‘One in 20 workers apparently starts complaining the minute they get there, but you’d expect it to be a lot more.’ Photograph: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images/iStockphoto
We Brits love to moan – at least those of us who work in offices. According to the animal charity Spana, we spend up to 20 minutes a day – more than 77 hours a year – whingeing to colleagues about everything from insensitive bosses to dirty sinks, but mostly about crappy computers and horrible co-workers.
“Seventy-seven hours!” you may be thinking. “That’s almost two working weeks. Imagine what you could get done in that time.” You could take up juggling, or train for a marathon. You could learn to drive and still have 10 hours left over. You could even – God help us – do more of the work you’re actually paid to do. I’m glad I’m not the complaining type.
Well, first of all, you probably are prone to whingeing. According to the same survey, 70% of us admit we often feel irritable at work. The other 30% are presumably too busy eating smelly food, sucking up to the boss, talking too much, micromanaging, gossiping or not showering enough. These are just some of the 50 things that most get up white-collar noses.
There’s a full list here; if you have a moment, see how many of the grievances you’ve recently aired yourself. I counted 24, though I’m generally a glass-half-full kind of person.
Second, what’s so bad about whingeing? Not only is it an honest reaction to inconvenience – are we supposed to just suck it up and sing the company song? – it’s generally a healthy one. When life isn’t perfect – and it’s mostly not – you need to let off steam, and the majority of offices don’t provide punchbags or squash courts. One in 20 workers apparently starts complaining the minute they get there, but you’d expect it to be a lot more.
The alternative to telling people what’s annoying you is to try to shrug it off, or to bottle up your anger. But sooner or later you might explode. The belief that “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” will only get you so far. Those who don’t voice their displeasure aren’t any happier than the whingers, just deprived of the sympathy that might make them feel less isolated. I used to work on a magazine in the days when layouts were cut-and-pasted together rather than designed on a computer. Our bosses seemed to spend most of their time thinking of ways to mess us around. One of my colleagues, a giant redwood of a man, would hurl scalpels across the office when it all got too much, usually after hours of muttering to himself. It would have been safer and less stressful for everyone around him if he’d got things off his chest earlier on. We’ve all worked with someone like that: strong, silent, then suddenly scary.
At its best, moaning can change things. A good boss will listen, and treat it as valuable feedback. Sure, it’s unsolicited, but that’s another way of saying it’s spontaneous, which is supposed to be a good thing. Even at its most trivial (a remarkable number of people are upset by colleagues leaving their seats where they shouldn’t), it’s usually sincere. If everyone starts the day by grumbling about how hot the office is, for example, or groaning at the prospect of yet another meeting, a good manager will think about calling in the air-con engineers, or cancelling a few bullshitathons.
Among equals, too, a well-crafted complaint can work wonders. If one of your fellow wage-slaves makes a habit of stealing your favourite mug (whinge number 45 of 50) or messing up your desk (number nine), and you have a pretty good idea who, you can tackle this in a non-confrontational way by grumbling loudly about “light-fingered gits” or “filthy pigs”. Don’t name names or look pointedly at the offender, just make sure they overhear you. Mealy-mouthed? Maybe. Passive-aggressive? Perhaps. But it’s the British way.