPs uncomfortable defense of Brenda in the initial letter I doubt that’s how it went and I completely get what you’re saying.

    10. WoodswomanWrites*

      I think this is widely variable depending on the workplace. I previously worked at a nonprofit where the level of trust and friendship among colleagues, including managers, was strong. People cared about each other and still honored professional boundaries. On the other hand, I worked at another nonprofit where I definitely guarded personal health information because I didn’t trust how it would play out in the workplace if it was known.

    11. Anonymous Hippo*

      When I depressed and it was causing episodes at work, I 100% told my boss what I was doing to work on it. I even told the coworkers I was close to. I’m not sure why this would be a boundary that would need to be drawn, and it feels to me more like putting a stigma on mental health. The places I’ve worked it has not been unusual for people to talk about their diet for diabetes, or their thyroid medication and the like, so why would medication for mental health be any different?

    12. Observer*

      Is anyone else uncomfortable with how much OP knows about their employee’s medical treatment

      All things considered, it’s not that much. What do we know?

      Brenda got a diagnosis and a treatment plan. That includes diet, medication, therapy and skills development. Given that the problem itself was by definition well known, none of this is a lot. Now, if the OP knew what medication Brenda was taking, non-work related details of Brenda’s diet or the specifics of her mental health / traumatic repressed history, that would be different. But it’s not.

      Basically what Brenda seems to have done here is to give people enough information to let people know that she actually DOES have a plan rather than just SAYING “I’m working on it”; explain any differences they see (eg she’s eating differently); and work with the OP (and whoever else) on appropriate accommodations.

  7. I'm just here for the cats*

    Thank you, OP, for standing by for Brenda. I wish my former bosses had done this for me. I wasn’t to the same extent of Brenda but there were several times at past job where I was crying at my desk and having panic attacks in the bathroom. Not because I was sad but just because I was so angry/frustrated or overwhelmed because someone was screaming at me for 15 minutes over the emoji’s changing on their cell phone (Cellular customer service) However, I WASN’T ALLOWED to leave my desk. I just HAD to take the next call, because heaven forbid we actually acted like humans and not robots. I’m so glad that I’m out of that toxic place!

      1. I'm just here for the cats.*

        Oh it’s a totally different place! For one I work with mental health professionals so they know how to actually treat people like people. I haven’t had panic attacks for like years

    1. OP*

      UGH! I’m glad you’re out of that toxic place too. Thanks for your kind words. Brenda is worth standing by her. And in a really busy year (COVID = lots of business for mental health providers), she is really killing it, which is no surprise. The compassion and care she shows to new staff during the onboarding process, especially, is a gift.

    2. Observer*

      So, this is the thing – you’re describing a TOTALLY different situation.

      Your old job sounds like a nightmare. Even with reasonable treatment, life happens and people do sometimes need to get away from their desk / cry / whatever. And when abusive behavior is in the mix, that takes it to a whole different level.

      Brenda was not being abused in the office. Nor was she responding in any sort of reasonable way to normal and reasonable behavior. I am glad that Brenda is doing better and found (some of) the underlying causes for her behavior. And it really is a good thing that the OP was willing to give Brenda what she needed to get the problem under control.

      But there is a HUGE difference between protecting people from being abused and allowing them to also occasionally escape to the bathroom to cry or the like on the one hand (definitely something a boss should do!) and allowing someone to have visible meltdowns multiple times a week and pour so much emotion over others that they have to take on extra burdens and tiptoe around that person (which was where things stood before Brenda got help.)

  8. Jules the 3rd*

    I like this a lot, especially the part where you’re both learning ways to communicate more effectively…

  9. Blender*

    This is a great update, and I’m glad that OP has been supportive of Brenda. After all, we don’t stop being humans when we’re at work, with all the emotions that come along with that.

    What struck me most about the original letter was the response from commenters. I’ll never forget the vitriol, the ableism, the pure ridicule towards a woman that the commentators had never met.

