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Toxic Positivity at Work: What’s the Mental Toll?

The last two years have been challenging. As a result of the global pandemic, the world went through lockdowns, supply chain issues, and interruption of international transport, creating a very uncertain economic environment.  

And the long period of insecurity has put additional stress on employees and employers trying to deal with the new reality. In fact, one COVID Impact Survey found that six out of ten Americans experience negative emotions, anxiety, or depression each week.  

Many people in the workplace coped with this uncertainty by staying optimistic and putting a positive spin on events. However, superficial positivity rarely provides real solutions, and it becomes more harmful than helpful over time. 

From productivity decline to mental health issues, toxic positivity at work can damage the employees and the company. And once it becomes part of the company culture, it becomes harder to deal with it.  

We asked a few managers, consultants, and company owners to provide us with valuable tips on dealing with toxic positivity at the workplace and their experience with this issue.  

What is Toxic Positivity in the Workplace?

“Chin up.”  

“You can do it.”  

“Work harder, and success will follow.” 

These expressions have been commonly used in the workplace. Even though they are meant to provide comfort during hard times and offer encouragement when people face professional or private obstacles, that’s not always the case. Sometimes they are a plastic example between motivation and forced positivity. 

And the pressure to maintain “good vibes only” attitude at the workplace is not uncommon.  

This pressure comes from the company culture and the employees themselves. But no matter its source, it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid it at work.  

According to a small survey conducted by Science of People, 68% of participants experienced some form of toxic positivity in the workplace a week before they were interviewed. 75% of those polled have never heard of “toxic positivity” before. 

Toxic positivity can be defined as a continuous effort to focus on positive things and feelings while ignoring the negative ones completely. No matter how serious or challenging a situation is, the employee feels the need or pressure to maintain a positive mindset.  

The result of forced positivity at work can minimize and disregard the human experience, including a spectrum of emotions. It also creates a work environment where it’s impossible to discuss any negative issue or freely express opinions. This affects the employees’ mental health and thus the company itself in the long term. 

Signs of Toxic Positivity at Work

Toxic positivity usually stems from good intentions, and people tend to overlook it as something benign. Fortunately, some warning signs can help you determine if this issue needs to be addressed. 

For a long time, one of the unwritten rules of good work etiquette was that employees need to leave all negative feelings outside of the workplace and bring in only a positive attitude. Which effectively blocks the employees from processing and experiencing their feelings at the moment. 

Using motivational phrases to deal with challenges at work among colleagues also bears a warning of an unhealthy work environment. Instead of showing empathy and offering help, people brush off any issue with seemingly encouraging words.  

And while empathy in the workplace has always been encouraged, people tend to avoid empathizing if they feel like the process is emotionally taxing. Employees try to remain as comfortable as possible in interacting with other people without the need for any additional work. 

Ainslee Hooper worked for a government agency for twenty years before she resigned in 2019 due to the mental health toll of her job. “There was a massive push for toxic positivity. This meant the onus was on you as an individual if something wasn’t right, deflecting responsibility from the organization. Rather than dealing with the root cause, they would push for resilience training, and anyone with any problems just had a bad attitude in their eyes.” 

Examples of Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

It’s not always easy to recognize toxic positivity in the work environment.  

Often people mistakenly perceive it as genuine optimism or well-intended encouragement and motivation. And while it is a good thing to have strong positivity culture at work, once that positivity starts putting pressure on the team, it can create more harm than good. 

1) Management's Disregard for the Company's Reality

This is one of the best examples of toxic positivity leadership in a workplace. It occurs when managers force positivity by cherry-picking only positive results or events. Any attempt to discuss any potential problem or issue within the team is considered a bad attitude. 

Nathan Huges, Marketing Director at Diggity Marketing, says that toxic positivity at the workplace affects many employees mentally. Employees feel demotivated, anxious, and overwhelmed when expected to feel positive under serious situations. 

“I know a friend whose organization refused to acknowledge the impact the pandemic had on the employees during the year-end reviews last year. Just brushed it off with “2020 was a difficult year, but we have made it.” 

Organizations need to start accepting that it is okay to feel negative emotions.  

Having a brief moment of sadness or discomfort teaches people to manage situations better.  

2) Team Members withhold Ideas & Criticism

In a toxic work environment, meetings and brainstorming sessions are far less productive and effective. People refrain from expressing an opinion or offering constructive criticism for fear of backlash.  

The problem with positivity culture is that it creates an atmosphere where people tend to agree with what their colleagues or managers present without discussion or feedback. 

Marie-Claire Ross, the author of “Trusted to Thrive: How leaders create connected and accountable teams,” says that working with positive people is terrific. And while optimism can be inspiring and contagious, it can also bring some problems to the teams. 

