I work in IT at a midsize company and my co-worker, with whom I share an office, does a lot of complaining. IT was understaffed at this company for a long time, and we have a huge backlog of projects, poor management, and little support from leadership. I’ve been here for nearly four years and have worked in many different departments, so I know that these are systemic issues that do not only affect IT. I am fairly burned out, but I’m trying to push through and do good work until I can find a job at another company.
I really like my co-worker, “Chris,” who has been with the company for about nine months. We’re of a similar age, have similar hobbies, and get along great. I could see being friends and hanging out outside of work after I leave the company. We’ve both been open with each other about the fact that we’re applying for new jobs.
However, he continuously complains all day long about all of the issues here. Often when I have my head deep into some work or am writing something and need to focus, he will turn around and complain about one of the hundreds of issues here. This job is already hard enough, I’m already burned out, and while complaining together can be cathartic at times, hearing him do it all day, every day is making a bad situation worse.
What I’ve tried so far is saying things like, “Yeah it sucks, but we have to try and tolerate this for now so we’re not miserable” or “Yeah, I’ve been here a long time and have seen that issue in many different forms, but we still need to try and fix what we can.”
I feel like I already know the answer is that I just need to be direct and tell him his constant complaining is making me miserable (but in nicer words somehow), but I am writing in the hopes that there may be an easier solution. I don’t want to blow up on him, but he complained almost the entire time that I wrote this letter to you (while I was trying to relax and enjoy my lunch break, no less!) and my patience is really starting to run out. What would you suggest?
Being around someone who complains all day long is exhausting. You’ve clearly found a way to focus on your work despite seeing legitimate problems around you, but having someone unleash a constant litany of negativity in your ear will keep you focused on the very stuff you’re trying not to fixate on.
That doesn’t mean that people should never raise problems at work! No one should be so Pollyannaish that they shut down legitimate discussion of real problems. But there’s a point where chronic complaining stops being constructive (especially when its target is someone with no power to change the things being griped about), and it sounds like your co-worker is long past that point.
I think it’s interesting that you’re hoping there might be an easier solution than just talking to him about it. Talking to him is pretty much the only option if you want the flood of complaints to stop. Otherwise, he’s likely to assume that you’re a receptive audience, since you haven’t objected. I suspect you’d prefer to avoid that frank conversation because it feels awkward to say “stop talking to me about topic X” — but it’s so much better to just say it and let the person know than to go on being miserable, especially if letting it continue means you’ll become so frustrated that you’ll just explode at him one day (which you mentioned you’re also worried about).
In fact, that exact dynamic is really common when people hesitate to be direct when someone is bothering them. They worry about being rude or causing an awkward moment, so they say nothing … which means that the problem continues, which in turn makes them more frustrated. Eventually they have so much built-up resentment that it all erupts at some point, whereas if they’d just had a fairly matter-of-fact conversation about the problem earlier on, they probably could have avoided the blowup.
Plus, if your co-worker is a decent person, he would probably want to know that he’s making you so miserable! After all, put yourself in his shoes — if you were driving a colleague out of their gourd by harping on a particular topic, wouldn’t you much rather know, even if it meant having a momentarily uncomfortable conversation? And wouldn’t you be mortified if you found out they had been aggravated for months but said nothing?
What’s more, the conversation doesn’t need to be terribly painful! Often when people aren’t super comfortable with confrontation (or are dreading it in a particular situation), it’s because the interaction they’re picturing in their head is a lot more aggressive or adversarial than it really needs to be. Your message to your co-worker doesn’t need to be “you are a negative bore who is sucking all the joy out of our shared space” (much as you might feel that way). It can be much more mild, and you can even make it about you rather than about him. For example, you could say, “I know there are problems here, but I’m finding that the more I talk about them, the more frustrated I get. I’ve realized it’s better for my quality of life if I don’t complain as much as we’ve been doing. So I’d be grateful if we can rein in the complaints around each other.”
If that doesn’t work and his griping continues, you’ll need to get more pointed: “I know things here can be tough, but it’s making work harder for me when I stay so mired in these problems. For the sake of my mental health, I can’t be the person you vent to anymore.”
You still might need to do some work to reinforce that boundary, since complaining can be an ingrained habit that takes time to break. So if it starts up again after that, just remind him (“Like I said, I can’t be a sounding board on this stuff anymore”).
Frankly, you might be doing your co-worker a favor by declining to listen to endless complaints. Right now it sounds like you’re functioning as a sort of relief valve for him, a place where he can let off steam without taking any real action. If you stop providing that relief, it might nudge him to decide whether he’s willing to live with the conditions of his job or whether he’d be happier ramping up his job search.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.