    1. SAS*

      I was also totally stunned at some of the responses that wildly disregarded the LWs (clear) description of Brenda’s personality and work quality. The LW stated this behaviour was precipitated by traumatic circumstances, I’m lucky enough to work in an office now where if my manager and colleagues knew I or anyone in the office was struggling with circumstances out of their control, they would support and give leeway during that difficult period!

      Some of the responses (as someone who works in the field) sadly demonstrated that the lack of development understanding or sensitivity to mental health issues for the last 3 decades!

      1. Lissa*

        Part of this too is that some of the original description of Brenda I think reminded some people of others they have known in their past, and the insistence that everyone actually loved Brenda and thought she was wonderful felt a little alarming in that context. I know for me, it definitely threw up some eyebrow raises.

        1. Tau*

          Yeah, I’m rereading the original post and… a lot of the descriptions sent and send up flags for me, including the ones of Brenda before the traumatic circumstances. Not so much that she reminded of someone, but that I tried to mentally place someone resembling the description into my job and it didn’t look good.

          With OP’s update, I wonder how much of this is a field thing, honestly. It sounds like working in mental health may lead to colleagues being a lot more involved in each other’s emotional lives than, say, software development (my job), so what reads as an inappropriate level of emotional enmeshment to me may simply be par for the course. Koalafied said something similar upthread.

    2. ElizabethJane*

      I think the issue is that the OP seemed to be completely ignoring the possibility of Brendas behavior impacting her colleagues.

      I have my own set of health problems that range from needing additional bathroom breaks to also requiring work from home for my anxiety. My boss is understanding and we work out my accomodations in a way that will impact my coworkers in the least possible way.

      I’m understanding that other people also have their own health burdens but it’s not ableist to say “I don’t want to sit across from my coworker who sobs multiple times a week for 6 months”. That would set off my own anxiety.

      I really appreciate that the OP was willing to support Brenda but they seemed to be doing it at the expense of the other coworkers. Multiple commenters said “Brenda is probably not beloved by everyone” and the OP simply responded with “Nah, it’s fine”.

      1. SAS*

        I wouldn’t consider the LW ignoring the impact of the behaviour as she was writing in for advice on how to continue to manage the issue, which she recognised as difficult for the team!

        I guess I’m used to readers being more generous and it was hard to see people consistently ignore her reading of her team when we generally take LW at their word.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        This. I think there was a lot of feeling that the OP was expecting a lot of accommodation for Brenda while overlooking the fact that other people might need conflicting accommodations but weren’t getting them because they weren’t as loud.

        I straight-up could not handle this. I have enough anxiety of my own, I’m hypersensitive to noise, and I’m on the autism spectrum, which can make processing my own feelings kind of weird, never mind somebody else’s. I would have been job-hunting yesterday if I were expected to just tune out ongoing sobbing.

        1. Beth*

          Me too. The OP’s mishandling of this was severe I think, and I’m glad it’s worked out, but it still seems like they don’t really understand what was so bad about it from the beginning. It’s not about Brenda really, it’s complete mismanagement of a situation.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            And I don’t hate Brenda here, but I think it’s possible to be sympathetic to someone but also recognize that their current needs are not compatible with acceptable workplace behavior and that for the sake of everyone involved, this person may need to take a break and do some serious regrouping (which does not mean being fired).

        2. Lalaroo*

          I think that assumptions play a huge role in the response to the earlier letter, and to this one. People mostly assumed that Brenda’s crying was done in an open office, or in cubicles, or some place where her coworkers constantly heard and saw it. OP clarified in the comments that Brenda has an office and closed her door when she was sobbing, or sometimes went to the bathroom. People seemed to think (and still think) it had a greater impact on the other coworkers than it probably did, and that affects the responses.

    3. The Unknown B*

      Alison has said repeatedly that she doesn’t read every comment since there are thousands here and asked that people stop assuming she’s given her blessing to any given comment section. It’s even in the commenting rules.