“People are naturally drawn to visionary leaders who paint an exciting picture of a new future. After all, no one will follow a leader who gets scared or pessimistic about the latest crisis. 

In my work with leadership teams, I come across plenty of executives who are optimistic and excited about the vision—generating palpable energy that excites employees about where they are going and why. 

Executives who love asking employees about what new ideas they have and new ways of doing things. They get excited by a new client being signed up. They send out corporate communications with a rose-colored tint. 

Yet, there is a flip side to all this positivity. And that is, leadership doesn’t want to talk about what’s not working. Even corporate communication ignores missed targets. 

Without realizing it, executives tend to shut down any negative commentary around a lack of resourcing, system issues, or capability gaps. They get a bit cranky with people if they say, “we don’t think we can do it, here’s why.” In their minds, those that highlight issues are “too negative” and best to be avoided. Creating confusion amongst employees who are used to having open banter about what is going on, but who don’t quite realize there is an unspoken delineation between sharing new ideas and highlighting problems.” 

3) Issues at the Workplace are Ignored or Brushed Off

Forced positivity at work creates a professional environment where problems aren’t addressed or acknowledged. Instead, they are usually ignored because people inside the company are discouraged from doing so. It is also not uncommon for people working in this environment to be at risk of manipulation or gaslighting. 

Robin Burrill, the co-owner of Signature Home Services, says that they encourage open communication in their company. “We do not sugar-coat things, nor do we shy away from addressing issues that come up. Real problems addressed are actual growth opportunities seized. As leaders, we will continue to educate staff to see that. We keep one another accountable to the highest standard, and the rewards will far outweigh the comfort of “staying positive” when opportunities for improvement arise.”  

Toxic Positivity vs. Optimism

Keeping a positive attitude and expressing gratitude can be beneficial. It helps people look at the bright side of life and find motivation and meaning in their work. They tend to confuse genuine optimism with toxic positivity since both are equally present in our culture. The critical difference between them is the range of emotions they allow us to experience. 

Believing that one needs to maintain a positive attitude regardless of circumstances is toxic positivity. Optimism, on the other hand, is rooted in reality. Unlike positivity, which believes that everything is good, optimism lets us experience negative and positive emotions. It allows people to find hope and inspiration while acknowledging the existence of negative emotions.  

The Mental Toll of Toxic Positivity

A study from 1997, “Hiding feelings: the acute effects of inhibiting negative and positive emotion,” showed that suppressing feelings causes additional psychological stress. This avoidance of emotional discomfort increased anxiety, depression, and overall mental health among the study participants. The study showed that intentional evasion to process emotions promptly led to sleep disruption and increased substance abuse or PTSD. 

Another study from 2018, “The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts, showed that individuals who regularly avoided acknowledging negative emotions usually feel a lot worse. 

Marty Spargo, the Founder of ReizeClub, says that toxic positivity in the workplace is massively harmful to an individual’s physical and mental health. “Since it involves masking negative and deeply felt emotions to appear positive. Concealing negative emotions for a prolonged period can cause depression and anxiety because negative thoughts are poison for both the body and mind. This means that negative thoughts are meant to be released and extracted from your mind.” 

The biggest challenge regarding mental health in the workplace is still the strong social stigma. The joint report by the Cohen Veterans Network (CVN), a national not-for-profit philanthropic organization, and the National Council for Behavioral Health showed that 31%  of surveyed Americans didn’t seek any mental health treatment because of fear of judgment. 

The Effects of Toxic Positivity Culture at Work

From overall distrust among coworkers to low company morale, positivity for the sake of positivity never brings the desired outcome. Here are just a few examples of the effects of toxic positivity culture on the entire company. 

1) Distrust Among the Team Members

People intuitively know when there is a disconnection between things someone says and feels. Suppose managers say that everything is fine while things are going downhill. In that case, employees will pick it up as a signal not to trust their superiors. 

2) A Decline in Motivation, Engagement & Productivity

In an environment like this, people tend to hide their mistakes, avoid discussing issues and feel less motivated to present new ideas and take the initiative.  

It also creates a stressful environment where people feel less engaged and become less productive. According to the American Psychological Association, 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress-related issues.  

As a result of this loss of productivity, the U.S. economy loses more than $500 billion. 

3) Triangulation

It occurs because of toxic positivity leadership. Or when a leader is focused on getting positive vibes from the team and completely ignores the issues people struggle with. As a result, team members speak to other people instead of going directly to the person that can help them. 

4) Ruining Company Culture

Insisting on a positive mindset creates additional pressure on the employees. They feel like they need to bring the A-level game all the time, which at some point increases the rate of burnout among the team members. Over time instead of being a motivator, positivity becomes a burden that slowly corrodes company culture.  

