Complaining at Work May Feel Good, But It’s Also Making You Miserable

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Photo: Petrified Collection/Getty Images

Sometimes, one of the best parts of the workday can be a direct result of the worst part. Let’s say your boss freaks out over a minor mistake you made, or a co-worker throws you under the bus, or maybe you had another pointless meeting that went on about a zillion hours longer than it should have. Yes, it sucks, but the complaining that follows is so deliciously satisfying: You Slack one of your work friends for a vent session, and soon the two of you are letting out all your frustrations about your dumb office and all the dumb people in it. It’s cathartic. It’s even a little bit fun.

The bummer, though, is that no matter how good it feels in the moment, complaining about your work problems may leave you feeling worse in the long run. As Science of Us has previously explained, there’s a long line of research showing that venting has its downsides — and one more study, recently published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology and highlighted by Alex Fradera at BPS Research Digest, has just joined the list.

The study authors recruited a group of employed volunteers to keep a diary for three days, writing first thing in the morning and again right before they left work at the end of the day. In the first entry of each day, participants reported on their mood and how well they’d slept the night before; in the second, they described a negative thing that had happened at the office that day, how they were feeling at that moment, how engaged they currently felt in their job (measured by ranking agreement with questions like “Today, I felt proud of the work I did” and “Today, I was completely immersed in my work”), and their level of “sportsmanship” for the day (with questions like “Today, I spent a lot of time complaining about trivial things at work” and “Today, I focused on what is wrong at work rather than on the positive side”).

When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found a marked difference between the good sports and the chronic complainers. Fradera explained:

When sportsmanship was low, worse negative events took a greater toll on participants – they not only reported lower momentary mood and less satisfaction and pride with the work they’d been doing that same day, but they also tended to experience lower mood the next morning… But when sportsmanship was high – meaning that participants hadn’t complained, escalated minor issues, or stewed over things too much – bad events, even if rated as severe, didn’t impact mood or work engagement, that day or the next.

That’s not to say that you should bottle up all your work-induced angst, the authors noted — but dwelling on it, rather than looking for productive solutions, helps the negative feelings linger. Think of sportsmanship as the vegetables of complaining: a lot less fun, but probably the more helpful move.

Complaining Feels Good, But It’s Also Making You Miserable