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5 Reasons why we need to be able to complain about our workplaces

Presented by Hotbox, Baker Stuart and Forster Inc. at Clerkenwell Design Week 2019.


In support of Hotbox’s new Hub launch at Clerkenwell Design WeekHotboxBaker Stuart and Forster Inc. decided to put together a wellbeing event which was a little out of the ordinary. We decided to ask people to complain about their workplace. Over three days, we set up the Workplace Complaints Bureau at the Hotbox Hub and invited people to lodge their complaints. But this complaints bureau was a little different, in that it was manned by a poet armed with a typewriter, who transformed their workplace woes into a soothing personalised poem. Click here to read a selection of our workplace complaints poetry.

This might all seem counterproductive – does whingeing really boost wellbeing? – but research shows that repressed complaints in the workplace are incredibly common, and what’s more, that repressing these complaints and the negative emotions that go with them is really, really, bad for us. It can also be bad news for the company. Heres why.

1. Excessive positivity is damaging

‘Prozac leadership’ is a term coined by David Collinson, a Professor of Leadership and Organisation at the University of Lancaster. He argues that excessive positivity can make leaders reluctant to consider other people’s ideas and voices which can make organisations vulnerable to unexpected events. Prozac leadership also creates the fallacy of ‘everything being GREAT!’ when in fact it discourages people from asking questions or admitting mistakes, which causes high-stress levels and low commitment in employees.

2. Emotional repression is bad for individual wellbeing

A huge study that looked at 15,000 customer service workers in Korea found that people who reported ‘suppressing emotion’ were more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety. Repressing emotions also affects your ability to do your job well from an individual perspective. It clouds your judgement, worsens relationships with co-workers and takes up a lot of our energy which can lead to stifled creativity and high levels of frustration. Dishonesty, lack of trust, peer pressure and stress are drivers for this kind of working environment. A Dutch study looking at the police force also found that suppressing anger at work is positively correlated to feelings of exhaustion at the end of the day – and this is really interesting because anger is the most commonly suppressed emotion in the workplace according to psychologist Dr Sandi Mann.

3. Our complaints are useful to the company

Psychologist Susan David argues that the idea that employees should only display positive emotions at work often results in organisational failures. She says: “I think there’s an overvaluing of positivity in a way that undervalues the full range of emotional experience” – i.e. our complaints or the things that aren’t working contain useful data.

5 Reasons why we need to be able to complain about our workplaces

4. Emotional freedom at work is central to optimum productivity

Emotional freedom is not counter to optimal performance and productivity – it is central to it.  In other words, it takes both positive and negative emotional insight for organizations and individuals to function effectively over the long term. We also know, from Professor Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, that teams that feel safe enough to articulate discontent or talk about frustration are the most successful teams. ‘Psychological safety’ in fact recently topped a list of the most essential attributes of high-functioning teams published by Google. But isn’t about being nice to everyone – it’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other. This is the opposite of a culture of repression.

5. Managers are bad at dealing with negativity 

Managing workplace complaints should also be an area of concern because managers are not good at dealing with negative emotions, and this can reproduce cultures of repressed emotion. Management Professor Christine Pearson found in one study that out of 124 managers she interviewed, 20% of them reported that they have never, in their entire careers, had a single boss who managed negative emotions effectively. This is perhaps one of the big problems: that we just don’t have the ability, training, or understanding to deal with and solve people’s problems in the workplace.

Let’s get complaining!

This doesn’t mean we should start being rude or unhelpful; particularly when incivility in the workplace is reportedly on the rise – apparently up 25% on figures from 1998. We’re not advocating complaining in the sense of emotional ‘acting out’ that leads to aggression, gossip and bullying. We’re talking honest and balanced emotional self-expression. This is easier said than done, but acknowledging, processing and expressing your complaints can serve as a release valve for stress and frustration and boost your wellbeing – just think of the post-work drink and rant which is, in many ways, a staple of British culture. Until we can incorporate the helpful elements of this process into our teams and workplaces in a constructive way, there’s always poetry.

Click here to read a selection of our workplace complaints poetry from Clerkenwell Design Week 2019.


About Baker Stuart

We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, project and programme management services. Just one of our offerings is PeopleLOOK, a detailed survey tool which quantifies the extent of health, wellness and comfort pre- and post-occupancy, which is approved by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.

Sarah Moore
About Baker Stuart

We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.


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Edinburgh and Dublin
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