While a positive work culture engages employees, boosts morale, increases retention, and improves productivity, toxic positivity can result in repressed emotions and artificial behaviour. Toxic positivity may sound like an ironic phrase, but it’s very real and can often derail attempts to create a genuinely harmonious culture.

What is toxic positivity? 

Over-emphasising the happiness agenda can backfire and have the opposite of the desired effect on employees. It can be described as the suppression, denial, or invalidation of real, negative emotions. Over-the-top happiness is like a mask we wear and hide behind.

While employee wellbeing and happiness should be a top priority for the management, it’s important to understand that no human being can be happy all the time. It’s essential to create a realistic environment in which employees are able to express their frustrations and concerns. Studies indicate that nearly three million Australians experience depression at some time in their lives.

The natural response to negative emotions is to focus on the positive side of things. If you’re a leader or in a position of influence in the organisation, though, you must take care not to overdo it. Regretfully, toxic positivity skyrocketed during the pandemic crisis when stressed corporate leaders tried to sweep a multitude of negative feelings under a blanket of unrealistic positivity. 

When an employee shares legitimate worries with you, telling them to be positive can be described as being dismissive of their feelings. A better response would be to listen attentively to their concerns and invite them to share more details. The objective of the discussion should be to validate their emotions rather than judging them as being negative. Telling them to be forcibly cheerful with a stoic smile leaves the fundamental problem unresolved.

How does toxic positivity affect the workplace?

During the pandemic, and now in the current adverse economic climate, job layoffs were at an all-time high, and many employees were in a constant state of tension. By insisting that everything was fine, managers were painting a false picture of the actual reality. It’s much better to be transparent about challenges and address each problem in a practical, realistic manner.

For example, in this situation, senior management may wish to inform employees that while the future, is uncertain and ever-changing, they value every person’s contribution and will keep them updated as necessary. Doing this is more likely to help employees feel better than telling them to be positive without any real information to back it up.

Glossing over negative experiences, situations, and emotions is likely to backfire. You should be transparent with employees and allow them to express their fears and anxieties freely. Low psychological safety in the organisation leads employees to fear rejection by their colleagues.

When unrealistic expectations of happiness are allowed to run rampant in the office, they can lead to any of the following set of unpleasant consequences:

  • A decline in mental health
    Employees feel reluctant or embarrassed to speak about their feelings as they are expected to stay positive all the time.
  • Decreased trust
    When employees deliberately start to withhold their emotions, it affects communication with their colleagues and team members. Interactions become less than completely honest and are no longer genuine. This eventually results in a lack of trust, one of the key factors in creating organisational dysfunction.
  • Increased stress
    Being under pressure to conform to the positivity culture can cause employees to bottle up their emotions and experience extreme stress and anxiety. They are unable to communicate their problems, and the unresolved emotions may spill over into every aspect of their work.

Unrealistic happiness destroys authenticity and trust and encourages fake behaviours. There is nothing wrong with being happy and cheerful – it only becomes toxic when people are told to be happy all the time.

An effective antidote to toxic positivity is transparent communication and high levels of psychological safety, wherein employees have the freedom to express their true feelings. You should refrain from labelling employees as negative as this may discourage them from expressing themselves. When emotions run high, take a closer look at the facts and work with the team member to look at new perspectives.

ESN provides discreet workplace consulting services, and our trusted professional consultants can work closely with managers and teams to improve communication and transform work cultures.

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