It's a ritual that's been going on since the dawn of employer-employee relations: you roll your eyes for eight hours straight every weekday, then you get together with your friends for happy hour and complain about work until you feel better about spending your day at the kind of job your teenage self raged against. It might feel like these venting sessions are integral to maintaining your sanity — at the very least, they're super cathartic — but according to recent research, they might be doing more harm than good in the long run.
On Thursday, BPS Research Digest highlighted research from last December looking at the effects of letting it all out, so to speak, after a negative experience. Published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, the study asked 112 workers in a variety of fields to keep a diary for three days in a row. In the morning, participants recorded their mood and the previous night's sleep quality. In the afternoon, the diary was a little more extensive; on top of measuring their mood, researchers asked participants to describe and rate the severity of a single negative event from their workday. The diaries also measured participants' engagement with work (basically, satisfaction and pride in their job) and "daily sportsmanship" — their willingness to deal with everyday annoyances without complaining.
After analyzing the data, researchers found that it pays to be a good sport. In people with high sportsmanship, who didn't complain or escalate issues much, job engagement and mood were largely unaffected by having a bad day at work. Even negative events rated as severe tended to slide off their backs.
People with low sportsmanship, however, were an entirely different story. These are the Debbie Downers of the workplace — the people who unerringly find some reason to complain or exaggerate the situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they responded differently to negative work events; when something went wrong, participants with low sportsmanship reported a lower mood and less work engagement that afternoon. According to the study's results, this effect even persisted into the next morning, so after a bad day at work, people with low sportsmanship tended to be in a bad mood for quite a while.
The study didn't look into why this effect occurred, but researchers offered a twofold explanation. "First, expressive responses make the effect more memorable to the self," they wrote. In other words, complaining about an event forces you to relive it and strengthen the bad associations, cementing it in your memory as a negative experience.
Second, talking about a bad day while it's still happening might make things worse if you phrase things poorly or complain to the wrong person. People in a bad mood don't tend to choose their words as carefully, so "withholding complaints, at least for a time, may allow employees to more effectively articulate their concerns," researchers concluded. Sure enough, the study indicated that talking about a negative event on the same day (or even the next) tended to make things worse.
This isn't the first study to indicate that complaining might feel cathartic, but it's not a good habit to take up. Research has shown that negative moods are contagious, and it's rarely productive. On the other hand, a 2016 study also showed that if you save your complaints for when they'll actually accomplish something, you tend to be happier.
So next time you're bursting with the desire to complain about some minor nuisance at work, stop for a second and think about whether it really matters in the long run. If you take a deep breath and let things go, chances are your day will go much more smoothly, and the entire office might wind up in a better mood.