One of the pleasures of having a job is complaining about that job, whether the setting is a Slack DM or an after-work happy hour. And yet there comes a point in every bitch session when the complaining crosses some invisible line, and what was once cathartic becomes draining. This may be particularly true if you are always on the listening end of the venting, argue two organizational psychologists in a recent piece for Harvard Business Review.
The researchers base their argument off of a series of interviews with “toxic handlers,” a term they invented for that person at the office to whom everyone goes when they need to vent. In a terribly unsurprising finding, their research suggests that people in these roles “frequently experience untenably high levels of stress and strain.” They used these nine questions to identify toxic handlers; those who answered “yes” to four or more of these fit their definition:
• Are you working in an organizational characterized by lots of change, dysfunction, or politics?
• Are you working in a role that spans different groups or different levels?
• Do you spend a lot of time listening to and offering advice to colleagues at work?
• Do people come to you to unload their worries, emotions, secrets, or workplace problems?
• Do you have a hard time saying no to colleagues, especially when they need you?
• Do you spend time behind the scenes, managing politics and influencing decisions so others are protected?
• Do you tend to mediate communication between a toxic individual and others?
• Are you that person who feels compelled to stand up for the people at work that need your help?
• Do you think of yourself as a counselor, mediator, or peacemaker?
It’s a valuable role to play in an organization, the researchers acknowledge, but if the emotional toll becomes overwhelming, they offer some advice, the best of which is probably this: Reframe the conversation. Start asking the venters things like, “How about we think about what we can change to make this better?” Voilà: Venting instantly becomes less fun (but more productive) when it becomes more about solutions than problems.