    4. OP*

      Thanks! The emotion that was reflected in the comments from the original letter was a big shock to me. But I’m strangely grateful… it was really hard to read, for sure. But it really led me to defend Brenda – some in the comments, but also in my own head. That renewed perspective played a large part in the success of the conversations after she returned to work.

      1. Gymmie*

        This is the part that is so troubling to me. OP, people were trying to tell you what you were doing was not right as a manager. That it made your more defensive of a person that was already an issue is not good.
        It should have made you recognize how disruptive her behavior was and how complicit you were in it.

        I’m so glad Brenda is better, but the whole thing really makes me uncomfortable.

        1. BonnieVoyage*

          I agree. That is a really concerning response from someone who works in HR and manages others. It’s actually stuck in my head all day because it’s so off.

          OP, truly, I am glad that things are improving for Brenda. But it sounds like the improvements are entirely down to actions she has taken independently, and the changes that you’ve mentioned like closing her office door when she’s crying are things that I am truly shocked were not in place before. I am hearing a lot of defensiveness and emotional investment in this one employee – I note that in this post and the original you responded to a lot of comments but really only to defend or praise Brenda – and very little else.

          Hopefully now that Brenda’s situation has improved this will not longer be an issue, or at least not with her. But I think it would be really beneficial for you as a manager and HR worker to have a proper think about why you are quite so emotionally invested in this woman (and “everybody loves her because she’s great” is not an answer) and how this situation where an employee was routinely having multiple ugly-crying emotional breakdowns at her desk DAILY for six months and everyone else was just expected to live with it came about in your workplace at all.

          1. Lalaroo*

            That’s just not true. OP said she had sobbing instances a few times a week, not multiple times per day for six months.

            And reading OP’s comments in the prior thread, it seemed to me that Brenda was already closing the door when she was crying, not that it was something the OP suggested after writing in.

            I think people are too personally invested in feeling like Brenda was being disruptive and harmful to her coworkers, honestly.

            1. Natalie*

              That’s just not accurate to what they wrote.

              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.

              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.

            2. BonnieVoyage*

              No, that is what they said. They wrote in in July and said that the issue had been ongoing since January.

              “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.”

              and she specifically says that it was disruptive –

              “Brenda is well aware that her colleagues are walking on eggshells around her… the emotional roller coaster is taking its toll on everyone … Brenda’s inability to control her emotions is affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of our team.“

              I think people are too personally invested in feeling like this sort of behaviour was just a little wobble rather than something that, as per the OPs direct words in their own letter, was taking a real emotional toll of those around her and affecting the ability of the team to do their work.

        2. Wintermute*

          +1000 you said it better than I could. I feel so, so sorry for those other co-workers. I’d have been out of there a long time ago, I’m not up for reliving the dynamics of an abused childhood at work.

      2. Observer*

        All that said – do you understand what people were reacting to? Do you realize the harm that was (almost certainly) being done to others?

        Importantly, do you realize the harm you could have done to Brenda? Because, in defending her so strongly, you WERE potentially doing her a lot of harm. Working in the mental health field, I’m sure you are aware of the fact that accommodating all behaviors often strengthens behavior that is highly problematic to the person doing those things. As you can see, Brenda had some underling issues that direly needed to be dealt with – and as long as everyone was trying to manage AROUND her and trying to keep her from feeling bad, it reduced her incentive and even ability to recognize the magnitude of the problem and get the help she needed.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Could you please not do that?

      From the commenting rules:

      I do not read and approve every single comment. The volume is far too high. So if you see a comment that seems problematic, please don’t do this: “I can’t believe this comment is allowed! Why has Alison approved this?!” Instead, assume I haven’t seen it and feel free to flag it and I’ll take a look (if you include a link in your comment, it’ll go to moderation so I’ll see it).

      Separately, I just went back and reviewed my own comments to see what you meant about me “supporting” the responses and I don’t see anything of the sort from me, so I’m not sure what that refers to. I do, however, firmly believe that it’s not okay (and is harmful to other people’s mental health and ability to work) to have an employee sobbing at her desk multiple times per week, and I stand by that. That doesn’t preclude having empathy for Brenda.

