Toxic Positivity At Work: How To Spot It And What To Do

We always tell ourselves “everything will be fine in the end”. But in the interim, being positive might not always be helpful. Challenge looks at how positivity, when it turns toxic, could do more harm than good and what you can do to mitigate it.
Detoxify toxic positivity and remain positive at work.

What Is It?

Life is no bed of roses, but we are often expected to grin and bear it when things get rough. This belief that one should remain positive even in bad situations is known as toxic positivity. It could be self-inflicted or imposed by someone else. In some circumstances, we might truly seek to support our friends and co-workers. But the words we use might have unintended consequences.

So how do we identify toxic positivity at work? Here are some examples:

  1. When a colleague tells you something that is genuinely worrying them, and you tell them to stay positive. This could come across as dismissive and an exercise in invalidating their concerns.

  2. A refusal to acknowledge that something might be wrong at work. For example, declaring that “we did great” while ignoring all the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic wrought on everyone.

  3. You experience some kind of loss and people tell you to look on the bright side, or that things could be worse. To be sure, being grateful for what we have is a good thing. But one also needs time to be upset and process a loss before moving on.

The Danger

Having a positive outlook in any situation is not bad in itself. But according to US psychotherapist Amy Morin, a culture of extreme positivity can be damaging for the following reasons:

Reduced motivation: You perform a task unsatisfactorily, but tell yourself all will be well – except it does not. If you had acknowledged that your performance was wanting, you could make a plan with detailed steps to improve for the next time. But because you believed things would turn out fine anyway, you end up feeling blindsided and develop feelings of anxiety and fear, and start lacking the desire to do better because you feel it may amount to little.

Being underprepared: Overestimating yourself and your abilities could lead you to be unprepared for a situation. For example, you might think an upcoming presentation will go very well and thus put in less work than is required. This could end disastrously if your audience points out the holes in what you have said or shown, and you are unable to back your position.

Suppressing emotions may lead to depression: It is almost impossible to be happy at all times. And even if it were, you would not appreciate feeling happy if that is the only emotion you ever felt. Pretending to feel good all the time is not advisable either, as engaging in such emotional suppression has been linked to depression.

How To Deal With Toxic Positivity at Work

  • Create an environment that encourages honesty

    During meetings, make time for discussions and feedback: identify, tackle and solve issues that have been raised.

  • Look out for one another where possible

    If someone requires a listening ear, be there to provide it. Empathise, listen and avoid telling them how they should feel. And if you do not want to get too deeply involved, set boundaries or suggest resources they can turn to for more serious help.

  • Take time away from work for your own mental health

    Toxic positivity at the workplace dictates that work comes first. The reality is work is not the be-all and end-all of your life – you need breaks and a balance for your career to thrive.

Things You Can Do for Yourself

Avoid suppressing your feelings. Where possible, express how you feel, as it would help to regulate your stress response. If left unchecked, negative feelings can cause stress.

Be realistic. Do not expect too much from yourself all at once. Take baby steps to rid yourself of the negative emotion. For example, when you are feeling emotionally distressed, try not to engage in something new that you think would make you feel better. It is best to stick to tried and tested things you are already good at until you feel better.

Focus on yourself. Dark thoughts and worrying are like sitting in a rocking chair: they give you something to do, but get you nowhere. Once you come to terms with your emotions, learn to let them go. This could take the form of finding out what keeps you grounded. For example, working out, writing a journal, or having some me-time. Remember that your wellbeing is important.

Talk to someone. A problem shared is a problem halved. Communicating your needs with loved ones and friends could help you feel better. It could also improve your relationship with them.

If someone asks how you are feeling, do not say everything is fine if it is not. Similarly, when others speak to you about their feelings, provide support instead of offering unsolicited advice. It is fine if you do not have any solution for them. Sometimes all they want is for someone to listen.

Avoid toxically positive phrases. This is especially important when comforting others. Saying things like "it could be worse" or "be grateful for what you have" are fairly common, but they can be detrimental to someone’s wellbeing. Try using phrases such as the following:

  • It’s natural to feel this way in a situation like this
  • I can see this is very painful for you
  • I may not fully understand, but I am here to help


  • For mental health support, either for personal or professional reasons, visit

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    Nov 29, 2021
    Keval Singh
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