The cult of complaining: why do we spend so much time moaning about work?

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We moan that we spend too much time in the office, then go home and rant about our boss for hours. Does the cult of complaining really help? Stylist investigates

Words: Catherine Gray

I’ve whined about the office being ‘bloody Arctic!’ while sunning myself in the park with my colleagues at lunchtime; ranted over a huge glass of wine about how my boss does less work than me, and delivered miffed monologues about useless colleagues over Sunday lunch with my family. No matter what I do, my work woes seem to tag along. Surely the whole point of after-work drinks and taking time off at the weekend is to de-clench, unwind and get away from office dramas? But hang on, did I tell you about that time someone stole my stapler?

It’s not just me packing up my workplace troubles and carefully carrying them home like a backpack of heavy rocks. A recent study from the UK’s Legal Ombudsman found that the average Brit moans about everything from slow internet connections to fickle bosses and incompetent colleagues 11 times on an average weekday, with three of those grumbles happening before we even leave the house. At the weekend, the time when we should be chilling our boots, we complain an eye-rolling 16 times a day, with three quarters of us griping about our colleagues’ moaning. Cue the irony buzzer. But career moaning is normal, right? Everyone does it. Surely giving airtime to our angst is a natural way to get grievances off our chests, unleash frustrations and talk things through?

“Complaining is the adult version of crying,” says careers consultant Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule: Positive Ways To Deal With Negativity At Work. “It’s an expression of powerlessness.” We’ve been taught that ‘venting is healthy’, he adds, but that’s a myth. “Psychologists used to think punching a pillow or moaning would rid you of the frustration, but it has the opposite effect, stirring you up further.” Indeed, a study by a Detroit hospital found that people who complain suffer from higher rates of insomnia. Opening our mouths does more harm than good, it seems.

“Venting is unhealthy,” agrees psychologist and corporate communications coach Terry Erle Clayton. “So-called ‘offloading’ gives the illusion of taking control and regaining power. However, rather than ‘getting it off your chest’ you are actually cherishing, storing and memorising the perceived wrong.”

He explains that in the brain, “the more often you repeat a neural connection (eg ‘so-and -so is a slacker’), the stronger that connection becomes. It’s like forging a path through a forest. The more often you take the negative path, the more pronounced it becomes. Repeating new scripts (‘so-and- so is alright really’) forms new positive pathways. It will take a while to trample down the new route and your brain will want to default to the path of least resistance, but simple repetition is the key. The brain will go, ‘What about that moaning path over there, we know that one!’ It’s our job to make a conscious effort to continue down the new path.”

There’s also a difference between thoughts and feelings, says Eric Zimmer, a behaviour-change coach and host of The One You Feed wellbeing podcast. “Thoughts such as ‘My boss is horrible and bullies me’ are stories we tell ourselves, not necessarily facts. We should try to stop replaying this fractious script in our heads.”

And it’s a common misconception that being positive is more tiring than being default-miffed, too. In fact, a month-long study by Michigan State University found that employees who complain become more mentally drained than workers with a sunny-side-up outlook. “Such a constant state of vigilance is depleting” the study stated.

Bonding time?

Interestingly, complaining shoots up when we’re trying to bond with our workmates. One study found that groups working on a project creating brochures together moaned 50 times in one hour – that’s close to one complaint a minute. Professor Joanna Wolfe, who led the study, says: “It’s one way to create rapport. It creates a kind of solidarity.” But it’s a misguided attempt to connect atop negative common ground, says Gordon. “We’ve fallen into the habit of using moans as conversation starters,” he says. “It becomes second nature to complain, whereas, ‘Hey, look at that beautiful day’ is something we’re unfamiliar with saying.”

“I call it co-miserating,” adds Zimmer. “It can bring people closer, but there are healthier ways of bonding.”

Often these ‘co-miserating’ sessions are triggered by change, such as the company growing and taking on new employees, reveals occupational psychologist Aliya Vigor-Robertson, founder of Journey HR. “You’ll get a bunch of core employees grumbling about how it’s ‘not the same’. But bemoaning change is unhealthy; embracing change is the key.”

Clayton suggests that the British seem to be losing their ‘keep calm and carry on’ reputation. “In the Nineties, a well-known psychological report found that British attitudes were drifting from ‘stiff upper lip’ to being a litigious, complaining nation,” he says. For instance, we enjoy some of the mildest weather on the globe and yet Britons grouse about the weather on Twitter more than any other country, a study of 300,000 tweets discovered. We write 20% of all weather-trolling jibes, while the Danes, Swedes and Finns, who contend with much gloomier weather, double us in blue-sky positivity.

What’s more, the British attitude to work seems to lean towards malcontent. A study of 73,500 respondents found that only 17% of Brits are ‘engaged’ in their work, compared to 21% of Latin Americans, 24% of Australians and New Zealanders, and 29% of Americans. Research suggests this is due to unclear expectations in the workplace, not feeling cared for or that your opinion doesn’t matter, and feeling that there aren’t any opportunities to advance professionally. And as a nation, we are much more inclined to grumble about work frustrations to our friends rather than to the source of the dissatisfaction, says Vigor-Robertson. “Culturally, we swerve confrontation or difficult conversations, which means moans tend to rumble on in the UK, rather than being actioned.”

