Does Complaining About Work Relieve Stress or Create It?

Does it Help or Hurt You When You Complain About Work?

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The stark reality of most jobs is that even the most sought-after jobs bring some stress and frustration, often on a daily basis. It may feel natural to come home and vent this frustration to whoever is closest or most sympathetic, and it can feel good while we're doing it. However, as with anger rooms and directly addressing conflict with a difficult person, many people wonder if this approach does more harm than good.

But does complaining about work allow us a healthy outlet for frustration, or does it intensify our stress?

There are multiple schools of thought on the subject. Many people fear that if they bottle up their negative feelings about job stress, they may be prone to letting those feelings out at the wrong time or place—like in the boss' office or in front of co-workers—and that venting to a sympathetic ear in the privacy of one's own home is a healthier and more practical alternative. Others feel that complaining is a way to spread negativity and that focusing on the positives or distracting oneself is a better path to peace. Fortunately, researchers have analyzed these questions and can shed some light on the effects of complaining, job stress, and coping with stress so you can learn the facts and see what is truly best for you.

The Case for Complaining About Work

  • It feels good in the moment. A little bit of complaining about co-workers, bosses, clients, and the daily grind can feel cathartic. It can feel liberating to let it all out when you've been holding frustrations in for an entire day or week. Having that release can be very gratifying in itself. If complaining has subsequent negative consequences, they may not be as noticeable as the positive feelings that immediately follow a satisfying complaint session.
  • It helps us feel supported. Having someone who will listen and validate your feelings can help you to feel closer to that person, and helps us to feel less stressed in general knowing that we have people in our lives who understand what we're going through and care. Complaining about work can help a group to feel more bonded, especially if they all face similar on-the-job stress. Sometimes we just want someone to give us a big hug and tell us we're doing a good job, particularly if we don't receive a lot of positive feedback on the job itself.
  • It can lead to solutions. Discussing problems with others always has the promise of leading us to solutions we may not have thought of on our own, and this is particularly true with job stress. There are many instances when a coworker may have a solution that we don't immediately see. There are other times when an interested outsider may find an answer that we don't think of because we're too immersed in the problem. Sometimes people complain to receive sympathy or support, but when they complain to find a solution, this type of exchange can lead to real-world results, and that can mean less stress in the long run.
  • It's safer than losing patience. Many people feel that they might lose their patience if they keep their feelings bottled up. This is a somewhat valid concern. Nobody wants to walk around so frustrated that they lose their temper or say the wrong thing at inconvenient times, so complaining and venting frustrations feels like a far more pragmatic path to take. However, there are other drawbacks to complaining that may make it worth the risk of feeling frustrated. And fortunately, there are strategies to alleviate these feelings of frustration so the choice isn't between constantly complaining or exploding at your co-workers, but rather between complaining or practicing other proactive coping strategies.

    The Case Against Complaining About Work

    • It can spread negativityNegativity, like an emotional virus, is contagious. (Surprisingly, so is altruism and positivity.) This means that if you complain excessively, you can spread your bad mood, which in turn means that those around you may become more negative and feed it back to you. The takeaway here is that you need to be careful how much you complain and to whom you do it.
    • It can damage reputations. You may feel bonded to your co-workers if you share support over a venting session, but chronic complaining can come back to haunt you. You can get a reputation as a negative person or as "not a team player," you can make enemies, and you can generally worsen your experience at work—the very place that has you feeling frustrated in the first place. Phony positivity can wear thin eventually, particularly if it comes across as forced, but being careful of your negativity output is never a bad idea on the job.
    • It's not effective. While complaining may feel like a healthy release in the moment, it can actually make you feel worse in the long run. This is due, in part, to the fact that expressing anger can actually make it stronger, not weaker. The idea that you need to vent anger or it will become stored up and need to be released eventually is a myth. Letting yourself cool off, refocusing your attention, and expressing your anger in non-aggressive ways can all be more effective and less destructive. (See this article on anger rooms for more research on this.)
    • It can rewire the brain for negativity. This may sound serious, and it is. Any habitual thought or behavior can become easier to repeat, and complaining is no different from taking a certain route to work or reciting the alphabet: the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. If you habitually complain about work, it becomes more automatic to notice the negative about other things in life as well, and more challenging to notice the positives. As with the stereotypical parental advice not to make an ugly face or "it will stay that way," there is real risk to your attitude taking the form of your most habitual thought patterns, so making them positive instead of negative can have a real payoff.
    • It can be harmful to your health. Because complaining puts us in a stressed frame of mind, habitual complaining puts us in the same type of risk that chronic stress does. When the mind perceives a threat (as happens when we remind ourselves of how bad things are at work, for example), the body's stress response is triggered and a cascade of changes occur that help us to fight or flee. If this physical response is triggered repeatedly and constantly, it can bring a host of negative effects for physical and emotional health. For these reasons, it's just not worth letting complaining become a habit; learning different coping strategies can be far more effective at relieving stress without the negative consequences. Fortunately, there are many options.

