Toxic positivity at work isn’t working or positive
Engagement 5 minute read

Toxic positivity at work isn’t working or positive

Megan Orr | April 20, 2021

Toxic positivity is “the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset”. It’s what happens when a person or organization tries so hard to maintain ‘good vibes’ that they end up creating ‘bad vibes’ instead.

Toxic positivity at work describes the way that some employers emphasize having or pretending to have a positive attitude over anything else–often to the detriment of their employees. Not only is this attitude not helpful, but it also can lead to poor productivity and disengagement.                      

Toxic positivity at work and in our personal lives is something that has been predominant in this past year, whether explicitly or implicitly. You may have heard phrases like “Just be grateful to have a job at all.” or “Other people have it worse.” And while toxic positivity often comes from a good place, it can also be dismissive and potentially harmful. 

These sorts of statements of false positivity, while well intentioned, at best “come off as trite platitudes that let you off the hook so you don’t have to deal with other people’s feelings. At their worst, these statements end up shaming and blaming people who are often dealing with incredibly difficult situations”.

Workplaces have a responsibility to acknowledge that everything isn’t fine all the time and that it may impact their employees' abilities to do their jobs effectively. 

2020 was a difficult year for many, and 2021 has been much the same. Although staying positive can be reassuring, a positive attitude shouldn’t be dismissive of the reality of what everyone has been experiencing, especially since the start of the pandemic. 

Alison Green of Ask a Manager had a recent write-in from an employee whose work insisted on doing bi-weekly team connects where “there is an intense, albeit unstated, pressure to be chipper and cheerful at these meetings, even if you are not feeling that way”.

One of the first team connects came right after the question writer’s hours and pay had been cut, and more than half of their team laid off. They were asked to “contribute something positive about Covid”. Since then, the question writer has lost family members to COVID-19 and is still forced to meet every two weeks and discuss the pandemic in a lighthearted way. The one time they tried to be honest about how difficult it was to talk about it and how sad they were, the response was uncomfortable silence. 

Alison Green’s response? “I hear a lot of ridiculous things writing this column, but this should win some sort of prize for how out of touch it is”. Alison suggested being blunt in the meetings or bringing up concerns with other coworkers to see if they felt the same and try to speak as a group. 

A culture of toxic positivity at work can erode trust between employee and employer, and trust is crucial to ensuring job satisfaction. 

Trust is so essential that research shows “employees who trust their employers experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout”. If employees feel like they can’t be honest about their feelings, they’re going to stop showing up fully. This may mean issues such as decreased productivity, low engagement, presenteeism, or absenteeism. And what’s key to building trust in the workplace? Most sources say that the first step to “building trustworthy and collaborative workplaces is to drive open and honest communication in the workplace”. 

Having to put on a ‘brave face’ or fake a smile can be frustrating, but is also potentially damaging to people who are experiencing trauma. Of course, many people are able to remain positive despite what’s going on around them, but that doesn’t mean they should have to. Ultimately, “people going through trauma don’t need to be told to stay positive or feel that they are being judged for not maintaining a sunny outlook”.

It’s not all or nothing. You can create a positive work environment without insisting people be positive all the time. 

Here are some ways you can create positivity without venturing into toxic positivity at work:

  • Establish an open door policy to help foster communication. Assure employees that they can come to you (their manager or HR) and discuss any concerns they may have without judgement. Also ensure that you have resources available to share with employees should they need help that falls outside of your purview. 
  • Allow opportunities for people to chit-chat about what’s going on in their lives, especially if your team is still working remotely. However, don’t make sharing or participation mandatory. 
  • Validate all responses, not just positive ones. Rather than saying “Everything happens for a reason.”, say “That sounds really difficult.” or “Your feelings are valid.”.

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