Certain personality types are also prone to taking-work-woes-home. “Creatives especially find it difficult to switch off,” says Vigor-Robertson. “They’re seeking inspiration from everywhere – TV, graffiti, an overheard comment – so they are always ‘on’. This leads to blurred work/life boundaries and a disposition that is more fragile to stress and negative feedback,” she says, which ultimately leads to moaning.

She adds that for some, talking about work in your downtime can be seen as a sign of conscientiousness. “Those who care more tend to rake over their work worries during the weekend, but that does mean they arrive back on Monday frazzled rather than fresh.” A YouGov/Task Rabbit survey found that 66% of Britons rate work as our number one daily priority, with 32% of parents focusing on work over their kids. Moreover, a survey by Rescue Remedy found that work is the topmost concern of us Brits. So are we actively choosing to worry about work over relationships, relatives’ health, family safety and finances? An adjustment of the perspective lens could be in order, as it seems increasingly many of us are living to work, rather than working to live.

Ready to grumble

Not all exploration of work woes is negative, however. There’s a big difference between cyclical complaining and constructive problem-solving. “Cyclical complaining is where you circle the same negativity over and over, whereas seeking counsel from other people can be really helpful,” says Zimmer. “You’re seeking a solution in a manner that has a beginning, middle and an end.” So moaning over and over is destructive, while a quick moan that has a purpose is constructive, a bit like the difference between a tornado and a short rain shower.

So, what are the top-four work whinges? We asked our experts. “Number one is undoubtedly unclear direction, blurred lines and not being sure what our actual job is,” says Vigor-Robertson. “It’s like five people in a kitchen cooking a roast and nobody knowing what they’re responsible for, so you wind up with no roast potatoes.” Tragedy. “One way to combat this is to pull out your dusty, antiquated job description and have a chat with your manager to create some clear definitions.”

Second up is clumsily delivered feedback. “In Britain, bosses tend to store up all their positive and negative feedback and dump it all on their employee in a wretched performance review every six months,” she says. “It then blindsides them.” Asking for a regular trickle of feedback rather than an almighty waterfall would be a step forward.

Thirdly, as we rise up the chain of command, we tend to do less of what we love. We got into accountancy because we dig number-crunching, or advertising because we have brilliant ideas, or retail because we’re amazing at customer service. “The more we scale the ladder, the more we manage other people and the less we directly do ourselves,” says Vigor-Robertson. “It can be very lonely at the top and few of us are given training on how to manage underlings.”

Finally, we complain about ‘incompetent’ colleagues/bosses. “Whenever we tell our friends work stories, we tend to weave fairytales of good versus evil of, ‘I’m the victim, they’re the baddie’,” says Vigor-Robertson. “‘It’s unhealthy.” Our friends, having heard this skewed version of events, then reinforce that ‘victim’ perception by sympathising, making the ‘poor me!’ pathway even deeper,” says Clayton. It’s worth remembering, too, that nobody can make you annoyed. “You choose to be annoyed in response to them,” says Gordon. People can only wind you up if you give them the key.

“There’s a well-known psychological bias called the ‘fundamental attribution error’,” says Zimmer. “When we behave badly, we let ourselves off the hook because we’re tired and our mum’s sick, whereas when other people behave like brats, we assume it’s because they are brats. The best way to stop hating someone is to learn more about their lives and the challenges they face. Also, when you decimate someone’s character in private, the only person you’re aggravating is yourself. It doesn’t hurt them.” So rather than sticking negative pins into a voodoo doll, you’re actually sticking them into yourself.

So, how to embrace a more positive attitude? Over the Atlantic, Americans have long known that complaining can be toxic. More than 11 million ‘complaint free’ bracelets have been sold since 2006. The idea is that every time you complain, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist in a bid to have 21 complaint-free days. “It’s a great idea to have a physical prop that helps you become more self-aware,” says Zimmer.

While I was writing this article, I tried an equivalent. My granny left me a vintage rose-gold ring. Every time I whined, I twisted the ring. I found I twisted it more than I expected to. I would trail off mid-moan as I realised what I was doing: “Why does my editor want me to change that…” (twist, argh). The prop provided a wake-up call. Given my granny was a pocket-sized powerhouse who didn’t tolerate ‘mithering’, I think she’d approve. My complaints per day have halved as a result.

“Once you’re aware of how much you’re whining, try inserting a ‘but’,” says Gordon. “For instance, I have to go on a work trip but I get to see a new city. The tube is crazy but without it I would spend three hours a day commuting.

Finally, if you heed nothing else, then heed this: the worst place to complain about work? Work. Research overwhelmingly shows that the online reviews we trust the most have a fair, factual, balanced tone. “The same is true of our colleagues,” confirms Gordon. “Ranting only chips away at your credibility.” A colossal 73% of people would not take a new job with a £7K pay rise if it meant working with a chronic complainer, while 11% of us have even left a job because of a grumbler. Think of the rock stars of your office. Are they the people stropping about the printer not working or the people replacing the toner?

Let’s wrap up with the words of inspiration-lighthouse Maya Angelou, who is basically right about everything. “What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is to change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.”

Me? I’m leaving that backpack of heavy rocks at the office from now on. I feel much lighter without it.

Photography: Getty Images

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