The problem with endlessly complaining about work

When we repeatedly gather just to vent about work, we’re only hurting ourselves
Illustration of a group of coworkers talking with dark cloud speech bubbles above them

In the early days of the pandemic, I turned to social media as a break from the stress of work and life. Not surprisingly, instead of finding a healthy respite or supportive messages, I found myself doomscrolling through a relentless stream of negativity. The repetition of the same depressing news items and bleak forecasts provided little comfort. In truth, I felt worse. The simplest solution was to delete all social media from my phone. 

A similar culture of despair sometimes cuts through the legal profession. As lawyers, we often look for safe spaces to vent. We might want to hash out our latest encounter with a difficult client or a combative opposing counsel. We might wish to discuss issues outside of our day-to-day legal work, including firm politics, salary decisions or our place on the partnership track. These conversations are often valuable. Talking to lawyers who understand our problems can help us brainstorm solutions and feel supported. But when lawyers repeatedly gather just to complain about work, that can be as harmful as poring over negative posts on Twitter. 

Psychologists have a name for this sort of counterproductive behaviour: co-rumination. We’ve all seen it in action. A group gets together to rehash the same problems and dwell on the same concerns, without discussing solutions. The conversation can be about anything, from work to relationships to family drama. Often, such discussions include mutual encouragement to recount “war stories” or other difficult situations that reinforce the same grim mindset. Though co-rumination feels good in the moment and helps us bond with others, it can also cause anxiety and depression. After all, it’s easy to slide into anxious or depressive thoughts if we believe that some aspect of our lives is irredeemably terrible and that there’s no hope for improvement. 

Thankfully, it’s possible to address problems in a way that’s less toxic and more productive. Here are some tips that might help you rethink your approach to conversations about work with friends and colleagues. 

Limit how long you’re allowed to complain. If you or a colleague need to blow off steam about a work-related incident, limit the venting session to 10 minutes. Then spend 10 minutes talking about something good that happened on a file or with a client. 

Don’t fall into pessimistic despair. Instead of agreeing with colleagues that everything is miserable and adding your own complaints, listen to their concerns, acknowledge their feelings and provide encouragement. Then change the subject to something more positive. 

Take action. Rather than repeatedly voicing the same complaints, switch to active problem-solving. Work with colleagues to think of ideas that might change or improve the situation. Taking a small step toward action can be empowering. 

Check yourself. Before you pick up the phone to vent to a peer, stop and think: Does my colleague need to hear this right now? Will the conversation make anything better? You might determine that a call to a colleague is warranted, but take the time to think through that decision. 

Be compassionate. It is easy to get caught in this cycle, and it is not easy to escape, so be patient with yourself and others. You can’t break this habit overnight. 

We all need to feel like we are understood and supported. That’s normal. But we also need to examine the costs and benefits of continually discussing nothing but problems with our colleagues. Most of the time, that only makes things worse. 

Erin Cowling is the founder and CEO of Flex Legal, a network of freelance lawyers based in Toronto. Her practice focuses on civil litigation. 

This story is from our Spring 2022 Issue.

Illustration by Brian Morgan/Adobe.