    What to Do Instead

    • Complain to a journal. While venting to a friend may be bad for both of you if done to excess, writing about your feelings in a journal can be quite beneficial. Journals can help you to process your emotions and make sense of what you're feeling, and they can help you to let things go more easily. Research shows multiple benefits for health and wellbeing that come with journaling.
    • Cultivate gratitude with a journal. In the vein of journaling, writing in a gratitude journal can bring added benefits of creating a mental habit of noticing the positive in life and being thankful. This is a thought pattern that's virtually the opposite of complaining, so it can help you to rewire your brain in a much better way. (Plus, over time you'll be creating a record of all the things in life that make you happy, which you can read over at any time.)
    • Complain a little, then redirect. If you are already in the habit of complaining, you can "catch yourself" doing it and then redirect yourself from talking about what's frustrating you to what is pleasing you. Or you can begin with a small amount of venting to release tension but then purposely redirect yourself to more positive topics. Sometimes a small dose of what is comfortable can help you to move more easily into new habits that are less established.
    • Complain to the right person. All complaining isn't all bad. If you complain (nicely) to someone who can actually help you, you may be able to improve your situation. For example, if you have a situation at work that brings constant stress, talking to human resources may help you to fix the problem rather than simply enduring it. The next time you find yourself complaining, ask yourself if there is something that can be done—are you complaining to the right person?
    • Complain, then troubleshoot. If you find yourself complaining about something you can change, perhaps you are the "right person" to complain to, meaning you can also turn your venting session into a brainstorming session and explore what is in your power to change. Then let yourself use frustration for motivation and make positive changes when you can.
    • Practice mindfulness. Those who are able to stay in the present moment longer—that means less stressing about past events or worrying about future ones—are also more able to complain less. This makes mindfulness a powerful habit to practice. You can practice mindfulness in many different ways, but a simple way to start is to focus on your breathing—listening to it going in and out and focus on how it feels in your chest—the next time you find yourself stressing about the past or the future. You can try more mindfulness exercises from there.
    • Practice other stress relieving habits. Finding other stress relieving habits that work can help you to feel less upset by challenges you face at work. This can bring you added resilience and happiness in your life.

    A Word From Verywell

    Ultimately, it's best not to take your work home with you in the form of complaining about it after hours unless you're working toward a solution. (They have your time and energy all day—why give them any more of it?) There's rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to stress management, but these guidelines can help you to decide what's best for you and do that. Soon, you'll feel less of a pull to complain, and perhaps feel you have less to complain about in the first place.

    Sources:

    Bushman, BJ, Baumeister, RF, & Stack, AD, Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999; 76: 367-376.

    Garland, EL.; Fredrickson, B; Kring, AM. et al, Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology.Positive Clinical Psychology Clinical Psychology Review. 2010 30(7):849-864.

    Lohr, JM.; Olatunji, Bunmi; Baumeister, Roy; Bushman, Brad J. The Psychology of Anger Venting and Empirically Supported Alternatives That Do No Harm. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. 2007 5(1): 53-64.

    Ullrich, PM., M.A.; Lutgendorf, SK., Ph.D. Journaling About Stressful Events: Effects of Cognitive Processing and Emotional Expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2002.

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