    6. MsChanandlerBong*

      I don’t think this is a fair assessment. Yes, we should be empathetic and accommodate people going through difficult circumstances, but that doesn’t mean people should be able to cry at their desk several times per week and make other people feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of their work or how nice of a person they are.

    7. Paperwhite*

      I completely agree with you — I was disappointed but unsurprised. With a combination of American business norms, the usual denigration of “feminine” behaviors such as crying, and human self protectivness, I’ve seen that the commentariat here hates women who cry. I think if we could run a poll we’d find that people would prefer a coworker who yells and punches holes in the wall to one who cries, or at least find Yelling Coworker’s behavior more excusable (maybe he’s having a bad day!) than Crying Coworker (she’s a weak woman making other women look bad and making everyone uncomfortable!)

      1. Natalie*

        “Women who cry at work sometimes” != “HR employee who routinely and frequently sobs at their desk”. Good lord.

        1. Paperwhite*

          Two points on a range are not the same point but are still on the same range. In my experience, here and elsewhere, people vocally consider crying at all to be the most unprofessional action ever, especially from women.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That 100% has not been borne out by the actual commenter responses to such letters (and we’ve had both).

        Moreover, keep in mind this was loud *sobbing*, multiple times a week. I don’t know how that wouldn’t impact other people’s mental health. It certainly would mine.

        1. Paperwhite*

          Moreover, keep in mind this was loud *sobbing*, multiple times a week. I don’t know how that wouldn’t impact other people’s mental health. It certainly would mine.

          Yes, and all many people talked about in the original discussion was how terrible that was and how undeserving of sympathy and help Brenda was. Now she’s gotten treatment and is no longer sobbing all the time and there are *still* many comments saying this isn’t a good ending, this isn’t sufficient. What would be sufficient, besides firing people for crying?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Saying someone can’t be allowed to do disruptive behavior X in an office is not the same as saying the person is undeserving of help — but a manager isn’t always the person who can provide that help. A manager can offer the sort of things I described in my original answer — a candid conversation about what the office can and can’t accommodate, a health leave if needed, work from home if that’s feasible for the role, etc.

            1. Paperwhite*

              LW took your good advice and applied it compassionately, and Brenda is doing much better. But people in the comments here are still saying that LW was wrong to handle the issue this way and that Brenda probably isn’t as liked as LW thinks she is and so on.

              In another comment you have asked me to find specific examples of the harshness towards tears I am describing, so I will take some time this weekend to do that.

              1. Ramona Q*

                People are allowed to have opinions about letters that differ from your opinion about them. Wasting weekend time coming up with “proof” that you are right about an anonymous letter on a workplace advice blog seems like an odd choice in this one life you get to live, but, of course, your opinion probably differs.

      3. Courageous cat*

        I think the flip side of this question would be, why do you have such a strong inclination to defend crying as a perfectly normal workplace thing? What good does being totally cool with constant, loud sobbing actually do?

        Crying is totally understandable and fine in moderation for reasonable reasons – and I’ve seen it admitted here as such many times. But this is extremely different.

    8. Sparkles McFadden*

      Many of the comments that might be considered insensitive, read to me as just the opposite. People are stating that the manager needs to be more objective and think about how others in the workplace are being affected by the situation. That is a big part of a manager’s job so this should not be surprising.

      I think most people who write in to AAM are looking to get input from people who may have a different perspective. The comments reflect that.

      1. Wintermute*

        EXACTLY. Sensitivity needs to go all directions, there’s been a few letters where I’ve been horrified by the level of protagonist-centered morality, where yes someone was giving a great deal of sympathy to one person, and all their coworkers were just expected to not have any strong feelings about being put in traumatic situations

  10. Ruthie*

    I work someone who cares deeply and passionately about the people we serve. She has a heart of gold. She is also emotionally fragile. One of the hardest parts of my job is the emotional labor it takes to work with her. I’d be very grateful if her supervisor worked with her to build new boundaries. I’m sure others would describe her as beloved, and fairly so. But she’s also a source of stress and “handling her” is distraction from our mission. Both of those things can be true at the same time.