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity in the Office?

It is possible to create a highly encouraging environment for employees and allow them to be who they are without pressure to suppress their emotions.  

The first step is to objectively assess the situation in the office and recognize if there is a problem. Paying attention to how people communicate with each other and the kind of feedback they give during the meetings is a good starting point.  

It is valuable to know that nothing is unavoidable, and things can continuously be improved. 

One of the most important things to avoid toxic positivity at work is embracing empathy and meeting employees with acceptance. Also, by practicing active listening, the employees can be heard and acknowledge their objective experiences and truth.  

How to Deal with Toxic Positivity at Work?

Toxic positivity does not occur overnight.  

It happens gradually over time and becomes deeply rooted in the company culture. The critical part is recognizing that it exists. Sometimes it is easy to overlook it because people confuse it with optimism.  

1) An Open Communication Office Culture

When encouraged to communicate openly, employees will enthusiastically express their thoughts and plans.  

In a setting that fosters open communication and transparency, sharing information between people is more honest and consistent. Teams that practice this type of communication increase trust, encourage ownership, bridge cultural differences easily, and have less communication-related anxiety. 

Open communication is a culture where people feel safe expressing their opinions: 

  • Regular feedback 
  • Raising problems instead of brushing them off 
  • Open door meetings 
  • Brainstorming 

Jerica Amores Fernan, Human Resource Manager at Tomedes, says that her company promotes optimistic realism as part of its work culture. It means accepting the reality of the current situation but retaining a positive outlook. “Positivity becomes toxic when you’re deluding yourself into the situation with only an “everything will be all right” outlook without having a constructive and critical perspective of the situation and providing a solution.  

Another way we resolve this issue of toxic positivity is through open communication. When you’re just deceiving yourself with positive feedback and not accepting criticism, problems arise internally and externally. 

On the one hand, you could be setting high expectations on your employees that are impossible to achieve. Because when you’re not willing to accept negative feedback, your company’s performance plummets. You have a well-rounded approach to your management through open communication within your company and with your clients.” 

2) Encourage Authenticity in the Office

When employees feel a deep sense of belonging and psychological safety, they feel comfortable showing up as their true selves. Authenticity at work includes: 

  • Showing your true personality without the need to behave in a certain way or pretend to be someone you are not. 
  • Being valued for who you are, not what you do.  
  • Having a sense of psychological safety allows people to feel comfortable speaking their minds, making mistakes, and being open and honest in interaction with their colleagues.  

Companies that invest in creating a culture that appreciates authenticity at work experience more long-term benefits when it comes to the functioning of their teams. People tend to form stronger bonds which leads to better collaboration.  

Feeling safe in being honest with colleagues provides space for effective feedback. And when people feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions, innovation is more present.  

It is crucial to know team members to encourage authenticity in the office. An excellent way to do this is to spend some time in one-on-one meetings and get to know them. Learn who they are, what they like, and what motivates them at work.  

3) Practice Vulnerable Leadership & Support Vulnerability in the Workplace

Part of authenticity in the office is also vulnerability. Being vulnerable at work shows employees that they can count on compassion, honesty, and authenticity. 

Vulnerable leaders can connect with employees much more personally. It takes strength and courage to be yourself and connect with others.  

4) Design a Strong Employee Experience

Instead of creating a strong positivity culture in the company, employers should try designing a strong employee experience. By considering the things that employees value and need and their expectations, companies have a chance to transform the workplace into a positive experience during the employee lifecycle.  

5) Promote Mental Health in the Workplace

According to research conducted by Gallup, Gen Z and millennials prefer an employer who cares about their well-being. Since the pandemic started, the number of companies investing in wellness programs for their employees has increased. But physical health is only one part of well-being. 

Mental health challenges like stress, depression, anxiety, and employee burnout are among the most critical issues many workers have faced since COVID-19. It’s not only individuals who are affected but companies as well. World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety lead to $1 trillion in productivity loss. 

Employers need to promote positive mental health habits and abandon practices that create stressful work environments. Instead, companies should focus on: 

  • Raising awareness about the importance of mental health 
  • Offering training, benefits, and resources that target employees’ mental health 
  • Provide mental health support 
  • Flexibility and inclusivity since mental treatments aren’t the same for everyone 
  • Support the healthy work-life balance of employees to maintain their psychological and physical health 

Conclusion

While toxic positivity focuses only on the superficial part of everyday communication and problem-solving in the office, a truly positive work environment focuses on building relations among team members and their employers.  

Putting extra effort into creating a positive work environment pays off in the long run. There is empirical evidence showing that a positive work culture influences the team’s overall efficiency. 

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— Written by the<br> Shortlister Editorial Team

— Written by the
Shortlister Editorial Team

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