In a culture that values positivity above all else, negative feelings can seem inappropriate. But denying them can result in toxic positivity which leads to much bigger problems.
It started with a stationary holder with the words ‘good vibes only’ plastered on the side. Then came the motivational posters with sayings such as ‘a positive attitude is key to success’. But for all her positive paraphernalia, Tazmayn Goode, wellbeing consultant at Drake Wellness Hub, didn’t feel all that happy.
“It was exhausting. Around me I was like ‘rah rah rah’, motivating everyone, but inside I felt empty. I was the poster child for toxic positivity at my last workplace,” she says.
Toxic positivity is the act of focusing on positive things while ignoring or suppressing the negative. Those who perpetrate it often don’t even realise they’re doing it. Think of people who say, “Don’t be so negative!” or “It could be worse.” By searching for a silver lining their intention is to cheer someone up, but they often have the opposite impact.
Why do some leaders feel the need to push their happiness agenda so hard? Goode says that after what has been a very harrowing year for many, there’s a lot of pressure to ensure employees are well and happy.
But no-one is happy all the time – in fact, more and more Australians are feeling unhappy. According to Beyond Blue, nearly three million Australians will experience depression in their lifetime. And that’s according to statistics collected before COVID-19.
It’s not unusual to respond to hardship and uncertainty by trying to promote positivity. You just need to be careful not to overdo it, especially if you’re in a position of influence.
Is toxic positivity an issue in your workplace?
One of the problems in trying to identify toxic positivity is that it can present in fairly harmless ways.
How often has someone said “Chin up” to you when something didn’t pan out the way you’d hoped? This is not a problematic statement in itself, but if it’s the go-to response from leadership during tough times, they might be inadvertently telling employees that there’s no place for real emotional responses in their workplace.
So employees swallow their ‘negative’ feelings, which slowly pile up. We all know what happens when a tank becomes over-pressurised: it blows a gasket.
Brock Bastian, a professor at the University of Melbourne in the School of Psychological Sciences, and author of The Other Side of Happiness describes toxic positivity as “happiness at all costs”.
“It’s the perception that expressing or bringing to work feelings other than happiness is inappropriate,” he says.
It suppresses sadness, fear, anxiety or any other emotions that are considered ‘bad’. However, human emotions don’t toggle between good and great, he says.
We experience an ebb and flow of emotions, and pretending they don’t exist – both the good and the bad – will inevitably make us feel worse.
“I was the poster child for toxic positivity at my last workplace.” – Tazmayn Goode, wellbeing consultant, Drake Wellness Hub.
As a wellness consultant, Goode helps people spot toxic positivity in their workplace. It stands out most clearly when conducting PERMA surveys, she says. Originally developed by positive psychology expert Dr Martin Seligman in the late 1990s, PERMAH aims to measure employees’ positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and sense of accomplishment.
When an organisation scores high on positive emotion but low on meaning, it could mean some toxic positivity is present, says Goode.
The impacts of toxic positivity
Denial of authentic emotions can have detrimental effects on employees’ mental wellbeing. A 2018 study categorised how people respond to negative emotions and thoughts into two groups: acceptance and judgment. It found that those who accepted negative emotions lessened its impact and had better psychological health in the long term.
“Focusing on the importance of maintaining a state of constant happiness isn’t going to make employees happy,” says Bastian.“My research suggests it will lead to the opposite outcome. More depression, more anxiety and more negative states.”
It can add to our emotional labour, he says, which usually leads to burnout. We experience emotional labour if we’re trying not to cry in public, for example, or trying to contain ourselves after receiving exciting news.
A certain level of emotional labour is to be expected in the workplace, especially in customer-facing or employee-centric roles, but it’s impacts are compounded when people wake up knowing they have to suppress their authentic emotions due to their employer’s preference for ‘positive’ emotions.
How should you respond to it?
While the individual impacts of toxic positivity should be front of mind, HR also needs to concern itself with the organisational problems that can arise.
“Toxic positivity can create a culture that breeds distrust from employees,” says Bastian. A lack of trust can spread like an insidious disease, causing employees to hide their mistakes and feel less confident putting new ideas forward.
In a business environment that requires agility and innovation to bounce back from recent challenges, this is the last thing any employer would want.
“You can’t say to employees you can be sad 25 per cent of the time, but you need to be positive the other 75.” – Brock Bastian, professor, University of Melbourne.
On top of this, the leaders perpetuating toxic positivity usually aren’t allowing themselves to be authentic.
“Leaders can’t possibly be experiencing that [happy] state of mind or level of success in their lives all the time. So it means they’re hiding something and often others will sense that,” says Bastian.
“Being authentic around our own experiences and being appropriately vulnerable as leaders lets [employees] know you’re human and real, and that they can be human and real at work as well.”
Bastian is careful to use the term “appropriately” as there is a risk of swinging too far to the other side.
“It’s good to be open with people. It’s good to let people in a little bit, but at the same time we don’t want to be a burden.”
You need to strike the right balance. Leaders have a duty to keep morale high and there is a risk of negative emotions permeating through the team if you let disgruntled employees determine the tone. This is what’s known as emotional contagion. It happens when certain moods are passed on to others.
When your colleague comes bounding into work feeling full of optimism, it’s hard not to feel happier yourself. Of course, this phenomenon applies to negative feelings too. That chronic complainer sitting next to you might sour your own good mood.
“Allowing people their authentic feelings doesn’t mean employees can present as miserable everyday. But at the same time, HR can’t really put that into a formalised policy. You can’t say to employees you can be sad 25 per cent of the time, but you need to be positive the other 75,” says Bastian.
Employees will measure what is appropriate to discuss against how leaders act. If leaders feel comfortable sharing that they’re having a bad day, but don’t dwell on it, then employees are likely to follow suit.
Create a shared language
Tackling toxic positivity is a huge organisational undertaking, says Goode.
“You can’t just rip down the posters and stop saying ‘positive vibes only’. Our drive to chase happiness is ingrained in us.”
A significant part of combating toxic positivity is creating psychologically safe spaces. If you’re looking to start small, begin by removing the perception of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions, she says.
This can be done by creating a shared language around how your organisation talks about emotions, or crafting the manner in which employees speak about their feelings.
“Rather than action-focused language such as ‘I am feeling sad’, I would encourage saying something like, ‘I notice I am feeling sad’,” says Goode. “This turns the feeling into data rather than a direction. Then you can choose how you act on that instead of letting it become you.”
Another way to get people to open up about how they’re really feeling is to make sure you ask the question “How are you?” more than once. This is particularly important for Australians – people who use the phrase as a general greeting rather than a genuine question. By asking, “But how are you, really?” you’re offering them permission to actually open up to you.
Goode still catches herself straying into toxic positivity territory from time to time, but she’s much better at identifying it now.
“I am a people pleaser, so I often want to pick people up and make everyone feel good.
I now know that by doing so, I am robbing people of the full human experience, and that my organisation won’t get the gift of their authenticity as a result.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the June 2021 edition of HRM magazine.
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