Attention, complainers: Venting at work makes you feel even worse

After a long day, it’s very tempting to throw up your hands and vent about how nothing at work makes any sense.

Don’t do it. Or if you do rant about your workday, just know that it won’t help you.

new study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology argues that engaging in unnecessary complaints and criticism cements the impact of that negative event on your psyche and your ability to do work the next day.

The study confirms that we aren’t victims of circumstance; we have more control over how events shape us than we think.

Evangelia Demerouti and Russell Cropanzano, at Eindhoven University of Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder, asked 112 employed people to complete 3-day work diaries. The subjects were asked to report about how much they complained about their work and to rate their moods.

54% of the negative work events the subjects wrote about in their diaries was related to the work itself— they couldn’t finish a task, they made an error, their computer crashed— but social events were also significant. Around 27% of negative events revolved around co-workers, with the subjects citing gossiping, a colleague’s firing, and an argument with a co-worker or supervisor as experiences that riled them up and bummed them out.

Not only did focusing on the bad experiences bother people, it did so for a relatively long time. When something goes wrong at work, its effect on you can last at least 24 hours, the authors found, depending on how you decide to cope.

The 24-hour bad mood

If a subject stewed about his work grievances, it would make their bad mood worse. It would also affect their levels of dedication and energy the next day, as seen in subjects’ diary entries.

For the ones who didn’t complain, the researchers said they exhibited high “sportsmanship,” which conjures images of opposing athletes shaking hands after a loss. For the researchers, they defined good sportsmanship as “tolerating less-than ideal circumstances or minor workplace distractions and discomforts without complaining.”

Researchers found those who didn’t complain would feel more engaged with their work until the following afternoon and would be in better moods until the next morning. Even if the subjects experienced bad events they rated as severe, this would show no impact on mood or on engagement if they exhibited high sportsmanship.

If you must complain, watch your style

The researchers suggested that vocalizing what went wrong immediately after it happens forces the brain to relive the moment, thereby creating a stronger association to the event and making it a bigger deal than it needs to be. Jerry chewing with his mouth open right next to your desk is not the end of the world, but when you’re in a bad mood, it feels like it.

Researchers also suggested that rehashing work dramas doesn’t work because it may lead you to put your foot in your mouth and say something you shouldn’t: “If the complaint is poorly timed or expressed with too much emotion, then it is less likely to be received constructively and addressed.” Giving yourself a day or two to process a negative event may allow you to handle it more objectively with less personal emotion.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that if a bad thing happens to you at work, that you shouldn’t talk about it ever. Don’t bottle up feelings; do talk about them to your boss. Make sure they’re important enough to you to bring up, however.

Venting just to vent isn’t productive, either to your targets or yourself. Studying its effects, Brad Bushman, an Ohio State University professor, had 600 college students read graded papers that the students themselves had written. The graded papers were purposefully designed to rile the students up, criticizing them on their originality, style and organization. He then divided the students into groups. The group that was told to vent by picturing the partner who poorly graded them while hitting a punching bag felt the most hostility and irritation. The group that did no venting felt the least.

Bottom line: you sometimes can’t control what happens to you at work, but you can control how you react to it.