Humans are complex beings, and so are their emotions. However, we often try to conform our emotions to binaries of good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, or desirable and undesirable.
But what are the effects of forcing only good emotions?
Is toxic positivity a thing?
What are the effects of toxic positivity? Read along to find out.
What’s toxic positivity, and where does it come from?
“Toxic positivity is happiness at all costs.” says Prof Brock Bastian, author of The Other Side of Happiness. It is an exciting introduction to toxic positivity. Indeed happiness is a desirable emotion. But the human desire to be happy can dictate which emotion is good or bad. By putting these labels on our emotions, we trick ourselves into dismissing any negative feelings. Toxic positivity ignores bad feelings like sadness, fear, anxiety, etc.
We often associate productivity with positivity. And in chasing results, we leave our emotional health behind. Toxic positivity rejects any other emotions than the “good” ones. Optimism promotes positive thinking, but toxic positivity promotes a “positive vibes only” approach. We should be careful in making a distinction between the two.
Toxic positivity has been gathering attention among people for a while. However, this phenomenon is not new. People have always chosen feeling good over experiencing any negative emotions. But the urge to stay positive all the time reached its height during the pandemic.
Toxic positivity during the pandemic
Loose ends left ignored can form a knot when there is rough movement. Toxic positivity was a loose end that became a knot during the pandemic. Our solution-oriented mindset as a society led us to think that the time off during the pandemic should reap productivity. While in reality, it was a time when almost everyone in the world was anxious and depressed.
According to research, 48% of Gen Zs and 44% of millennials report feeling anxious or stressed all the time. This means that most of us often experience difficult emotions. Feelings like these escalated during the pandemic. What toxic positivity did was ignore these emotions completely in favor of a blindly positive outlook. Joshua Caraballo, Psy.D, a business psychologist and senior director of impact at MindSpark, mentioned that the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the urge to stay positive.
Caraballo also mentioned that toxic positivity during the pandemic became prevalent because anybody who’s inundated with negativity, recent deaths, and sicknesses outreaches for something positive.
Spotting toxic positivity
According to a survey by Science of People, 67.8% said they experienced toxic positivity from someone in the past week. It seems that toxic positivity is not an uncommon phenomenon. However, it is subtle enough to be passed on as optimism or words of affirmation. It is also possible that people who are being toxic positive are not aware of what they are doing. Similarly, we can direct toxic positivity toward ourselves too!
So, how do we spot toxic positivity? When dealing with a stressful situation or coming across someone dealing with a stressful situation, we should look out for the following phrases:
Positive vibes only!
Just smile, stop worrying!
Don’t let it get to you. Move on.
Get over it.
It could be so much worse — be grateful.
This, too, shall pass.
We often tend to gravitate towards socially acceptable behavior. As a result, we neglect our needs to do what society wants us to. Rejection of our emotions to put on a false positive front is an example of our conformity. A need-based theory of Abraham Maslow defined five basics need of a person: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. People inflicted with toxic positivity cannot fulfill their self-esteem needs. They are rather stuck pleasing other people and dismissing their needs.
We can spot toxic positivity at work by analyzing what people around us say in times of crisis. Employers can analyze whether their work environment is toxic by sending out anonymous surveys to their employees. Tools like Pietential can help analyze which of your employees’ needs are being fulfilled and which aren’t. Similarly, employees can also check whether they can express their concerns freely at work.
Toxic positivity in the workplace
Our workplace is not immune to toxic positivity. In fact, with more companies pushing the happy employee agenda, workplaces have possibly become a breeding ground for toxic positivity. A study shows that 82% of those with a diagnosed mental health condition did not confide in workplace management.
Our work culture considers that emotions like sadness, grief, discomfort, etc., affect productivity. Ultimately, companies consider positivity above all else. This results in employees hiding their emotions which are deemed “undesirable” by their organization. People can encounter toxic positivity in the workplace through their boss, fellow employees, or even their environment. An Instagram user shared an interesting post on toxic positivity captioned, “toxic positivity usually isn’t the answer… it can be invalidating for some, encouraging for others.”
Unfortunately, in a culture that creates a false binary between emotions as good and bad, toxic positivity culture is still valued. What a lot of people still do not realize is that the effects of toxic positivity can be long-lasting for an organization. Some of the ways in which toxic positivity impacts workplace effectiveness are:
Toxic positivity breeds a toxic positivity relationship in the workplace. It causes trust issues between the employer and employees.
Constantly masking emotions in favor of positivity can lead to an increase in emotional labor and, consequently, cause burnout.
It decreases authenticity as no one is allowed to be themselves. Employees cannot be honest in an environment where they cannot express their concerns.
A thing to be noted about toxic positivity is that sometimes people are unaware of it. For example, an individual tries to help a colleague out by saying positive words. There is seemingly nothing wrong with this practice. But their words might have lingering toxic positivity if they believe that negative emotions have to be dealt with extreme positivity. So how do we manage the problem of toxic positivity at work? Read in the following section.
