Picture this: you arrive at work two minutes late, after pulling a late night shift. Your boss points an eyebrow and taps his watch. Bob from accounts then pushes you under the bus for an uncompleted piece of work. Oh and for good measure, you spill your coffee.
It’s times like these when the motivational Max’s of the office can straight f*ck off. You don’t need encouragement—you need a bitching session with a fellow co-worker. And despite what the grasping middle managers of the world will have you believe, whinging with colleagues is not only good for your mental health, but also good for the company as a whole.
A recent study, by Dr Vanessa Pouthier, from the university of Melbourne, has shown that these unfairly maligned “bitching sessions,” act as a crucial pressure valve—particularly in high stress roles—that allow people to process stress and frustration. She came to this conclusion after conducting extensive research into the habits of a team of healthcare professionals in an American hospital, including nurses, doctors and surgeons.
“These little rituals,” she told the ABC on a podcast, “Change the mood of a meeting,” allowing workers in the hospital to vent about challenging patients, workloads, and family situations. This had a positive effect on the team as a whole, as well as each individual’s psychological well being, because it gave them a common enemy—whether that be senior management, the organisation’s bureaucratic structure or other professionals working in different areas whose decisions impact them.
She also discovered that griping at work is a functional, self-regulating phenomenon. Although upper management fear that a culture of complaining is an indicator of a dysfunctional workplace, there tends to be a strong unwritten code that governs what, when and who you whinge about with your #workwives, that keeps it from spiralling out of control.
For instance, Dr Pouthier found that there was more flexibility around joking than whinging, and the people she observed were more comfortable with humour than whinging when it was directed at each other. Another rule was that you can’t gripe (too much) about another team member—only external sources of trouble from the team.
This creates what she calls a community of shared faith, where people in the team from different backgrounds realise that they are more similar than they think, creating temporary bonds between them. According to her this has a positive impact on the mental health of each individual, and makes the team more emotionally intelligent.
And, at least in the environment she observed, there was, “No chance of emotional contagion,” because the bitching sessions lasted, “Less than a minute,” before they could cross that line between ‘frustration outlet’ and a ‘source of depression’.
Although more research is needed on what the employers make of all this, Dr Pouthier said she doesn’t see how the people she studied can live without these whinging rituals. She also concluded that, as they are self regulating and don’t demand systemic change (they acknowledge the problems are inevitable or even necessary, and complained to each other to release stress, not to actually call for change) they are a crucial, sustainable part of what makes the team emotionally effective.
Whinging wouldn’t be part of the local culture if it wasn’t functional, she added, explaining that, “It’s about kinship,” and that, “They would defend their organisation to an outsider.” So whinging is benign at worst, and adds value at best. There’s some Tuesday food for thought for you.