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To vent or not to vent: How to know when to complain about work

Posted: September 29, 2015 11:39 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2015 11:39 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

A recent article urged American workers to stop venting about office life. But what if they just need to complain in more effective ways?

Leighann Lord loves to text her best friends on difficult work days. They may not be able to solve her crises, but it feels good to have an audience for her complaints.

"It's a lot of, 'Ah! These people are driving me crazy,'" said Lord, a stand-up comedian and author.

Like many employees, Lord considers venting a key part of her job description. Conversations between colleagues, family members and friends are often dominated by career complaints, because the prevailing wisdom is that whining about problems is an easy way to feel better.

However, some researchers say workers need an attitude adjustment. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the benefits of staying positive at the office, urging people to trade venting for noticing and sharing the good things that happen on a given day.

"Doing so can help you capitalize on the small, naturally occurring flow of daily positive events — a ubiquitous but too-often-ignored source of strength and well-being," the article noted.

Experts on office culture agreed that workers sometimes get trapped in an unhealthy cycle of negativity, but said it would be nearly impossible for workers like Lord to totally give up venting. The best solution might be learning to be smarter about when, how and to whom you vent, they said.

"You have to contain it so that you're not letting it consume you," said Joanie Connell, an organizational psychologist.

The art of venting

As Lord's experience illustrates, complaining about a co-worker's annoying habits, a performance review or having to attend yet another meeting feels good. Venting helps people release stress, which is necessary in a chaotic office culture, Connell said.

"If you keep (anger) pent up inside you, it will come out destructively," she said. "You have to have a way to let it out."

But people have to find a balance in the way they describe their work, because when you catch yourself describing the same slight for the tenth time, you've likely turned venting into an unproductive habit, Connell added.

"If the majority of the time you're speaking about negative things rather than positive ones, you're going to end up feeling negative," she said.

Venting can also become a problem if workers do the majority of their complaining within the office, said Joan Kingsley, a psychotherapist and co-author of "The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture."

"I think if you're having a really bad time, you need to talk about it. But I wouldn't say venting at work is helpful," she said. "At work, it can prove to be a kind of virus that spreads negativity through a team or department or organization."

In order to vent productively, workers shouldn't allow themselves to wallow in a frustrating situation, Connell noted. The focus should be on finding a way to get past the negativity.

"The goal is for (venting) to be catharsis, and to get stress out of your system and move forward in a positive way," she said.

Finding balance

People who acknowledge they need a venting overhaul can restore emotional balance to their office life in a variety of ways, according to workplace experts.

Connell suggested coping mechanisms like meditation, exercise or taking a walk outside to appreciate nature.

"The goal is to get those negative emotions out and calm your system, to get it back in equilibrium," she said.

The Harvard Business Review piece explored the value of reflecting on positive developments at the end of each work day, highlighting an Academy of Management Journal article (paywall) from 2012.

In the study, researchers had participants complete a survey every day for three weeks, sharing what made them happy at work that day. By the end of the experiment, workers reported lower stress levels and stronger mental well-being.

"Moreover, on days when participants focused on good things, they were better able to switch off stressful job-related thoughts in the evening at home," Harvard Business Review reported.

If an effort to be more positive feels unnatural at first, workers should feel free to "fake it until they make it," Kingsley said, noting that "it feels very powerful to turn a negative situation around."

She suggested making a point to compliment co-workers on their contributions during meetings, as well as to express gratitude whenever it's appropriate.

And for the moments in which you desperately need to vent, find someone or a group of people who can listen to complaints and then offer constructive feedback, Lord said, noting that she wouldn't have written her first book if she hadn't whined to the right people.

One of her friends, after hearing her complain about being unpublished one too many times, started sending her weekly texts asking for progress updates.

"It's like my grandpa used to say, 'When you're done screaming, crying and climbing the walls, the problem is still there,'" she said, noting that it's nice to have friends willing to help her fix it.

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