  11. starsaphire*

    I’m incredibly relieved to read this update. So glad to hear that Brenda is doing better and getting the help she needs. Thank you OP!

  12. Des*

    I’m glad Brenda is finding emotional control again.

    >And, as crazy as it sounds, Brenda was and is still very much beloved and respected by her colleagues.

    I’m quite curious how “beloved” expresses itself in a workplace.

    1. OP*

      She has more friends at work than I think I have… period. She is a go-to person for work stuff AND for support and care when people need it. Brenda is always ready to listen and help. She has more social invitations than anyone I know. :) She is trusted and respected and appreciated. That’s what ‘beloved’ looks like to me.

      1. Aja*

        I would call that being “popular”. Beloved is a very weird word to use in this context, and it makes me think that this entire workplace is probably not very professional, good at boundaries, or comfortable dealing with difficult situations.

        1. Oaktree*

          That really sounds like projection. From the comments I’m getting a definite sense that people really want to believe that the LW is inappropriately involved in Brenda’s emotional life, that the office is “toxic”, or some other diagnosis that’s not really supported by the information we have.

          Some workplaces are more emotionally transparent than others, or more emotionally transparent than you would personally prefer for yourself. That doesn’t make them inherently pathological. The situation with Brenda looks like it has been resolved admirably, with positive results for the LW, Brenda, and the rest of the team. So what’s the problem?

      2. Ismonie*

        I’ve known people like that in workplaces, and it’s not always because they are beloved. Sometimes it’s a combination of favor-sharking and knowing if you don’t invite the person, it will be an emotional “thing.” I would hesitate to impute emotions to others about still others.

      3. Courageous cat*

        I can’t seem to understand how one-sided all of this seems, like so overwhelmingly positive with no nuance. I can’t help but think you don’t have a fully accurate assessment here and your own emotions towards her may be clouding that.

  13. Wisteria*

    > It actually put me in a mindset to be even more compassionate toward her.

    I’m glad that the overwhelmingly feelings averse commentariat here had a positive effect!

    >And, as crazy as it sounds, Brenda was and is still very much beloved and respected by her colleagues.

    Doesn’t sound crazy at all.

  14. Jane Smith*

    Am I… the only one who thinks that this workplace is rather enmeshed with Brenda? Even though she’s doing better (great!), its an awful lot of emotional labour going on.

      1. Jane Smith*

        It doesn’t give me the creeps, but it’d be too much for me. Boundaries are important in any relationship, but never more so than when working in mental health.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Nope, definitely not. I was one of the critical commenters on the original post and I don’t see this update quite as rosily as a lot of other people seem to.

    2. Threeve*

      I would at least say…it could very well be true that everyone at this organization is happy with the unusual levels of emotional involvement on the part of boss and coworkers.

      But if/when they hire new people, I hope applicants are made explicitly aware of it, the same way any workplace with uncommon practices (dog-friendly, Friday afternoon beers, Nerf battles, daily prayer, etc) should disclose them before someone accepts a position there.

      1. micklethwaite*

        Yes, I’d have trouble with this if I worked there – I am all for people being able to admit when they’re struggling and I’ve no time for workplaces that want their employees to only have emotions off the clock, but this degree of emotional involvement between colleagues would overwhelm me and make it difficult to do my actual job.

    3. Van Wilder*

      Yeah I’m uncomfortable with this level of emotion in the office. I’m someone who sometimes feels too sensitive for the world and I hate that I can’t stop my tears once they start, so I empathize. But this does not sound like a resounding win.

