Unhappiness is detrimental to workplace efficiency.

Unfortunately, too many business gurus put that lesson in their books and rolled out the idea that positivity—in the face of all factors, all setbacks, and all other emotions—was the only way forward. In doing so, they started to choke out happiness in the workplace with toxic positivity.

@SitWithWit from Instagram shares her thoughts on toxic positivity compared to validation and hope
Source: @SitWithWit on Instagram

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity in the workplace is the idea of encouraging employees and yourself to only be positive, happy, and looking on the bright side.

“Toxic positivity is when somebody tries to override the other person’s actual emotions about a situation,” explains Bianca L. Rodriguez, a licensed psychotherapist in California. “It negates that the other person actually is having any feelings that people may describe as negative. I like to point out that feelings don’t have a negative or a positive, they are just what they are.”

The importance of happiness as it relates to efficiency

There’s no question that happiness in the workplace is vital for employee retention and efficiency.

Economists at the University of Warwick discovered that happiness increased productivity by 12%, while unhappy workers were 10% less productive.

“We have shown that happier subjects are more productive, the same pattern appears in four different experiments,” says Dr. Eugenio Proto, one of the lead researchers involved with this study. “This research will provide some guidance for management in all kinds of organizations, they should strive to make their workplaces emotionally healthy for their workforce.”

Experts tend to agree that happy employees are more dedicated to their work, more driven to succeed, and more likely to provide referrals.

“The driving force seems to be that happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality,” explains Dr. Daniel Sgroi, who also worked on the experiments at the University of Warwick.

The key is to be able to create a happy workplace that’s open to all feelings, struggles, and problems. Because, even in moments when the workplace doesn’t feel happy, it’s striving toward being a healthy, positive place in a real way—not just superficially.

One way to help employees recognize that your company goes beyond words to bring healthy positivity into the workplace is through employee perk programs. These can involve anything from recurring programs to spot rewards or annual gifts.

A failure to hear what’s being said

One of the primary issues with toxic positivity is that those who are possessed by it fail to listen.

You can tell they aren’t listening because no matter what you say, no matter what the workplace struggle is, the answer is basically the same. It’s often some variation of:

  • “Never give up!”
  • “Good vibes only!”
  • “Just be happy!”

If only true happiness was granted by such a glib reminder. The reality is that such responses can be damaging in several ways.

People know that they aren’t being heard when their personal problem or workplace issues are greeted with a generic answer. When an employee realizes they’re not being listened to, they’re less likely to share ideas and be creative in the workplace, which can become the source of business setbacks.

Another reason that failing to listen can be a problem is that the concerns raised could impact your business if they’re not addressed. If an employee is worried about the timeline for a project and the manager just tells them to be positive, that doesn’t really solve the underlying problem about the timeline.

Failing to hear people doesn’t make them any happier. In fact, it does the exact opposite.

“When people place a great deal of pressure on themselves to feel happy, or think that others around them do, they are more likely to see their negative emotions and experiences as signals of failure,” Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, told TIME magazine. “This will only drive more unhappiness.”

Failure to be compassionate

Another reason toxic positivity can be so damaging is because such responses fail to convey compassion.

And this is an issue because, According to Entrepreneur, the dominant force for exceptional leadership is compassion.

Compassion, like empathy, is a person’s ability to truly understand someone else’s feelings and thoughts. Without that understanding, anything you say becomes empty words.

According to The Washington Post, one in three people said that they would switch companies for increased empathy, while 56% said they would stay if they felt valued, and 40% said they would work longer hours.

Along this same vein, 92% of human resource professionals say that a compassionate workplace is a significant factor for employee retention, according to Businesssolver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor report.

Coworkers and managers who apply blind optimism to a person’s real feelings and real problems fail to show empathy and compassion. Instead, they unintentionally create what is, ironically, a passive-aggressive and hostile work environment, which is the root of the problem with the issue of toxic positivity.

How to avoid toxic positivity

Given the damage toxic positivity can have in the workplace, it’s crucial to be able to recognize it and address it or, ideally, avoid it completely.

The good news? Toxic positivity tends to be pretty easy to spot. It’s usually overly simple, doesn’t acknowledge pain, and uses all or nothing language.

It also rarely uses any of the words in the original concern raised. When someone says, “I’m having a rough day”, and you respond with “Just be happy!”, your lack of acknowledging their pain makes it seem like you weren’t even listening.

Interestingly enough, you can combat your own toxic positivity by actively embracing negativity. This doesn’t mean wallowing in your sorrows, but certainly does mean taking a breath, looking it straight in the eyes, and acknowledging that those feelings are just as valid (and healthy) as the positive ones.

Along these same lines, you can prevent yourself from spouting nonsensical toxic positivity by avoiding what’s called positive spin. Everybody naturally knows to try and look on the bright side in times of trouble; you proactively trying to bring it about isn’t going to make a difference. So, instead, strive to hear what a person is telling you and be compassionate.

If you’re worried about facing co-workers’ or managers’ toxic positivity, the key is to not allow the one-liners to shut you down. Ask follow-up questions that require more complicated answers than “never give up!”.

Not all positivity is toxic

Just because toxic positivity can cause real damage in your life and workplace doesn’t mean positivity, in general, is to be avoided altogether.

We can think of a few situations where, instead of “seeing the good in everything”, there’s more value in stopping to recognize that a coworker is facing a difficult situation. Once you’ve let them know that you understand, you can offer to help untangle the issue when the moment is right.

Without a doubt, there’s a great deal of power in having a positive mindset. But that power is not capable of overriding all obstacles in all situations. Instead, you’ll be better off analyzing any given situation and being honest about how you feel—and what the data says. From there, you can consider if a more positive outlook is going to be the best way to move forward.

Final thoughts: How to avoid toxic positivity in the workplace

Though there are many good reasons to strive to create a happy workplace, you will want to develop an environment where such positivity is more than skin deep.

Toxic positivity is worse than a Band-Aid to a problem. Toxic positivity is like squeezing a lemon into a cut—and we can all imagine how that must feel.

When a work environment doesn’t make room for people to be human—and deal with the sorts of struggles that come with being human—it quickly becomes a toxic place. Listening and empathizing with people in the workplace creates a supportive environment where people can personally and professionally thrive.

Given what’s at stake, do what you can to stomp out toxic positivity before it cripples your team and company. And, take things a step further by creating employee perk programs that put your money where your mouth is. Start today:

Zestful: recognize and reward your employees—minus the admin work.

Maddy Osman (she/her) is an SEO Content Strategist who works with clients like AAA, Automattic, Kinsta, and Sprout Social. Her background in WordPress web design contributes to a well-rounded understanding of SEO and how to connect brands to relevant search prospects. Learn more about her process and experience on her website, www.The-Blogsmith.com and read her latest articles on Twitter: @MaddyOsman.

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