Why we should whinge at work

Com­plain­ing on the job can help our men­tal health


SOME­TIMES we need to vent about the place we work. Whether it’s the long hours you put in, an un­rea­son­able boss, or lack of recog­ni­tion for your ef­forts – ev­ery work­place has enough fuel to ig­nite that frus­tra­tion. When I was a cop, all of the first re­sponse of­fi­cers would com­plain that the de­tec­tives would never cope if they weren’t around. Fun­nily enough, on more than one oc­ca­sion, I heard the de­tec­tives say the same thing. Good news is, this work­place com­plain­ing is ac­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to your men­tal well­be­ing and to the pro­duc­tiv­ity in the of­fice. Dr Vanessa Pouthier, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne, stud­ied a team of nurses and other health pro­fes­sion­als at a US hospi­tal, find­ing there are ben­e­fits to these kinds of bitch­ing ses­sions. She ob­served the jok­ing (and com­plain­ing) that went on for over 12 months and re­alised “it helps peo­ple to process stress and frus­tra­tion and you no­tice pal­pa­ble changes when team mem­bers en­gaged in both activities,” Dr Pouthier told ABC Ra­dio Perth. No mat­ter what kind of en­vi­ron­ment you work in, there will al­ways be a cor­ner of the of­fice or the lunch room where a small (or large) col­lec­tive of em­ploy­ees are vent­ing to some de­gree. “Gen­er­ally, peo­ple don’t think there’s any value to it or they think it has no place in the work­place,” Dr Pouthier says. But this com­mon ac­tiv­ity in ev­ery work­place was so un­der­re­searched she had to look into other fields, such as lin­guis­tics, to bet­ter un­der­stand its func­tions. Whether it’s po­litely de­bat­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of how an of­fice runs, or whinge­ing about the bosses, Dr Pouthier found gripes had a bond­ing func­tion and could re-en­er­gise a work­place, help­ing staff work through their neg­a­tive feel­ings. “It al­lows peo­ple to recog­nise how sim­i­lar they are in the chal­lenges they’re fac­ing ev­ery day and how they feel about them,” she says. “One of the best things in the team I ob­served was that these grip­ing rit­u­als helped doc­tors and nurses re­alise they were feel­ing the same way about sit­u­a­tions, and they weren’t that dif­fer­ent.” This ban­ter oc­curred on all lev­els of the hi­er­ar­chy. Dr Pouthier be­lieves man­agers are of­ten ner­vous about staff ex­press­ing neg­a­tive feel­ings about their work, but pro­vided the work­place had not be­come se­ri­ously toxic and dys­func­tional, they should prob­a­bly re­lax. “Those gripes are not nec­es­sar­ily calls for change; they are calls for com­mis­er­a­tion and bond­ing and just re­leas­ing the neg­a­tive en­ergy, es­pe­cially when us­ing hu­mour,” she said. “We are in this to­gether and we work in a sys­tem that is flawed but it is a good place to work for.” Com­plain­ing helps a team re­cal­i­brate their emo­tions, recog­nis­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in how peo­ple are feel­ing when stressed out, and be­ing able to move past it. Dr Pouthier does say that there are cer­tain “rules” that should be ad­hered to. You should never tar­get some­one in a bul­ly­ing cam­paign. “You can only gripe about peo­ple that are not in the room, and you need to ex­ter­nalise the gripe. So, the gripe’s tar­get needs to be some­thing ev­ery­one can agree on, like the struc­ture in which the team is work­ing, or dif­fi­cult prac­ti­tion­ers work­ing in other ser­vices. Never in­di­vid­u­als in the team,” Dr Pouthier says. Her study found that com­ing to­gether to joke about prob­lems can help staff work through them by “turn­ing the prob­lem­atic sit­u­a­tion into a source of hu­mour”. Dr Pouthier no­ticed in the team she was ob­serv­ing there was frus­tra­tion that the or­gan­i­sa­tion wasn’t em­brac­ing changes to the way pa­tients were dealt with. “There was a feel­ing among some of the par­tic­i­pants that there was too much weight given to a par­tic­u­lar type of ex­per­tise at the ex­pense of oth­ers. And they used grip­ing and hu­mour to chal­lenge those ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal struc­tures,” she says. So next time you feel some­one is tread­ing on your toes in the of­fice, you should con­sider not box­ing those feel­ings in. It rarely ends well tak­ing that work bag­gage home to the fam­ily. A bet­ter op­tion is suss­ing out who else at work feels the same way, invit­ing them to have lunch with you, then let­ting rip (fol­low­ing the above guide­lines). You will feel less stressed, more en­er­gised and ul­ti­mately more work will get done as a re­sult.


DON'T BOT­TLE IT IN: Work­place com­plain­ing is ac­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial to your men­tal well­be­ing and to the pro­duc­tiv­ity in the of­fice.

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