Focusing too narrowly on all the things that are the worst at your job can be mentally draining, suggests new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology. In two surveys of full-time employees, a team led by Russell Johnson of Michigan State University found that employees who admit they spend more time criticizing and complaining about practices at work are more likely to end up feeling unfocused and unable to concentrate than their colleagues who instead suggested ways to improve things.
In one experiment, Johnson and his team surveyed 121 full-time employees, asking them questions about how they voiced their opinions about the things at work they didn’t agree with. Were they more likely to come up with suggestions for improvement, or did they tend to just point out the flaws and leave it at that? The study volunteers also answered questions designed to measure their level of mental energy at work. They took these surveys once a week for four weeks, and after analyzing their answers, Johnson found that those who reported being critical about their work environments were more likely to feel mentally drained than their peers who put a more positive spin on their complaints.
Johnson and his team explain their findings using ego depletion theory, the idea that self-regulation is a finite resource. Most often, this is used to explain why it’s harder to keep up the mental energy to sustain your willpower over the course of a day; you’ve used it all up, so the theory goes. But Johnson argues that people who feel the need to keep a constant eye out for potential problems at work are wearing down their mental energy in a similar fashion. “Such a constant state of vigilance is depleting,” the authors write.
They’re not suggesting that employees should keep their mouths shut when they notice negative things at work. If an unstructured meeting tends to drag on for too long, it’s worth saying something — but it might be better, for your own sake, to phrase that something so that it suggests a way to improve the problem (say, sticking to an agenda) rather than simply griping.