At a glance
By Johanna Leggatt
You may not have heard the phrase “toxic positivity” before, but chances are you have felt its soul-sapping effects in the workplace.
It may be the manager who insists everyone “turn their frowns upside down”, the co-worker who advises you not to be such a “downer”, or the team members who will not brook any negative feelings.
The result can be a climate of toxic positivity, in which workers feel compelled to put on a happy face and paper over glaring problems with relentless, sunny optimism.
According to Professor Brock Bastian from the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, workplaces can fall victim to toxic positivity when staff begin to view any negative experiences or emotions as counterproductive to achieving their goals.
“Negative experiences are inevitable, and we know that responding poorly to negative experiences, instead of leaning into them, is a major contributor to poor mental health,” says Bastian, who is also a partner in Psychological Safety Australia, which helps companies build strong interpersonal and team environments.
“Being happy and wanting to be happy are good things; it’s when that pressure is placed on us to be happy no matter what the circumstances that it becomes a problem.”
Focus on meaning
Managers and employees who try to create happy environments may unintentionally fall into the trap of toxic positivity, Bastian says.
“Research shows that the times we expect to be happy are the times when we feel less happy due to that expectation,” he says.
The alternative is for staff and managers to pursue workplace activities that are meaningful, rather than focusing on the more superficial goal of happiness.
“In the workplace, hopefully we find some sense of purpose and meaning to what we do, even on a small level,” he says. “Even if it’s just contributing and helping other people around us.”
While happiness may not be the overarching goal of this approach, we tend to feel happiness as a byproduct, because we are “doing something that is important and purposeful” and that connects us to others and our values, Bastian says.
Another solution may lie with the concept of “tragic optimism”, the term coined by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, which refers to the notion that one can find meaning in the inevitable pain and suffering of life.
“I think tragic optimism is essentially about hope, and hope is not about denying the toughness of the situation or invalidating your response,” Bastian says.
“While toxic positivity leads us to worry about our responses not being positive enough, tragic optimism leads us to say, ‘Yes, this situation is really hard, but I am refusing to let go of the idea that things can get better, that life can be meaningful’.”
Applying this principle to the workplace, Bastian argues managers must ensure they allow negative emotions to be safely expressed.
“They need to make sure they are open to having those difficult conversations with staff,” Bastian says.
Managers must also actively validate their employees’ experiences, rather than burying the feedback under pep talks.
“Managers may feel that, if they allow negative emotions to be aired, they will open up a proverbial Pandora’s box, where everyone will start complaining,” Bastian says.
“But just as leaning into negative emotions helps to reduce those feelings for individuals, exploring them with team members often helps to resolve them.”
Dr Rachael Sharman, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast, agrees and notes that, to cope with challenging situations, many managers bury their heads in the sand, which rarely works.
Instead, they need to address problems head-on and then use positive messaging as an adjunct tool to boost morale and camaraderie.
“Workplaces can certainly use [problems] as an opportunity to upskill, to think about how to do something differently, and treat it as a challenge,” she says. “But you can only do that once employees feel they have support to solve the problem in the first place.”
Impact on productivity
Taken to its extreme, toxic positivity can have a devastating impact both on companies and on people, Sharman says.
“I think where it gets ugly is where positivity is actually weaponised to stop dissent and to prevent employees from raising issues,” she says.
“If you point out that there is a flaw in the way an application works, for example, you become tainted as a downer and not a good cultural fit for the organisation.”
If managers who weaponise toxic positivity are not weeded out, then not only will productivity suffer, but good people will quit in droves.
“If you have a toxic workplace, you will attract toxic people, and they are the people who will stay,” she says.
On the other hand, companies that deal with problems and do not suppress negative emotions are the ones that reap the financial rewards.
“Workplaces where staff genuinely feel valued and listened to, it sounds obvious, but it’s a real boon for the business,” she says.