Emotions are a big part of our daily communications wherever we are. We use emotions in our inner dialogue and for outward expression. During any given day, we can go from experiencing happiness to irritation to frustration to sadness to peacefulness.
We all want our workplaces to be supportive, social environments. Teammates become friends, with whom you can share your thoughts to seek validation and affirmation.
But sometimes, toxic positivity gets in the way of this very basic human need.
What is toxic positivity?
Let’s be clear, positivity itself is not toxic. The human trait of recovering from negative experiences using positivity, propped by hope, is unique. But to find our way back to the light, we must sometimes walk a dark path.
Positiveness becomes toxic when we ignore negative emotions or suppress them. Toxic positivity is the denial of negative emotions and the pressure to only display positive ones. Over the last few years, employers have started recognizing the importance of investing in employee mental health and well-being, so understanding and dealing with toxic positivity is a good start.
Promoting positivity in the workplace is well intended, but some offices can take it a bit too far. You may have seen slogans like, “Positive Vibes Only” or “No Complaining Zone.” While these are great thoughts, they can also put a lot of pressure on the reader to always feel cheerful.
Undeniably, encouraging words can be our first go-to response when someone expresses a concern. But if done at the expense of other, natural emotions, it becomes unhealthy to always respond with, “you worry too much,” “it could be worse,” or “it all happens for a reason.”
How toxic positivity impacts mental health.
During the pandemic, we were bombarded with “stay positive” messages. They were meant to help us deal with the constant negativity we were hearing in the news and on social media. But in our rush to stuff positivity down everyone’s throats, we forget that it invariably invalidates the other person’s experiences. In effect, our toxic positivity could be forcing others into a corner of self-doubt, uncertainty, and alienation.
Toxic positivity is also a form of gaslighting — ironically, the word of the year for 2022. Gaslighting is when someone’s behaviour or words make you question your sanity or ability to reason. By gaslighting someone, we not only manipulate their emotions, but we also effectively tell them something is wrong with them for feeling the way they do.
But it’s positivity, you say… how could it harm anyone?
Some of the ways toxic positivity hurts people are described below.
Toxic positivity stirs up shame.
Anytime we tell people to smile in the face of difficulty, we imply that there is no place for their true feelings. This often triggers guilt or shame in the person — about their emotions. It’s another layer of experience they must deal with on top of the original negative experience.
Negatively impacts connection.
If someone continuously dismisses our feelings, how likely are we to seek support again? Not much likely. It’s natural human response to withdraw and stop reaching out when our experiences and emotions are rejected.
Leads to lower self-efficacy.
If we’re constantly told: “it’s all what you make of it,” we begin feeling responsible for actions we didn’t even do. The more we take on the blame, the less likely we are to believe in our ability to find a solution.
Toxic positivity increases stress.
Constant suppression of the full range of emotions has both physical and psychological effects. Studies have proven that high levels of stress lead to various physical issues, like increased substance reliance, heart disease, etc.
High stress reduces overall well-being.
When we face a threat to our self-efficacy, research indicates our well-being is negatively impacted.
Impacts of toxic positivity on visible minorities
From a diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) perspective, toxic positivity at work can minimize the experience of underrepresented groups in the company and impede progress.
How to deal with toxic positivity at work.
The first step is to recognize it for what it is: harmful.
Whether toxic positivity is happening between colleagues or it’s office culture, begin by educating all company staff. Empower the team so they can identify toxic positivity. Remember also to give them tools to work with one another to create a safer workplace for all.
The easiest way to identify toxic positivity is to listen for key phrases that signify it.
If you’re all saying, “everything is fine,” when things are falling apart, it’s time to neutralize the positivity.
It’s true that sometimes people can be negative if they’re trying to shift blame.
But when legitimate concerns are routinely quashed, toxic positivity might take over.
Looking through a DEI lens, statements to the effect, “it’s better here than at my other workplace,” could be a warning sign. It’s not healthy to rationalize liking a workplace because it could be worse elsewhere.
So, what should you say if you can’t be positive? Plenty. Here are a few examples of how you can change the narrative.
- “I understand why you’re upset about this.”
- “It sounds like this is really bothering you.”
- “I’m here to help whenever you’re ready.”
- “Let me know how I can support you with this.”
- “That would definitely be frustrating.”
- “It’s okay to have an off day or ask for help.”
- “I see you.”
- “I hear you.”
- “Tell me more.”
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- “Do you want to find a solution together?”
What else can employers do?
Whether you’re a people manager or not, here are some more ways you can directly impact the psychological safety of your team.
Reframing what is a “positive attitude” helps create a safe, supportive, and ultimately productive work environment.
Create safe spaces.
Offer employees true sharing opportunities, whether it’s with one another or with a supervisor. But the connection needs to be authentic. Consider team building exercises, company retreats, and forming interest groups among staff members. These activities give employees the chance to be open about what’s on their minds in a safe environment.
Be honest with employees.
Believe it or not, open, and clear communication is what most employees crave in a good workplace. Transparency between team members and by team leads helps build trust.
Prioritize employee well-being.
Employees are implicitly trained to put work before themselves. Teams thrive if encouraged to take time to rest, recover, and even just let a bad day be a bad day. Sometimes telling employees that they should care for their well-being isn’t enough. A gentle nudge in the direction can be useful. Consider setting up company-sponsored opportunities that show employees how important it is to look after their mental well-being.
What can employees do?
Yes, creating a safe workplace isn’t just the responsibility of the employer. Team members also need to do their bit.
Develop empathy for others and compassion for yourself.
Recognize and accept that emotions are part of the human experience. It’s harmful to minimize them. Be compassionate toward yourself and really have an internal dialogue about why you’re pushing yourself to always feel cheerful. When supporting a colleague, flip the scenario to develop empathy about what they’re going through, rather than trying to force them to bounce back.
Stop toxic positivity in its tracks.
We’re all busy with our tasks during the workday. That could be one reason we may become dismissive of others’ complaints. But if you make time to really listen to what a colleague is telling you, the situation will become clearer. And once you understand their point of view, you can validate it and open space for them to talk. Polishing our communication skills is tremendously helpful in this case.
Prioritize problem solving over quashing issues.
It’s great to have a positive outlook, but that’s not the only solution you should have in your toolbox. Working with employees to develop and implement effective problem-solving tools can help everyone at the company. Downplaying feelings is an avoidance technique that prevents us from facing — and solving — the real problem. Identify the actual issue and then brainstorm some good solutions that can work for your teammate.
A positive mindset will be easier to maintain when there’s a strong problem-solving strategy in place.
Keep that change pattern going.
Dealing with toxic positivity doesn’t mean that you forbid your team from ever feeling optimistic and positive. All you’re doing is making space for all the emotions they can humanly feel. Enhancing emotional regulation skills in yourself as team leader and your colleagues helps build resilience, hardiness, and even creativity when it comes to tackling challenges
There’s a social side to it, too. When we embrace and allow expression for our entire range of emotions, we are better able to connect with others. We’re more empathetic and likely to support our colleagues when they need it. This sets us on a path for greater collaboration in a healthy and thriving workplace.