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Next Wave
Emotional Support

In times of crisis, empathy and understanding are more important than ever.
  • Carly Burnham
  • June 2020
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I've been promising a second story about crying at work since my April column. In light of recent events, this topic still feels a little fluffy. But given that we are all under stress, emotional intelligence is more important than ever. This story illustrates an important part of emotional intelligence, so I'm going to share it as promised.

In my first underwriting job, I was in a department that was typical to many in the spread of experience of the team. About half of the underwriters had 15 or more years of experience, about 40% had less than five years of experience, and the remainder were in between. Like many underwriting departments, the tenured underwriters mentored the newer underwriters, and most of the training was done through informal conversations on the floor. As a new underwriter, you're learning lots of things—coverage, rating, culture of the organization and relationship management skills.

Early in my time on this team, a senior underwriter told me: “My desk is in the corner. There is space between the cube and the window, and that is what we call 'the crying corner.'” I must have looked a little surprised because she explained that this is where she and many others on my team went when they needed to cry at work; it was out of sight of support staff and management, and she was a good listener. She explained that underwriters had cried there over divorces, health concerns, etc. But she told me that she most often cried there because of agents. She had a territory that had some particularly challenging agents who would literally yell at her over accounts. She said the second reason she would cry in that corner was after reviewing one of those tough decisions with management and finding herself unsupported. It didn't take me long to learn that she was not the only underwriter with this experience.

I was unsettled by this information as I had never worked somewhere that allowed their staff to be treated this way by customers. Even as a call center representative for a retail credit card company, I was told that if a customer became irate on the phone, I should state, “I am ending this call if you will not interact politely,” and then I was to hang up the phone if their tone did not change. As an employee in this new environment, I was uncomfortable. I did not intend to allow agents to treat me that way, and I hoped that it would not become a point of contention between me and my manager. I never found out because my agents never crossed that line. That said, I took two lessons from the experience.

First, crying is bound to happen at work, and hearing that your fellow employees are supportive and understanding is reassuring and makes for a more human environment.

Second, setting boundaries, even with customers, should be a standard and accepted practice in any work setting. We all get frustrated, but we should never yell at those we are working with. And if we are being yelled at, we ought to be empowered to disengage from that situation.

In April, I shared that our work connects on a personal level, and I believe that it should. Insurance is a relationship-based business. Relationships can be challenging to navigate, and they can bring out powerful emotions. Each of us in the profession ought to learn to manage our emotions and ensure that we treat fellow professionals as least as kindly as we treat our customers. Engaging in behavior that brings another to tears should not be tolerated. I hope that, especially in these challenging times, we can remember that the stress we each are under will bring increasing difficulty to interactions. When it does, choose the path of empathy and understanding.

Carly Burnham, CPCU, MBA, has been in the insurance industry since 2004. She blogs at and can be reached at

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