It’s a fact of modern life: You need someone who gets life’s little annoyances.
And since many of those irritations are work-related, it follows that you need work friends to complain to. People who will understand precisely why that email is so annoying. Folks you can text during the meeting-that-should-be-an-email, who will reply with gifs so funny, you crack up on the Zoom call. Friends who will talk you off the ledge when necessary and give you solid advice because the know the nuances of your work sitch.
I’m utterly blessed to have a few of these folks in my life, women I know I can message at most hour of the day with randomness. Whatever work sanity I have during this pandemic is 100% a credit to these wonderful humans.
The great news? Research says that having “bitching buddies,” aka social support is good for us. Being able to confide in safe sources spells less stress as well as burnout prevention.
But. (Of course there’s a but). The benefits of bitching stop when kvetching drifts into co-rumination. Communication scholar Dr. Justin Boren argues that co-rumination, which is frequent and excessive talk about particular problems, actually reverses the stress-relieving of social support. In fact, we’re likely to experience more stress and burnout, at least if the talk dwells on negative feelings and speculates on problems instead of taking action.
So how do we keep complaining from turning into co-rumination?
- Focus on Problem Solving. From his survey of almost 450 workers, Boren says, “The ability to share a stressful experience with a coworker may be beneficial to the worker, only when the content of social support remains focused around solving problems and not dwelling on problems” (p. 16). In other words, when we seek social support, it should be from people who will help us take constructive steps, rather than spinning in the drama.
- Validate but avoid negative emotion cycles. Very often when we complain, we want to feel validated, that someone gets what we’re going through. When we fixate on a problematic situation however, we might inadvertently create what organizational researchers call emotion cycles. Essentially, our feelings can influence the thoughts and behaviors of others. So if we’re persistent in focusing on the negative, we can share negative feelings back and forth, creating a spiral that quickly turns toxic. And what’s especially dangerous is that negative emotion cycles easily transfer to others in an organization. Imagine feeling disgruntled in a text stream with your work BFF. It’s not hard to envision bringing that negative energy into your next meeting or message, thereby sharing the negativity around.
- Set a timer on tough talk. Looking for the catharsis of venting and wanting to avoid rumination? Set a timer on it. A simple “Hey, I need five minutes to gripe” text will help set a boundary for venting. Just make sure to follow up with other topics.
- Don’t dump and ditch. Don’t be that friend. You know the one you only hear from when they have a problem, who dumps on you and then disappears? That “friend” is offloading negativity, which may improve their outlook but without offering any mutual benefits of social support.
- Stop speculating. Rumination thrives in circumstances where we don’t have enough information. I know I find myself asking “why” and wondering about people’s motives a lot. But in absence of credible information, speculating is just unproductive wheel spinning. In fact, while it’s human nature to try and explain other people’s behavior, we are prone to unfair attribution errors that perpetuate negative stereotypes. I’m grateful that my work friends are really good at speculating positively and helping me give people the benefit of the doubt. (Most of the time, anyway!)
- Seek out sage advice. Communication research about workplace relationships, stress, and rumination says that rumination is much more common in younger workers, but less likely in contexts where there are strong relationships between coworkers and leaders. To avoid rumination, seek out sage advice from those with more experience in the organization. Not only will this open avenues for mentorship potentially, getting information and context can help bust negative attributions and speculation.
- Find a pro. Can’t seem to shake negative talk or intrusive thoughts about work? Find a professional counselor who can listen and help you process because work stress can absolutely bleed over and influence your health, wellbeing, and home life.
Boren, J. P. (2014). The relationships between co-rumination, social support, stress, and burnout among working adults. Management Communication Quarterly, 28(1), 3-25.
Gordon, K. (2019). 9 strategies for overcoming overthinking. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ivory-tower/201905/9-strategies-overcoming-overthinking
Hareli, S., & Rafaeli, A. (2008). Emotion cycles: On the social influence of emotion in organizations. Research in organizational behavior, 28, 35-59.
Hopper, E. (2018). Attribution theory: The psychology of interpreting behavior. https://www.thoughtco.com/attribution-theory-4174631
Roeder, A. C., Garner, J. T., & Carr, K. (2020). Workplace relationships, stress, and verbal rumination in organizations. Southern Communication Journal, 85(2), 63-72.
Seltzer, L.F. (2014). 6 virtues, and 6 vices, of venting. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201404/6-virtues-and-6-vices-venting