7 Ways to Combat Toxic Positivity at Work
Toxic positivity is subtle, but it causes a lot of harm. If you find the right ways, you can tackle it easily, and here are 7 for you to start wit
1.Put a tag on it: We cannot recognize a thing or behavior if we do not have a name for it. A study by Science of People shows that about 74.7% of people have never even heard the term before. However, when the participants were informed what toxic positivity is, they could recognize it immediately!
People might often encounter behavior associated with toxic positivity at work. But they might not be able to name it. It is important that organizations inform their members about toxic positivity. Companies can conduct workshops to spread awareness. Team leaders can guide their teams on how to deal with toxic positivity at work.
2. Listen: To combat mental health issues at work, it is important that companies listen to their employees. A healthy work environment is one that allows dialogue between employees and concerned authorities. Employees should be able to voice their concerns. An article by New York Times suggests that good listeners make good bosses. Listening to employees can also improve employee-employer relationships. Hence, a manager who is open to feedback from employees can seed a place for toxic-free positivity.
3. Give space to Emotions: A major impact of toxic positivity is that no emotion except positivity is allowed. Suppressing emotions can cause many problems. One of them is burnout. Toxic positivity forced upon employees in the name of efficiency can negatively impact workplace effectiveness.
By creating a space where employees can discuss issues/ideas/suggestions freely, organizations can effectively combat toxic positivity. Organizations should promote that employees should accept their emotions, however hard it may be. Gentle acceptance of emotions can help in dealing with problems with an open attitude.
Organizations can advise employees to track their emotions during challenging situations. Companies can share mood trackers or guides on managing emotions with their employees.
4. Validate feelings: Companies cannot simply have an easy way out by asking their employees to express their emotions. When employees express their concerns, employers should accept and validate their feelings. Phrases associated with toxic positivity, like “this too shall pass” or “people have it worse,” should be avoided.
Toxic positivity is the reason why people put on fake smiles to appear happy. This is also facilitated by the invalidation of feelings at work. When companies send signals to employees that negative emotions are undesirable, employees are often forced to keep their thoughts to themselves.
Organizations can ask managers to have regular one-on-one sessions with their direct reports. Companies can also arrange workshops to help their employees understand different kinds of emotions and how to deal with them. Having peer support groups is also an effective way to deal with problems at work.
All changes start somewhere. Companies can start combating toxic positivity by making minor changes. For example, putting up quotes like “All emotions allowed” or “It’s okay to not be okay” in the office can be a good place to begin.
5. Bring the professionals: Not all people are suited to counsel others. It is one of the reasons why toxic positivity is so common in working environments. Employees often confide in their colleagues or even their managers about their feelings. Even with the best intentions, it is possible that these confidants show hints of toxic positivity because they cannot give the right advice.
Moreover, people are often solution-oriented. This means that when a problem arises, they look for solutions. Sometimes, people are not looking for solutions but rather a release of emotions. Such a situation can be handled well by a trained professional. Hence, it is important that workplaces provide access to mental health professionals to their employees.
Companies can also arrange sessions with career coaches to help employees encounter work problems.
6. Improve communication at Work: Effective communication is the key to combating toxic positivity at work. Toxic positivity can escalate if people do not know how to communicate properly. There should be a clear structure where employees can communicate their needs to their employers. Similarly, people in positions of leadership should take steps to improve communication at work.
Team leaders can also spend time understanding their team to decide which method of communication would be effective for team members. Some employees prefer sharing their problems in person, while others like sharing their troubles via anonymous feedback and surveys.
Companies can choose to end work meetings with a feedback session where all kinds of thoughts and responses are welcomed. Leaders should avoid presenting problems at work via rose-tinted glasses. Having weekly team meetings and communication training sessions can help too. Communication is a two-way lane; employers must tread it carefully to achieve organizational harmony.
7. Lead by Example: A successful strategy begins with an exemplary leader. Systemic changes to combat toxic positivity can begin at the top. Leaders should convey that expressing feelings other than positivity at work is okay. They can begin by sharing their emotions/concerns. Leaders should also make sure that they seem approachable to their team. Leaders should also speak up for their teams.
With hustle work culture still prevalent and a society suffering the aftermath of a pandemic, it is possible that humans desire happiness. While it is indeed wonderful to feel happy, it is also human to experience feelings of sadness, grief, loss, etc. Once we come to terms with the spectrum of our emotions, we can deal with toxic positivity.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is the idea that promotes positivity above all else. It dismisses all other emotions.
What are the effects of toxic positivity?
Effects of toxic positivity include trust issues, less authenticity, burnout, etc.
How can we deal with toxic positivity at work?
We can combat toxic positivity at work by accepting and validating emotions, improving communication at work, seeking professional help, etc.
Is toxic positivity an aftereffect of the pandemic?
No. Toxic positivity was already prevalent within our work culture. It heightened during the pandemic.