It’s well known that the modern employee is often a stressed employee. Indeed, official government stats suggest that 40% of workers believe their job is extremely stressful, with 25% regarding it as the main stressor in their lives.
Having a bit of a grumble with a colleague about something so stressful could be a great way to let off steam, right? Well yes and no. Let’s explore the evidence to support venting at work first.
A recent study, published in Organization Studies, suggests that complaining about work can help to improve relationships within a team, and indeed make workers feel better, especially if the grumble has an element of humor to it.
The researchers studied a number of teams in a midwestern US hospital who worked under extremely stressful circumstances, whether due to the nature of the cases they were working on, or the relative inflexibility of their organizational structure. In the teams, it emerged that complaining served to bond people together, whilst also allowing them to process their negative feelings and become more positive as a result.
“It allows people to recognize how similar they are in the challenges they’re facing every day and how they feel about them,” the researchers say. “One of the best things in the team I observed, was that these griping rituals helped doctors and nurses realize they were feeling the same way about situations, and they weren’t that different.”
In this instance, the complaining was a ritual that the researchers believe helped them to process their negative emotions and subsequently move on.
Of course, complaining is not always beneficial, as highlighted by a second study, published in 2017. It suggests that complaining to a colleague can often do more harm than good.
Making matters worse
The authors argue that when we complain about injustices at work, it does little to rectify them, but instead cements those injustices and their impact. The study saw employees complete a regular work diary that detailed whether they had complained or not that day, whether they’d experienced anything worthy of complaining about, and how serious that issue was. They were also asked to document their mood each day and general engagement level.
When the data was analyzed, it emerged that how people reacted to negative events had a big impact on their mood and engagement levels. If negative events were taken in their stride, then engagement levels remained high, but if employees complained about them, it took a toll on their mood and engagement not just on the day of the event but in the following days as well.
The authors suggest that when we complain about an incident, we mentally revisit it, which helps it to stick in our mind for longer and therefore deepens our association between the incident and the negative emotions we feel.
So when you feel like complaining at work, what should you do? Interestingly, both studies suggest that humor can be very beneficial.
“The thing about joking is you can turn a problematic situation into a source of humor. Just like with griping, most of the triggers are problems. But with the griping it’s more about commiserations. With joking it’s about entertainment, distraction, and having a bit of fun,” the researchers say.
Joking also helps the team to bond around shared problems, with the humor often presenting them in a positive way. This is key as positive emotions are associated with open-mindedness, which is key to processing the incidents in a healthy way.
Open-mindedness is especially important in the kind of complex environments that typify the modern workplace. Being able to view a range of perspectives simultaneously is hugely valuable as teams increasingly consist of people from across occupational and organizational boundaries.
Humor can also help to create a safe format for discussing important workplace issues.
“In the team I observed, there was some frustration that the organization was not embracing movements happening in healthcare, like the treatment of patients as whole persons. There was a feeling among some of the participants that there was too much weight given to a particular type of expertise at the expense of others. And they used griping and humor to challenge those existing political structures,” the researcher reveals.
So there you have it. Complaining can be a good thing, but only providing you do so in the right way. Hopefully the insights from these studies will ensure you do just that.