    4. Shan*

      On the original letter, I think I made a comment along the lines of “I’m desperate to quit and I don’t even work there,” and this update is in no way changing that feeling. But I would love to go for a drink with someone else who works there…

  15. Bubblegum Blue*

    This site is normally a lot more compassionate in the comments. Brenda was clearly deeply struggling with her mental health. OP handled the situation in balanced manner. She gave Brenda leave to sort out her issues and put in place arrangements going forward such being able to go for a walk if Brenda starts getting overwhelmed again. At no point do I see the OP ignoring the impact on Brenda’s coworkers or expecting them to be her therapist. Frankly, if every employer showed this kind of non-judgemental understanding towards depression and other mental health issues, it would be considerably easier to get help instead of drowning. When a manager has had to sit an employee down and tell her she needs to take time off and get help because she can’t continue crying all day at her desk, it also seems completely reasonable for the employee to update that manager that she is actively taking steps to improve. People seem to be determined to think the worst on this one. I have met plenty of very sensitive but likeable people who are not emotional vampires. I appreciated the update and am glad Brenda is doing well.

    1. Jane Smith*

      Mmm, I definitely don’t see what you’re seeing! People have been compassionate. In fact most have been kind also.

      1. Bubblegum Blue*

        There are a lot of comments saying OP and Brenda have no boundaries, still doubting if Brenda is well liked, saying that she over shares etc. It seems well handled to me; I don’t think there was any unreasonable boundary crossing and we really need to accept OPs word that Brenda is not a one dimensional, unlikable drain. It is definitely not as harsh as the original post though.

        1. Ramona Q*

          But a lot of other people DO think there was unreasonable boundary crossing – what “seems well handled” to you does not seem so to others (and many folks critiquing the situation disclosed that they have mental health diagnoses, too, and would still feel creeped out by a colleague constantly sobbing).

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Please stop repeating this, as it’s demonstrably untrue. If anything, I’d argue people here are more accommodating of it than most offices would be.

            Full-on sobbing regularly is very, very different than what we’re normally talking about when we talk about crying at work.

            1. Paperwhite*

              This has been my experience here. Someone mentions crying and people immediately about how terrible, disruptive, and unprofessional it is.

              And, well, Brenda took the time she was given and got treatment and isn’t sobbing anymore, and there are still many people in the comments saying this is not a good resolution, with the clear implication that the only good way to deal with a crying worker is to be rid of her. I think that means something.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I’m very familiar with the overall tenor of the comment section throughout the years, as the owner of the space, and I can tell you with confidence that yelling is nearly universally condemned here and crying receives a lot of sympathy and understanding. (But no, not loud sobbing multiple times a week because that’s very different. People are rightly more concerned when it’s very disruptive to others or impedes people’s ability to get work done — such as a few letters I’ve had about someone who cried whenever things didn’t go their way/they got any sort of feedback/etc.)

                Are there specific posts you’re thinking of that contradict that?

              2. Courageous cat*

                I have literally never seen advice about crying on this site that was anything other than “if you’re giving feedback to someone who’s crying, offer them a tissue in a compassionate tone and a moment to collect themselves if they need it, and kindly continue on”. And I see that on a regular basis.

              3. Elsajeni*

                I gotta say, I haven’t read all of the comments on this post yet, but I haven’t seen anyone say that this is not a good resolution or suggest that it would be better to get rid of Brenda. The critical comments seem to be mainly people saying that, while they’re glad Brenda is doing better, they’re still concerned about boundary issues in this office, or that they don’t think the OP had been handling the situation well at the time she originally wrote in.

              4. micklethwaite*

                I’m not seeing any trend in the comments towards getting rid of Brenda. I really don’t know where you’re getting that from. People aren’t shouting for her to be fired, they’re just pointing out that loud sobbing multiple times a week for months on end should never have gone unaddressed. That it would be very concerning and disruptive in most office settings, and so the OP’s perception that everyone! loves! Brenda! is worth deeper examination.

                That doesn’t have to mean blaming or judging Brenda for her difficulties. It really, really doesn’t. I have been miserably mentally unwell at work, I get it. But there are times and places where you can let yourself fall apart, and times and places when you can’t, and if you regularly lose control at work then it’s a strong signal that you badly need more help than you’re getting. Brenda has done that now, which is great, but it should have been addressed far earlier. OP is still doubling down very, very hard on the idea that everyone at work is fine with this degree of emotional involvement, and commenters are still expressing doubt about that because, well, it’s very unusual and would be too much for a lot of people.

