If you’ve ever sipped on cold brew, surrounded by fake plants while engaging in an icebreaker activity at a mandatory team-building retreat, you’re acutely (and painfully) familiar with what toxic positivity in a corporate environment looks like. I once worked for a startup where the sales team rang an actual gong for every deal they closed, which only made me root for the demise of the entire company every time I felt my ears ring.
As much as positivity can be a good thing when the situation calls for it, therapists like Ashleigh Edelstein define toxic positivity as “the belief that a person should always remain positive or think positively, no matter the situation.” As she explains, this is unrealistic, unsustainable and terrible for morale because “it’s incredibly invalidating for anyone who is struggling,” and “requires the suppression of all negative thoughts or feelings, which can lead to resentment and self-doubt.”
For Trevor, a 29-year-old farm equipment mechanic, toxic positivity nearly got him killed at work, which is admittedly the most drastic outcome, but the inherent dangers in mismanaged blue-collar jobs almost always trump those of white-collar ones. The Canadian-based company he works for requires mechanics to wear company shirts, hats and black polyester coveralls in the summer. “Imagine wearing a full-sleeve garbage bag in the sun in July,” he tells me. The coveralls got so hot in the shop, they caught fire several times before he brought the issue up with his superiors. “I was reprimanded for being a negative influence on morale. But I was literally on fire!”
While toxic positivity at the office seems like a timeless problem, virtually synonymous with toiling from 9-to-5 in Corporate America, the term itself is relatively new. It emerged from behind the watercooler during quarantine, first in an October 2020 study and then with the book Toxic Positivity, which was released that November. That said, past research has found that when we try to force happiness and good vibes, it often backfires, often producing bad vibes instead. Moreover, other studies suggest that the ability to accept the negative realities of a situation is linked with improved psychological health.
As for why employers utilize this strategy when there’s evidence that poor mental health takes a significant toll on people’s productivity, executive coach Jacob Ratliff suspects that it’s driven by insecurities about employee retention and productivity in the wake of the Great Resignation. “This shows up in remote teams a lot more because managers feel like they have fewer motivational tactics in their leadership tool belt,” Ratliff tells me.
Likewise, the more businesses are worried about surviving, the more likely they are to avoid costly institutional changes that could lead to sustainable improvements in employee well-being, such as increased health benefits and more competitive wages. Or as Ratliff puts it, most of these toxically positive companies are panicking and thinking in the short-term, rather than playing the long game. “As a manager and leader, it can be really easy to preserve a positive environment at all costs,” he says.
In terms of recognizing when it’s happening, Edelstein says the easiest way to spot toxic positivity is “if any negativity is being dismissed, minimized or outright ignored.” Another seemingly innocent phrase to look out for is “it could be worse.” While this may be true, Edelstein warns, “It isn’t helpful because it dismisses any pain the recipient is experiencing. It sends the message that their experience doesn’t matter or isn’t important enough to warrant compassion or support.”
Dealing with it, of course, isn’t as straightforward. For his part, Edelstein recommends you “try acknowledging both the positive and negative of the situation and let [your manager] know you’d appreciate support instead of being dismissed.” But fellow therapist Alison Gomez, who experienced toxic positivity firsthand when she was working at a struggling mental-health clinic early in her career, acknowledges, “depending on how much power you have in your position at work, there may not be much you can do about it.”
Trevor is currently on disability after hip surgery that he needed from working in unsafe conditions. And although he wanted to be a mechanic his entire life, he’s now reconsidering it. While he’s not sure what the future holds, he plans to be honest at work despite any emotional discomfort it could cause. As he sees it, “Toxic positivity can get people like me killed, all to help someone else save face.”