Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Venting at Work—a Double-Edged Sword

Sometimes conversations with peers can exacerbate burnout.

Key points

  • Venting to coworkers is a natural workplace behavior.
  • Even casual conversations intended to generate social support can wind up overrfocusing on the negative.
  • Conversations of complaint foster co-rumination and burnout.
  • Always including discussion of possible solutions keeps workplace venting from eroding mental health.

Morning coffee, lunch dates, informal meeting debriefings—our casual interactions with coworkers are critical to our well-being at work. Such routine interactions build the foundation for support and a sense of connection in the workplace.

When work is particularly demanding or issues arise, coworkers often turn to each other for social support. Employees often seek peer support because they know those individuals will genuinely understand their work-related experiences. Employees may seek support in direct ways, like asking for help, or indirectly through humor, storytelling, and, often,in the form of complaints (Barbee & Cunningham, 1995; Buehler et al., 2019). A coworker might complain about an issue at work with the goal of receiving some type of support and validation. But what happens when it does not lead to productive communication or effective support?

Take a moment to reflect on your own interactions with colleagues at work. Do you ever find that whenever you speak with a specific group or even an individual, all you do is vent or complain with no real solutions proposed? Or do you feel even more exhausted after talking to certain coworkers about challenges at work?

While venting is a natural part of workplace friendships, focusing on the problem and continuously harping on the negative aspects of work experiences can harm well-being. This process is called co-rumination, in which co-workers discuss issues excessively and repeatedly without a clear solution (Rose, 2002). In doing so, such conversations can actually intensify stress and the perceived severity of the problem.

Co-rumination aligns with the phrase, "negativity breeds negativity" in the sense that fixating on the issue will eventually only make the employees engaging in such conversations more exhausted, concerned, or even overwhelmed. Although coworkers tend to engage in co-rumination with the initial goal of reducing stress, those interactions can actually lead to heightened stress and burnout (Boren, 2014).

Burnout is a psychological syndrome that individuals develop in response to chronic stress and fatigue. It has three dimensions, including (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization, and (3) a lack of personal efficacy (Maslach et al., 2001). Emotional exhaustion refers to lacking energy, especially in terms of managing emotions and engaging with others. Depersonalization occurs when employees feel detached from their peers, leadership, and clients, which may cause them to be less empathetic. This can lead to irritability and anger. A lack of personal efficacy relates to feeling that, despite efforts, they cannot yield the results or desired outcomes of their work. Employees feel a lack of accomplishment and productivity over time.

An essential distinction between work-related stress and burnout is exhaustion or chronic emotional, mental, and physical fatigue—feeling depleted every day. The employee eventually starts to dread work.

Burnout is not simply the result of being overworked. Instead, common causes include unfair treatment, demanding deadlines, pressure, and a lack of clarity and involvement in organizational communication (Wigert, 2020). Generally, when employees experience burnout, they feel exhausted, cynical, and a lack of engagement with the organization, including peers, leadership, and even clients (WHO, 2019).

Burnout was a serious concern and topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in those serving the public on the front lines. Even after the pandemic, burnout remains a critical issue and should always be a concern for organizations, given how it can lead to adverse health effects such as heart disease and high blood pressure (Mayo Clinic, 2021). A 2022 survey of 2,0001 employees found that more than 40 percent had experienced burnout and depression in the previous 12 months (Elfein, 2023).

While connection and belonging are crucial for worker well-being (see U.S. Surgeon General, 2022), there is a fine line between social support and co-ruminating—a line that deserves attention as the conversation about workplace wellness continues. Social support refers to verbal and nonverbal messages communicated to assist a peer in need (MacGeorge et al., 2011). Prior research on social support in the workplace has illuminated positive health-related outcomes among employees, specifically related to reduced stress levels (e.g., Heapy & Dutton, 2008; Uchino, 2004). Research has demonstrated that co-rumination can suppress or block the positive impact of social support (see Boren, 2014).