                1. Wintermute*

                  I think this is a fair summary. The biggest pushback I have is the idea that she’s “beloved by all”– there’s a very high probability that the boss sees what people want to boss to see, and people know the boss has an unhealthy and unusual amount of emotional investment and attachment in a deeply problematic employee, so they’d better hide their true feelings.

                  And that is the takeaway problem here, a manager has to be aware that people put up filters for them, you cannot take their “oh yeah it’s cool, I like brenda” at face value because they know you are unusually defensive, and if you ADMIT you’re unusually defensive then the reality is probably that you are even more defensive than you admit to yourself, and appear even more defensive than you are.

        2. Ismonie*

          Audibly sobbing with tears running down your face in such a way that your supervisor knew it is not maintaining a reasonable boundary. Crying at negative feedback, and being teary-eyed all day about mistakes—also not reasonable boundaries. People need to be able to give feedback and to work in a peaceful environment.

        3. Zweisatz*

          The same people are writing that they are glad that Brenda got help. It’s not automatically unkind to point out that the perspective on the impact on other coworkers seems to be missing/that some stronger boundaries might be helpful.

    2. Ismonie*

      I disagree. If OP had done this after the first week or two of open, audible sobbing, I would agree. Letting it go on and on, (and not addressing the earlier issues/boundary oversteps) reveals a serious error in judgment.

  16. Bubblegum Blue*

    I just wanted to expand on my last comment. It is true that some ‘sensitive’ people suck the liife out of you with their endless drama and refusal to help themselves. However, more commonly sensitive people have a way of listening that makes the other person feel like they genuinely care and are interested in what they have to say. They make those around them feel valued and validated, and people really respond to that. Sensitivity can be a very positive trait. I am assuming Brenda is this type of sensitive when she is not grappling with the mental health monster.

    1. Observer*

      The thing you seem to be overlooking is that the two things can both be happening with the same person – especially, as you say, when that person is battling mental (or any) health demon. Which means that a person can be genuinely liked or eve beloved, while still being harmful to people. And if people were already starting to express exasperation to the OP who is the manager, then it’s highly probable that the harm was real and significant.

      I *am* very glad that Brenda got / is getting the help she needs. And I totally think that the OP was 100% correct to want to offer Brenda as much accommodation as possible in terms of ability to WFH, modified schedules etc.

      1. Wintermute*

        also, when the boss is visibly and obviously overly emotionally attached and not impartial, even if you don’t like her you’re going to treat her as “beloved” because the boss loves her!

  17. newbieMD*

    This was one of the letters that stuck with me and I was really happy to see such a positive outcome!

  18. Judge Judy and Executioner*

    I’ve been a Brenda before, and while I was not sobbing at my desk, there was a lot of crying and it impacted my work. I’m a high-performer and feeler’s feeler and it could have been my manager who wrote that letter. This was the best update I’ve ever read and brought tears to my eyes. My manager at the time was incredibly uncomfortable with my emotions and there were incredibly awkward 1 on 1s where I spent the majority of the time crying. Luckily she cared for me and I her, and while it was awful at times we got through it and remained close. She didn’t understand why I couldn’t just control my emotions, I was doing my best which wasn’t that great. Eventually I was diagnosed with PSTD and through medication and therapy I am in better control of my emotions. That said, one of the perks of working from home is I no longer have to hide panic attacks and crying and can get myself together in my own time.

    I am so thankful that there are people like my manager and OP who can deal with situations like this compassionately. Bless you OP.

      1. Judge Judy and Executioner*

        Just someone who feels things very deeply, similar to how someone might say “she’s a mom’s mom” to mean that someone is a great mom and other mother’s notice. In this case, my interpretation is that both Brenda and I feel things incredibly deeply, and are empathetic to an extreme. If there was a ranking of all the people who felt deeply we would be near the top.

