We all have complained about our jobs to vent through frustration and fears. But if what’s keeping us unhappy is not changing, the complaints can start to feel repetitive.
There comes a question we all must ask ourselves before we get asked by our exhausted listeners: How beneficial to our well-being and our career is complaining, really?
To answer, HuffPost asked experts to weigh in on when complaining can be helpful –– and the tipping point on when it becomes more harmful:
When Complaining Can Actually Be Productive
Complaining can hold a bad reputation for being too negative, but it’s good, to be honest with your friends and loved ones about what is getting you down.
“Sometimes we need support and not solutions. Venting about work or your frustrating boss can be helpful to a certain extent if we are able to find support in someone who’s a good listener,” said Chicago-based psychotherapist Cathy Ranieri. “When we really feel heard, and therefore understood, it can be grounding, reassuring and settle our nerves.“
Toxic positivity ― pretending to be OK when you are really not ― is not helpful either, said Tanisha Ranger, a Nevada-based clinical psychologist. This is why she thinks some complaining can be helpful.
“I am a proponent of time-limited pity parties,” she said. “I do think that taking some time to just get into your woe-is-me place and think about all the ways that the world has wronged you helps. I do. It has helped me certainly. ‘Limited’ is the operative term here. Because you can’t just always be complaining. One, you’ll feel terrible, and two, you’ll be miserable to be around.”
Ranger said at best, complaining can help you get necessary affirmation and validation from others that your complaints are reasonable because “taking some time to be upset about your circumstance can be a good motivator for change.”
Complaining about your job with your co-workers can also be helpful when it can change your team’s working conditions and hopefully stop the cause of your complaints. In fact, good faith complaints of unlawful activities are protected in all 50 states, said California-based employment attorney Ryan Stygar.
“You have a federally-protected right to engage in concerted activities with co-workers for mutual welfare and protection. In my opinion, any complaint which advances that goal is productive. A complaint about unpaid wages, unsafe conditions, union-busting, harassment, or similar issues are legally protected against retaliation,” he said. “However, you need to be smart. Employers will fire ‘malcontents’ and claim it’s for performance. You must make complaints of these protected issues in writing so you can prove your complaint was legally protected.”
When Complaining Does More Harm Than Good
At the same time, there comes the point when the constant need to vent about your company or co-workers is holding you back.
For one, complaining to the wrong person or about the wrong complaint at work can backfire and ruin your career. Stygar said personal grievances and gossip like “John is an idiot. How did he get promoted?” are neither productive nor legally protected.
“A complaint about another co-worker’s habits or work ethic will fall into the ‘gossip’ category,” he said. “It’s not legally protected, and you will generally be at the mercy of HR once you lodge the complaint. Interpersonal issues are a danger zone.”
Stygar also cautioned that you must be careful about who you complain to at work because “not everyone you complain to is going to be on your side.”
That’s why he recommends simply asking questions at first, like “Do you feel fairly compensated here?” and “Do you feel comfortable going to management with problems?” instead of outright complaining with statements like “I’m not happy with our pay.”
“Asking questions will reveal whether someone is a safe space to discuss work issues with,” Stygar said. “Their answers will generally be more helpful to you than simply stating a grievance.“
One tipping point for your mental health can also be when you have processed your emotions but are still stuck in a pattern of complaining without taking any action that could move you forward.
“I believe the tipping point is when you have sought the guidance and compassion from others that you need, and you continue to still complain about the job or your boss,” said Jordan White, a licensed clinical social worker in Florida and Illinois. He said it “isn’t always easy to hear the tipping point either because we are so engrossed in complaining. Sometimes, it’s best for us to take a step back and evaluate where we are. If we are still complaining but about different topics related to our jobs or bosses, then it’s time to look for something new.”
Some self-exploration questions Ranieri said she often asks her clients who complain about their work include: “Is there a pattern here? What is my part, if any, here? Can I take ownership for this and take steps small steps toward meaningful change? What is keeping me at this job if I am so unhappy?“
Ranieri recommended looking for a new job before you feel a sense of despair but acknowledged that this is, unfortunately, unrealistic for many of us.
“I also like to ask clients, ‘If you find yourself complaining a lot, what is the specific content of those complaints?’ It allows us to get curious about what level of control the client has and where to identify solutions or creative strategies to problem solve that may not just be getting a new job,” she added.
If quitting is not an option, focus on protecting your energy so that your frustrations and anxieties do not consume you. Psychologists recommend taking breaks away from work to give your nervous system time to reset and recharge,
And at work, try connecting what your manager cares about to what you need to change about your job. For example, some complaints like being overworked and feeling disengaged can be fixable if you have a receptive boss open to you doing a new project or delegating responsibilities.
But if you’ve tried those solutions and you’re still struggling, it might be time to look for something else. For Ranger, the tipping point is when you realize the things you are complaining about are systemic to the organization and not likely to change.
“At some level, it’s like, ‘Well, I gotta put me first, and this is how y’all like to work, and that doesn’t work for me, so I’m going to head out,’” she said.
Ultimately, only you know yourself best. When complaining helps you let off steam and feel heard, it can be beneficial, but if it’s keeping you stuck and feeling helpless, it’s time to start looking at other options beyond venting.