In an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (abstract here), researchers Abbas Firoozabadi, Sjir Uitdewilligen, and Fred R. H. Zijlstra pose their key question in the title: “Should you switch off or stay engaged? The consequences of thinking about work on the trajectory of psychological well-being over time.”
Basically, they wanted to explore how taking our jobs home with us affects psychological well-being, especially when it comes to how we deal with work-related problems. Their focus was the distinction between ruminating (in this context, repeatedly thinking about the negative emotional aspects of a work experience) vs. problem-solving (analyzing potential responses and solutions). As some readers can already see, this study has significant implications for those experiencing forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work.
Study details and findings
As explained in the article abstract, the study was conducted with “123 participants with full-time and primarily mentally demanding jobs,” using the following methodology:
We conducted a 3-wave longitudinal study with a time lag of 6 months between each wave. At the first measurement moment, participants filled out a survey over 5 consecutive working days assessing work-related affective rumination and problem-solving pondering during evenings. Exhaustion and health complaints were assessed at the first measurement moment as well as after 6 and 12 months.
The researchers found:
The results showed that affective rumination is a significant predictor of increase in exhaustion over time. Problem-solving pondering was not found to be a significant predictor of change in psychological well-being over time. These findings demonstrate that work-related rumination during evenings may lead to health problems over time depending on the type of rumination. It suggests that unlike affective rumination, problem-solving pondering during evenings has no influence on psychological well-being over time.
Bottom line, slightly boiled down: Ruminating about work challenges will likely have negative health effects, while thinking about work challenges in problem-solving mode is a typically a break-even proposition in terms of health.
Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment
Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard or read hundreds of stories about severe work abuse. I’ve concluded that for targeted individuals, ruminating over these terrible experiences is one of the most common and debilitating thought patterns. It is a form of ongoing re-traumatization.
Researchers Firoozabadi, Uitdewilligen, and Zijlstra were not specifically studying the psychological health effects of bullying-related behaviors, but their research has significant implications for those who are experiencing work abuse. Their study results dovetail with what many have observed or experienced: Ruminating about workplace mistreatment can create and exacerbate health problems, while operating in problem-solving mode is less likely to have such impacts. In fact, the latter may even improve psychological well-being by injecting needed doses of hope and empowerment.
If one could easily flip the switch from rumination to problem-solving, well then, a lot of problems would be solved, right?! However, in many cases of work abuse, it’s more complicated than that, especially when psychological trauma enters the picture. All too often, trauma and rumination go hand-in-hand. Targets of work abuse often ruminate about what happened and how it has affected them. It’s harder for them to shift the focus toward potential responses and solutions.
This may very well be a neurological effect, not necessarily a personality trait. As research has found, traumatic experiences can cause the side of the brain governing emotions (the so-called right side) to go into hyper-active mode, while the side of the brain governing logic, communication, and decision making (the so-called left side) shuts down. As I’ve written before, this understanding helps to explain why many targets of work abuse ruminate about the experience of that abuse and its effects on their emotions, while finding it difficult to develop an ordered narrative of relevant events and engage in problem-solving.
(As a side note, I’ll offer some unscientific, indirect evidence of this dynamic, drawn from writing this blog since 2008: Blog posts on workplace bullying that validate the experiences of being abused at work tend to attract a lot more search engine hits and Facebook “likes” than those that are problem-solving or solution-oriented in nature.)
The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses
In a 2010 Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Edward Selby provides a useful primer on rumination and its effects:
Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.
What’s so bad about rumination though, it’s all about problem solving right? While it’s true that problem solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. . . . Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to the problem.
The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns.
Fortunately Dr. Selby suggests how people break out of their cycles of rumination. He strongly recommends pursuing a genuinely enjoyable, distracting activity:
So how do you overcome rumination? Well have you ever heard the phrase, “get your mind off of the problem?” The answer is simple, to overcome rumination you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem.
There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work.
Losing one’s self in something good
Selby’s advice is congruent with pieces that I’ve written in this blog about the importance of immersive hobbies and pastimes, especially for those who are dealing with toxic work situations. In a 2015 blog post, “Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job,” I wrote:
For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business.
. . . Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.
I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.
In that post, I told a story about Dr. Shelley Lane, who was experiencing workplace bullying at a college where she had previously worked:
When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project.
In the Preface to her eventually published study abroad memoir, A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she wrote:
Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them [her personal journals] again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.
In Dr. Lane’s case, there were good outcomes on multiple levels. First, she left that college for a better job at a better school. Second, as I wrote last year, she would later author a book, “Understanding Incivility: Why Are They So Rude?,” for which I was privileged to write the Foreword.
Not the last word, but hopefully of help
Dear readers, this obviously isn’t the last word on rumination and how to deal with it, but I hope it is of assistance to those who are experiencing it. Moving from rumination to problem-solving can be an important step toward healing and recovery. May it be so for you if you are in this difficult place.
Additional relevant posts
Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)
The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)
Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)
Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)