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UBC researchers warn that complaining about your job online can sometimes make you feel worse

UBC researchers warn that complaining about your job online can sometimes make you feel worse
Posted 2022-09-28

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the globe flocked online — and without the option of in-person lunch breaks or watercooler chats, many turned to social media to air their job-related concerns, from bad bosses to workplace safety to heavy pandemic workloads. 

But according to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, how people share workplace stressors online has a big impact on the way their audience responds — and those responses, in turn, play a significant role in shaping outcomes for the original posters.

For the study, titled The Social Process of Coping with Work-Related Stressors Online: A Machine Learning and Interpretive Data Science Approach, researchers collected more than 200,000 work-related Reddit posts. From there, they used machine learning techniques to train algorithms to clean, classify, and analyze the dataset. UBC Sauder Assistant Professor and first author, Sima Sajjadiani (she/her), stresses that a key strength of interpretive data science – the combination of traditional qualitative data interpretation and machine learning or computational methods – is allowing researchers to work with extensive datasets that would otherwise prove too time-consuming to manage, and reducing the typical limitations of computer-driven analysis.

The posts could be roughly divided into two types: ones that involved people soliciting advice on a work-related issue (what they should do in a specific situation, for example), and others where people were venting their emotions about an issue, perhaps to seek emotional support.

The researchers found that when people (in the study they’re called “sharers”) expressed certain negative emotions like fear and sadness, they were more likely to get positive encouragement and warmth from fellow Reddit users (“listeners”), whereas sharers who sought advice would get more pragmatic, unemotional responses.

At first blush it may seem listeners are providing exactly the right kind of support that the sharer needs, but study co-author and UBC Sauder Assistant Professor Michael Daniels (he/him) says people seeking advice actually benefit from receiving both information and emotional support. “We found sharers seem more satisfied and have better emotional outcomes when they seek information,” he says, “and this is especially so when they receive some positivity, warmth and encouragement, and a sense that we’re all in this together.”

When people go online and simply vent about something that has happened to them, people may reply with supportive comments, but others offer unsolicited advice — which isn’t always welcome.

“If the person is seeking information, then information is good; if they’re venting anger, then information is not so good,” says Assistant Professor Daniels with a laugh. Others can face opposition or criticism. “When you're sad, the last thing you want is for someone to say, ‘The reason you're sad is totally wrong and it’s all your fault. So it’s no surprise that in those instances, their sadness doesn't decrease at all — but their anger certainly increases.”

What’s more, when people express uncertainty or fear, listeners often share their own similar fears, provide information and advice, and also encourage the sharer to “reframe” the situation so they see it differently. However, Assistant Professor Daniels says some of those responses can hurt more than help.

“If you say ‘I'm fearful about losing my job,’ and someone replies, ‘here are the three things you've got to do to avoid losing your job,’ people become more fearful because it validates their fear,” he says. “The only response in our data that actually lessens the fear is the reframing, because it doesn't validate the fear; it actually challenges it.”

Listeners are less likely to offer advice when the stressor is specific to a particular occupation, adds Assistant Professor Sajjadiani.

“If I’m a nurse and I say, ‘I had a patient with these vitals and these issues,’ listeners are less likely to provide information,” she says. Instead, people tend to get better responses with more generalizable problems. “There are some stressors we all experience — interpersonal conflict, bad managers — and when you share those experiences, people can pull from their own past history.”

Overall, online interactions are fundamentally different than in-person ones because people are interacting with strangers, so it’s riskier and less predictable, says Assistant Professor Daniels. Social expectations are also weaker on social media, he adds. “Normally when I approach somebody in person, it’s someone I share some bond with, and we have established ground rules for how this relationship operates — but you don’t necessarily choose the person who is responding to you on social media, and on Reddit, you typically do not even know the other person, so the ground rules for the interaction are much weaker.”

The study authors chose to focus on Reddit because of this relative anonymity of its users, who are less likely to be concerned about the impressions they’re creating; also their character limit is 40,000 per post, as opposed to Twitter’s limit of 280 characters.

Past research has shown that when people raise work-related concerns with friends, family or peers, the response they receive has an impact on their emotional wellbeing and ability to overcome challenges; however little research has examined how the way people introduce a problem influences others’ responses.

The research is especially salient given that workplaces have been identified as one of the biggest sources of stress. In fact, in a 2021 American Psychological Association survey, 66 per cent of respondents said the work domain was a “significant” source of stress — more than any other.

Assistant Professor Daniels says they hope the study helps people understand what works and what doesn’t when they’re seeking to connect over workplace dilemmas online. “We hope our findings help people cope with their work problems a little more effectively,” he says. He also has a piece of advice for employers.

“Your employees are going home, going on Reddit, and venting about their bad experiences — and that may or may not be helpful depending on the types of responses that they get,” he explains. “So employers should be thinking a lot more about how they can provide support within the organization that is more intentional and mindful of these issues to help employees overcome the problems they’re experiencing.”

Interview language: English