Shift Logo

Our Blog

Anxiety, Stress & Coping
March 8, 2024
Toxic Positivity in The Workplace: How to Identify and Manage it

Jessica Weeks-Bouma

Stock photo of a person in a long-sleeved black shirt working on a laptop with a cellphone off to their right.

Managing The Negative Impacts Of Toxic Positivity in The Workplace

This is some text inside of a div block.

Have you ever been having a rough day at work your colleague says something like, “Well, at least you're getting paid to be angry.” We all know that sentences starting with “At least” often end up invalidating.

Being encouraged to “look on the bright side” can be exhausting and cause people to withdraw. This trend can occur in all different settings but can often be challenging in the workplace. When someone cannot hold space for thoughts and feelings that are not deemed "happy" or "optimistic", and you feel as though they are only open to hearing about things/engaging in positive conversations— this person may be engaging in toxic positivity.

What is Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity is an overly enthusiastic insistence on seeing the bright side of any circumstance, regardless of how dire or distressing it may be. While maintaining a positive attitude is generally beneficial, toxic positivity takes this concept to an unhealthy extreme. 

The issue with toxic positivity is that it dismisses genuine feelings of sadness, fear, or anxiety, leading to enforced happiness that often masks the true emotional state of a person. This emotional masking can suppress and invalidate authentic human emotions, which, in the long run, can result in one feeling misunderstood, alienated, or dismissed. 

This wave of enforced positivity can paradoxically communicate a lack of empathy and bring emotional disconnect within the workplace. It stems from the misbelief that positivity is the answer to all challenges. But in reality, it creates an unruly environment where people fail to address or face their issues honestly. 

Often, toxic positivity fosters unrealistic expectations, causing the experience of negative feelings to be associated with guilt and shame. This can, in turn, affect one’s mental health, breaking down their ability to cope with stress, adversity, or trauma. 

To summarize, while exuding positivity and optimism is encouraged, there’s a fine line between healthy positivity and toxic positivity. Understanding this difference is critical to maintaining balanced emotional health and creating supportive, empathetic environments, especially in the workplace.

Looking to learn more about toxic positivity and what it really means? Check out our latest monthly blog feature: Toxic Positivity: Definition and Why It's Harmful to Your Mental Health.

What Does Toxic Positivity in The Workplace Look Like?

Now that we’ve defined toxic positivity, it’s critical to identify how it manifests in a workplace setting. The office environment is no stranger to this harmful behaviour, sometimes inadvertently promoting it through a constant optimism and positivity culture. 

One common visual of this toxic positivity might be a co-worker or superior minimizing or invalidating your difficulties by insisting that “It could be worse”, or suggesting that every setback is merely a stepping stone to something greater. Managers can also urge employees to focus only on the bright side, even when struggling or in distress. They may promote the narrative that happiness and positivity are choices, regardless of the circumstances. 

Toxic positivity isn’t just about verbal behaviour, either. Nonverbal cues like dismissive hand gestures, condescending looks, or hurriedly changing the subject when sensitive topics arise are all telling signs of this problem.

Despite personal or professional challenges, workplace pressure to maintain a sunny outlook can motivate toxic positivity. You might find yourself pressured to hide your genuine emotions so as not to appear ‘negative’ - a classic sign of toxic positivity. 

Although the objective is often to foster an uplifting work environment, the effect can paradoxically be harmful. By pressurizing employees to maintain an unrealistic blanket of happiness, their genuine struggles are brushed under the carpet. The forced ‘positivity’ can constrict the range of acceptable emotions, leading to an unhealthy work atmosphere where your feelings aren’t truly valued or heard. 

A report in Psychology Today showed a direct link between toxic positivity and increased cases of depression and anxiety, as it discourages individuals from expressing or processing distressing feelings, leading to emotional stagnation. 

Having a good understanding of what toxic positivity looks like in a workplace setting is the first essential step towards dealing with it successfully. Cultivating emotional authenticity, encouraging open communication and promoting a balanced range of emotions can help mitigate the harmful consequences of this burgeoning issue.

  • One typical illustration of toxic positivity at work is when a co-worker dismisses a colleague’s concerns about a challenging project by saying, “Just stay positive; things will work out!” This may seem supportive at first glance, but it disregards the anxiety or worry the colleague feels. 
  • Another instance might be an employer responding to an employee’s complaint about workload stress with statements such as, “Other people have it worse” or “Always look on the bright side.” Instead of acknowledging the problem, the employer uses positivity to dismiss the issue. 
  • A third example could be a group believing the mantra “no room for negativity here,” implementing a company culture where negative feelings, problems, and challenges are swept under the rug in favour of maintaining an artificially cheerful environment. 
  • Last, a tell-tale sign of toxic positivity is when difficult emotions or negative situations are met with clichéd phrases such as, “Everything happens for a reason” or “You’ll get over it.” This approach undermines valid feelings and circumstances, imposing an unrealistic expectation of relentless optimism.

Why Do Employees Engage in Toxic Positivity at Work?

  • Sometimes, people do not know what else to say and have the best intentions. Sometimes, people may try to be supportive in the only way they know how. The challenge with this, which is well summarized by Adam Grant, is that “In hard times, urging people to be positive doesn’t boost their resilience. It denies their reality.” Though people may think they are being helpful and supportive, encouraging resilience in the workplace, it may be having unintended effects as mentioned previously.
  • “Negative” feelings make them uncomfortable- some people may not know how to manage their own emotions, let alone those of others. People may find it easier to engage in false positivity as opposed to doing the hard work of sitting with big feelings.
  • People may be worried or conscious about how they are perceived by others. There may be anxiety about how they are perceived and want to put on a smile for others.