Notably, a lack of social support can contribute to burnout, and effective social support can help an employee cope with burnout (Mayo Clinic, 2021). Talking about challenges at work with coworkers can make one feel like they belong to that group or team. However, when such interactions are primarily negative, that communication can actually lead to far more adverse outcomes than beneficial ones, including intensifying burnout. Without a proposed solution or positive outlook that things will improve, colleagues continue to struggle and feel as though things may never change. Thus, conversations need to be more solution-focused. Meaning, instead of focusing on the problem, you shift to highlighting small action steps, an optimistic outlook, and defining attainable goals to work toward in addressing the issue.

Numerous initiatives and programs to address stress management in the workplace exist today. However, few focus specifically on interpersonal interactions that play a significant role in how we manage stress on the job. Boren (2014) emphasizes the importance of organizations ensuring that employees understand the differences between providing social support and engaging in co-rumination to prevent co-rumination from further exacerbating stress and burnout. While major health organizations such as Mayo Clinic and WHO have outlined causes and ways to address burnout, more attention should be paid to ways that improvements in interpersonal communication can mitigate burnout.

There are steps that you can take as a peer to cultivate more robust social networks focused on support rather than co-rumination, helping enhance your own well-being and that of your coworkers. Here are five guidelines to get started:

  1. Recognizing co-rumination. The first step is to recognize when conversations—even those that start with simple venting or intending to engage in social support—involve co-rumination. Look for the signs of co-rumination, which include consistent negative talk and fixation on a problem without a proposed solution.
  2. Allow for time to vent. Whether for five or 10 minutes, dedicate some time to vent. Venting does have some benefits, especially when you are able to feel a sense of relief in speaking about the issue and validated by peers who truly understand. Set a time with your peers, and then stick to it (e.g., "We have five minutes to vent about this, and then we will talk about what we can do to move forward").
  3. Shifting to solution-focus. Focus on what you can achieve and brainstorm potential solutions together. What has to happen for things to get better? How can you work together to improve things? Also, be sure to ask your peers what type of support they might need to work toward those outcomes.
  4. Follow-up/check-in with your coworkers. After discussing possible solutions for the problem, it is important to follow up and check in on your colleagues. Celebrate the small wins. In doing so, you will further reiterate that you care and will continue to promote positive social support.
  5. Do not wait for an issue to emerge. Normalizing positive conversations with colleagues before a problem occurs helps make it more natural to shift to a solution-focused discussion later on. The shift to remote work can inhibit some of the opportunities for more natural social interactions. For instance, in the office, you might spark conversation walking by a colleague’s cubicle or on your walk to the kitchen, but that does not occur when you are working from home. Instead, you are likely only interacting with colleagues during scheduled meetings. Even if awkward or uncomfortable at first in remote contexts, make time to simply chat with close colleagues at least once a week to avoid speaking only when there is a problem to vent about.


Barbee, A. P., & Cunningham, M. R. (1995). An experimental approach to social support communications: interactive coping in close relationships. Annals of the International Communication Association, 18(1), 381–413.

Boren, J. P. (2014). The relationships between co-rumination, social support, stress, and burnout among working adults. Management Communication Quarterly, 28(1), 3–25.

Buehler, E. M., Crowley, J. L., Peterson, A., & High, A. C. (2019). Broadcasting for help: A typology of support-seeking strategies on Facebook. New Media & Society, 21(11–12), 2566–2588.

Elflein, J. (16, May 2023). Share of U.S. employees with select health issues 2022, by level of burnout.

MacGeorge, E. L., Feng, B., & Burleson, B. (2011). Supportive communication. In: Knapp, M. L., Daly, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication. (4th ed., pp. 317-354). Sage.

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397–422.

Mayo Clinic. (2021). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action.

Rose, A. J. (2002). Co-rumination in the friendships of girls and boys. Child Development, 73, 1830-1843.

U.S. Surgeon General. (2022). The U.S. Surgeon General’s framework for workplace mental health and well-being. Public Health Services.

Uchino, B. N. (2004). Social support and physical health: Understanding the health consequences of relationships. Current perspectives in psychology. Yale University Press

Wigert, B. (13 March, 2020). Employee burnout: The biggest myth.

World Health Organization. (2019). Burnout an "occupational phenomenon": International classification of diseases.

More from Erin Craw Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today