One Monday morning, many years ago, I was riding the bus to work. As it came to a stop at the corner where I always got off, I found I remained seated. I stayed on the bus all the way to the end of the line where I finally alighted and caught the next bus straight home.
The day before, I had been dumped by my boyfriend of a year. And the day before that, I had introduced him to a group of my colleagues. The thought of showing up at the office and forcing a smile through their debrief – or, worse, dissolving into tears – felt impossible.
From the bus, heading incrementally farther away from the office, I texted my boss to explain. She was understanding, and I was grateful. Not everyone would be, I knew.
Some compassion for a break-up might be too much to ask of an entire populace. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has put this to the test, taking a “personal day” off from her party’s conference shortly after announcing her separation from her partner of 10 years, Andrea Giambruno, a television presenter and father to her seven-year-old daughter.
On a diplomatic visit to Israel last week, Meloni was grilled over footage of Giambruno that was broadcast showing him making suggestive comments to a female colleague. “I am fine. I am getting on with my work,” she told one reporter, and – after a follow-up – “I don’t want to talk about this any more”.
Though your sympathies probably don’t extend to her far-right, populist politics, they might to Meloni being pressed to speak about her relationship while simultaneously grieving its end. Speaking at the Brothers of Italy conference via video link on Sunday, Meloni appealed to her colleagues and supporters for understanding: “I’m sorry to not be with you in person, but I, too, am human.”
The fact that Meloni made any address at all is, arguably, commendable. Studies have increasingly shown that heartbreak is a physiological phenomenon, activating the same kind of pain as an addict might feel going through withdrawal. Those of us with less high-profile careers than Meloni (and less explosive break-ups) might be better able to pass under the radar when it comes to “personal days” – but, for one reason or another, we all take them. In 2015, a YouGov survey found that one in five workers had pulled a sickie from work. It was ascribed, then, to “flakiness” – but, last year, another YouGov survey found that two-thirds of Britons who had taken time off for mental health had concealed the reasons why.
For all the workplace championing of compassion for employees’ private struggles and personal challenges, there remains, at least, a fear of stigma. Consider the lengths you might go to in order to avoid being seen crying at work. One 2019 survey suggested 83% of workers have shed tears at work, with 18.5% citing “personal reasons”. Your manager may be sobbing in the toilet stall right now – yet it continues to be frowned upon.
A different survey, of 3,200 workers and executives in 2021, found that 70% held negative views about crying, among them that it was “never OK” or deleterious to your career prospects. Tellingly, anger was shown to be more tolerated – highlighting the pernicious gendered dimension to what is seen as acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
Studies have shown that it is not enough for women to be as confident, competent and ambitious as their male counterparts. To succeed, they must also display “prosocial orientation”: stereotypically feminine traits such as being caring, supportive and sensitive. But only when it’s beneficial to their organisation, of course – and not to the extent that they’re breaking down at their desks.
It shows the fine line that women are expected to walk in daily life: care for others, but not too much; bring your emotions to work, but also pull yourself together. No wonder Meloni has spoken of the “burden” of being Italian’s first female prime minister. Sanna Marin and Jacinda Ardern – her counterparts in Finland and New Zealand, subjected to misogynistic scrutiny at the same time as being entreated to be themselves – have both fallen foul of the catch-22.
If we’re serious about making the office a happier place to be, there needs to be space for compassion, as well as recognition that we are not simply automatons, consistently able to produce and perform. Sometimes – not often – we will be too heartbroken, too tearful, or simply too sad to be able to work. This isn’t being “flaky”, or weak, or bad at your job. This is, for better or worse, being human.
Research carried out in 2014 by the British family justice organisation Resolution found that one in seven workers said relationship breakdowns had negatively affected their productivity. Certainly I wouldn’t have been much use at the office that day, ducking off to the bathroom every 10 minutes for a discreet cry while I replayed the past 24 hours in my mind. But after a day nursing my wounds, I was eager to get back to work.