• Toxic positivity is the belief that someone should remain happy, no matter the reality of their situation. This irrational life outlook plays into our fear and desire to avoid experiencing negative situations or emotions.
  • In the workplace, toxic positivity-based company cultures can lead to distrust, guilt, and concerns over sharing ideas or criticism. This sort of mindset views employees as worker bees: disposable, solely focused on the task at hand, at whatever personal cost.
  • Signs of toxic positivity in the workplace include overvaluing positivity, problems that continually don’t get addressed, and an overarching pressure to be happy, even if it’s forced. 
  • To counteract toxic positivity in the workplace, create time for open discussion between teams and workers, be professionally straightforward, and take time away from work if your mental health needs it. 

As the belief that one should remain positive even in the worst of situations, toxic positivity has secretly pervaded most people’s attitudes at work—revealing a lot about the lengths to which we’ll go to avoid addressing negative emotional states. The rise and recent fall of toxic positivity in the workplace may actually be explained by our desire to avoid negative emotions. But this isn’t always the case. In some circumstances, we want to support our coworkers, but the words we use don’t come across the way we intend. 

With attitudes towards mental health in the work environment changing rapidly, it’s time to familiarize ourselves with toxic positivity. For our work environments to become more productive as well as enjoyable, working professionals need to rewire their relationship with the concept of positive and negative emotions. It’s impossible to remain happy through everything that life can throw our way—so why do we expect life at work to be any different? 

Signs of Toxic Positivity

Encouraging the belief that if workers are feeling unhappy, they’re not trying hard enough to feel better isn’t just inaccurate—it’s impossible to quantify emotions in this way. If you’re worried that you could be experiencing toxic positivity in the workplace, check in with yourself on the following signs:

  • Your workplace values positivity more than logic: As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. When positivity is valued over logic in a company’s culture or core values, this may unintentionally leave employees with no clear directive or path forward when faced with setbacks, hierarchical changes, or interpersonal disagreements. Logic is more practical than remaining positive at all costs, which requires ignoring the reality of our workplaces: setbacks, disagreements, and failures will happen during our time at work. Logic allows us to think calmly and rationally about what to do next when we face opposition, which is a far better way to work towards maintaining company morale.
  • Workplace issues are always brushed off, leaving you in the dark: Companies dealing with toxic positivity in the workplace may suffer from a professional environment in which problems aren’t addressed because it feels like acknowledging them isn’t allowed. Employees working in this sort of environment may be especially at risk of gaslighting tactics or manipulation
  • You find yourself withholding ideas or well-intentioned criticism for fear of backlash against “negativity”: Positivity is often confused with passivity; just as people aren’t bees, coworkers also won’t share identical beliefs or opinions about everything. But toxic positivity can often mean that meetings and brainstorm sessions become less productive; those with constructive criticism may not share valuable feedback if it seems likely to rock the boat. 
  • You feel pressured to be happy and it’s not helping: When a coworker asks how we’re doing, we shouldn’t lie and always say we’re okay. This is a commonly unacknowledged social pressure—a perfect example of toxic positivity. While you may not be able to share exactly what’s wrong, you shouldn’t feel like you’re obligated to hide a problem that can be addressed at work.

Why We Often Support Toxic Positivity Without Realizing It

In decades past, employees were viewed like bees: Each worker fulfills their tasks to accomplish a larger purpose, at whatever cost. This seems like the ultimate form of efficiency, but too quickly, it becomes difficult to discern the individuals from their tasks and larger purpose. Bees may have no need to care much about each individual’s work, yet people aren’t bees. We have significantly more emotions that complicate our daily lives; the reality is that we will inevitably feel upset, or interact with a coworker who is upset, at work. 

Psychological evidence also suggests that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid empathizing if we feel like it will be emotionally draining for us. We may also subconsciously worry that we’ll absorb negative emotions if we acknowledge our unpleasant feelings or those of others. As opposed to being purposefully harmful, toxic positivity in the workplace may arise simply because we’re all trying to remain as comfortable as possible, without having to do any extra work. We might just hope that if we believe in positivity enough, bad things are less likely to occur—but this isn’t logical thinking.  

Avoid Spreading Toxic Positivity at Work

While toxic positivity would have us ignore negative feelings to stay productive, research shows that talking through something unpleasant is therapeutic and helps improve our mood. While there’s certainly a line to draw when it comes to sharing our thoughts with coworkers, toxic positivity in the workplace shouldn’t prevent us from being genuine. Avoid forcing people in your work environment to be happy by: 

  • Fostering a work environment that encourages honesty: Toxic positivity in the workplace has been shown to lead to employee distrust, lowered morale, and increased employee turnover. During meetings, try to make time to open the floor up for discussion and feedback between different teams and co-workers. Additionally, leave time at the end of your meetings to identify, discuss, and solve issues that have been pointed out. After all, a team can’t reach its full potential without everyone contributing their thoughts. 
  • Being (professionally) straight up: At work, we may notice a team member or coworker feeling frustrated or demoralized and try to quickly assist or resolve their situation. Often we do want to help—but we don’t want things to get awkward. Encouraging someone to just “cheer up” might seem helpful, but sometimes the best approach is to empathize, listen, and avoid telling them how they should feel. And if you would rather not dive too deeply into your coworker’s inner feelings? It’s completely appropriate to set boundaries to prevent others from oversharing.
  • Taking time away from work for your mental health: To some extent, we’re all guilty of being afraid to take some time away for recuperation. If you’re holding off on taking a vacation because you’re worried about your work performance, it’s worth evaluating whether you’re preventing yourself from getting the time away that you need to perform better at your job. Toxic positivity would tell you to prioritize being at work over anything else: The reality is that work is not the only part of your life—we need a deliberate work-life balance for our careers to thrive. 

Employees who feel encouraged to look after their mental health may feel better about themselves and experience improvements in their job performance and overall satisfaction with their employer. It seems as though employers and employees alike benefit from avoiding toxic positivity in the workplace. Negative emotions can’t be avoided at work, but we don’t need to run from them, either. If we prioritize creating a positive work environment, people can quickly shift from being viewed as worker bees to actual human beings.

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