        Example – I might cry if you tell me your pet or family member died. Not full sobbing, but maybe a couple tears.

        I will say thankfully when I was with my boss it was just tears, still awkward, but no audible sobbing.

  19. Courageous cat*

    This whole thing strikes me as very peculiar. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but it does seem like OP is pretty biased towards Brenda. I feel for the other employees.

  20. Courtney*

    This is really quite a wonderful outcome. An extremely challenging situation that could have gone a multitude of different ways, but it was handled well by not just the person who wrote in, but also Brenda’s coworkers. Mental health is one of those things that there’s no cut and dry way to “figure it out.” I think this was addressed the best way it could possibly have been. We’re all human. Dealing with other humans can be messy. We are all just trying our best.

  21. Perpetual Lurker*

    To all the people who feel that this outcome isn’t as rosy as it appears, or that the way OP handled things was off, I’m curious–what exactly would you prefer had happened instead? It seems as if Brenda has gotten the help she needed, and that the manager did lay down the boundaries that Allison recommended, such as having a conversation about working from home or taking a leave of absence if necessary. Of course having an employee full on sobbing at work is not ideal, but it’s not as if it’s a situation every manager encounters and knows how to deal with right away, which is why OP even wrote in in the first place–because they realized it was taking a toll on both Brenda and her coworkers and wanted to know what to do. Would you prefer that Brenda have been fired, or disciplined for crying?

    It would have been better if the conversation the OP had with Brenda in this update had taken place sooner, rather than avoiding the topic for months until it devolved into ugly crying, but some comments read as if they are berating OP for ever leaving the barn door open at all even after they’ve already corralled the horse and gotten it back into the stable. And some comments seem to be about only the “bad vibes” they’re getting because they personally couldn’t handle a crying coworker (totally valid, but seems unnecessary when they aren’t actually the ones working with Brenda) rather than the facts of the matter laid out by the OP, which we are usually admonished to take at face value since they are the ones actually involved in the situation. It just seems unnecessarily petty and mean.

    1. Ismonie*

      The OP: 1) should have addressed the fact Brenda couldn’t handle feedback or mistakes before all this happened, that’s a something that makes it very hard to work with someone; 2) should have addressed the crying within a week or two, not waiting six months; 3) should not be downplaying how all of this walking on eggshells harms the team—it really does; 4) should not be using the other members of the team’s positive opinions of Brenda (if she in fact is perceiving them correctly) to justify not having inappropriate boundaries; 5) should not view recommendations that she “think of the rest of the team” as attacks on Brenda that she must defend. Yes, I am super glad Brenda got help. Poor woman. Thank goodness. But I’m really worried about the rest of the team, and about people who have to interact with an incredibly unprofessional HR department.

      1. Wintermute*

        Pretty much, and I’d add apologizing to the rest of the team, and checking in on their mental health to make sure this hasn’t hurt THEM, and additionally checking around the entire company to make sure that HR is still doing its job– if people are afraid of setting brenda off and thus hiding things from HR you are not doing your biggest job to the company, which is to protect them from legal liability on employee relations. That’s someplace I’d be really worried, are people not bringing up things that need to be brought up because they know Brenda would react poorly and they’d get no resolution? if so is that creating any liabilities hiding in the woodpile.

  22. BonnieVoyage*

    Of course I don’t think Brenda should have been “fired for crying”. I don’t think there’s a single comment here that suggests such a thing so that’s really quite a disingenuous question.

    The part that concerns me and I think most other people posting about this is the OP’s attitude towards Brenda. The defensiveness (and the admission that hearing criticism made her double down on that defensiveness), the way that she is only engaging to praise Brenda, the highly emotional language about Brenda, the fact that the situation was allowed to continue for months (I agree that this would be hard to deal with in the moment but months? Really?) – it’s off, to me. The OP comes across as so deeply emotionally invested in this person that it’s very very difficult to take what they’re saying at face value, and that’s why I suggested above that she take some time to think about why she feels like this about her employee and whether that’s appropriate.

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