What Are The Effects of Toxic Positivity on Employees?

Toxic positivity has a deep-rooted impact on both an individual’s mental and physical health. Often, the pressure to maintain a constant positive outlook leads to an increase in stress levels, leading to physical symptoms such as headaches, difficulty sleeping, and heart-related issues. This weight of suppressing negative emotions and the stress of being in denial can strain your physical health enormously. 

It’s not only the physical health that is affected. Employees subjected to toxic positivity often experience a heightened sense of anxiety and depression. This occurs because the individual constantly fights their genuine feelings to conform to the pressure of being relentlessly positive. This state contributes to feelings of inadequacy and constant self-doubt stemming from the inability to always be positive. 

Toxic positivity can disrupt clear communication within the workplace. When positivity is pushed to an unhealthy extent, it discourages acknowledging problematic issues and difficult emotions. Teams can struggle with meaningful, in-depth communication as the necessity to always present a positive front may stifle understanding of the team’s dynamics. It can damage self-perception. The pressure to always appear ‘okay’ and have a positive reaction can contribute to a distorted view of one’s self. This pressure can suppress true feelings and emotions, distancing individuals from their personal experiences and realities. Ultimately leading to isolation and loneliness, even in a crowded workspace.

Quick Facts:

  • Toxic positivity does not leave room for accountability and growth- if everything is always great, then there would be no need for change or innovation. Being able to reflect on both what is going well AND where there is room for improvement is where significant progress and success will thrive.
  • When people feel dismissed and unheard- it causes them to withdraw and risk burnout. This can result in a variety of challenges, including not having people speak up and share their ideas or concerns; it may lead to a decrease in morale and culture or even poor attendance and accountability.
  • People may feel like they are being gaslit. If people are constantly being told that everything is great and there is no room for change or improvement, they may begin to wonder if they are the problem for being so “negative” all the time. This is not true! We know that, as humans, it is normal and healthy to experience various emotions.

How Can I Manage Toxic Positivity in My Work Environment?

You might be wondering now, “I know what toxic positivity is and what it looks like, but how do I manage it?” Fear not. Here are five manageable steps to help you navigate toxic positivity in your workplace: 

  1. Acknowledge it. Recognizing toxic positivity is the first victory. Understand the damaging effects it may have both physically and emotionally. Recognize the presence of unrealistic positive messages or the pressure to mask your true feelings. Awareness is the first step towards change.
  2. Allow Vulnerability. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling - even the unpleasant stuff. Encourage colleagues to be open about their emotions and promote a culture honouring authenticity and emotional legitimacy. Remember, it’s healthy to express and experience all emotions - positive or negative.
  3. Communicate Effectively. If you feel stifled or suppressed, voice it out respectfully. Use “I” statements, like “I feel disregarded when my negative emotions are dismissed” or “I believe it’s important to allow for a variety of emotional experiences in our workplace.”
  4. Be a Change Agent. You might be unknowingly perpetuating toxic positivity. Reflect on your attitudes and behaviours. Are you dismissing others’ feelings or selling a false positivity narrative? If so, consciously change these patterns and pave the way for emotional intelligence and authenticity at your workplace.
  5. Seek Professional Help. If toxic positivity persists in your workplace despite your efforts, consider contacting an HR professional or a mental health expert. Support from trained professionals can be instrumental in dealing with persistent toxic positivity and creating a healthier work environment.

How can I communicate about toxic positivity with my colleagues or superiors?

Talking about toxic positivity at work needs care, understanding, and good communication. You should be fair and aim for everyone to understand each other. 

Start by recognizing that your co-workers or bosses likely mean well. They might not know that being overly positive can sometimes be a bad thing. “I know you’re trying to make work a happy place, and I appreciate it...” can start the conversation well. 

Then, describe how toxic positivity can hurt, using sentences that begin with “I” instead of coming across as blaming. For example, you could say, “However, there are times when I feel like my real worries are not taken seriously because there’s too much focus on being positive.”. This way, you’re telling them about your experience, which helps them see things from your point of view. 

Give specific examples of times when you felt the effects of toxic positivity. Sharing real scenarios will help them understand your situation and how their actions or words may have impacted you. 

Suggest other approaches. Allowing everyone to express genuine emotions, good and bad, will help the team more than insisting on positivity. Try something like, “Instead of only seeing problems as bad, can we see them as chances to learn?” 

Stay calm and respectful during these conversations. Remember, you’re trying to help everyone learn and grow, not win an argument. Also, be patient; changing what people do at work takes time. 

Ultimately, a work environment where everyone understands each other’s emotions suits everyone. It leads to better work and happier employees. By raising the issue of toxic positivity, you’re helping make work a healthier place. Dealing with toxic positivity in the workplace begins with acknowledging it exists and understanding its impacts. It’s crucial to balance encouraging a positive attitude and recognizing that true human feelings include good and bad emotions. By discussing it and raising awareness, we can create work environments where positivity is present but doesn’t smother the truth of our diverse experiences. Accepting and talking about all feelings, even the tough ones, is how we forge real connections and build stronger work relationships. We’re working towards a healthier, more understanding workplace by confronting toxic positivity.

Join Our Virtual Event to Learn More about Toxic Positivity

We've all heard the classics: "Just be positive!" and "Good vibes only!" But what about embracing all of our emotions? That's right; it's okay to not always give a f*ck! Join Shift Collab therapists Zoya Sheikh and Emily Crocker as they dive into the world of toxic positivity and why being positive all the time can be just as harmful to your mental health. Click here to save your spot! 


Email iconPintrest icon