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Ignoring or minimizing negative realities can have consequences for mental and physical health.Delmaine Donson

Registered social worker Sarah Ahmed commonly comes across people who are struggling or unhappy in their jobs, but can’t name or validate their experiences.

“They’re quick to negate that by saying, ‘Well, I’m grateful I have a job,’” says Ms. Ahmed, who co-founded the Toronto-based private mental health practice Wellnest.

This, she says, is a classic example of how “toxic positivity” can hamper one’s personal or career growth. When employees get the message at work that only positive feelings are acceptable, people can feel as though their only option is to look on the bright side.

“The term toxic positivity refers to the belief that no matter what, you always look for the silver lining when things go bad or sour,” Ms. Ahmed says. “It’s almost turning a blind eye … to be like, focus on all the good things that have come up, or focus on all the things you’re going to learn out of this.”

Dr. Sonia Kang, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and special adviser on anti-racism and equity at the University of Toronto, says there are many situations in the workplace where toxic positivity might occur, including customer interactions, working with colleagues or receiving negative feedback from a manager.

“Even when people are in situations where naturally they might experience negative emotions, they’re encouraged to push those below the surface and then act like everything is okay,” she says. “It’s promoting this kind of false optimistic state that takes a lot of work for people to maintain.”

Toxic positivity at work can manifest in managers or colleagues saying things like, “Good vibes only,” “Reframe your thinking,” “Look on the positive side,” or “You’ve got this,” even when you definitely don’t.

While in theory the idea of looking on the bright side might appear beneficial, Ms. Ahmed says that this isn’t always the appropriate way to process challenges.

“You’re choosing to look at it only from one direction, without recognizing and acknowledging that we are human beings who are complex creatures and have a complex range of emotions,” she says.

A recent podcast series called Positively Exhausted from U of T’s Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE) explored how toxic positivity often manifests in companies as a coping strategy when challenges arise. GATE MBA fellow Simone Lima shared her own experiences working in startups where she and her colleagues were told by management to stay positive and upbeat while also being compelled to work punishing hours to achieve unrealistic goals.

“My body was operating in high-stress conditions daily, but the culture I encountered in those environments convinced me the best employees were the positive ones, who would not allow the pressure to show, and I learned how to physically limit those reactions,” she says.

A path to disconnection and burnout

Dr. Kang says that common stereotypes place an expectation on women to react more positively to negative events. “Women are ‘supposed’ to be more relational, more communal. So, there’s this expectation that women are nice and warm,” she says.

“When women kind of break those expectations and act in ways that might be seen as counter-stereotypical, people really don’t like that,” she says. “It’s seen as a personal failing.”

There are also intersectional effects; women of colour experience additional stereotypes that can intensify the scrutiny they face. “Different women will experience those effects more or less, depending on those intersectional identities that they have,” Dr. Kang says.

Across the board, ignoring or minimizing negative realities can have consequences that extend from career choices to mental and physical health.

“It will ultimately lead to a huge detachment or disconnect within yourself,” says Ms. Ahmed. “When that happens, a lot of folks are like, ‘I don’t know, I have everything, but I’m not happy. I feel miserable, I feel irritated.’”

Ms. Ahmed says that this experience speaks to an inability to identify the root causes of one’s struggles. “When you’re so disconnected within yourself and you’re not happy, you’re not able to figure out what’s going to make you happy,” she says.

Over time, a forced positive attitude can lead to burnout.

“You’re forced to suppress negative thoughts, feelings or even negative bodily sensations,” Dr. Kang says. “You have to keep your heart rate down, your palms might be sweating. But to suppress those natural stress responses, that takes a lot of attention.”

Over time, this stress can be exhausting. “That can lead to burnout, where people are spending all this energy on managing their emotions rather than just doing their work,” she says.

When you’re the ‘toxically-positive’ one

Modern management approaches often focus on being positive and “solutions-oriented.” But when does a sunny outlook veer into toxicity?

Amanda Hudson is a human resources professional who runs A Modern Way to Work, an organization that assists businesses with their HR through “people management.” She says that managers and supervisors perceived as “toxically positive” might have good intentions.

“[They may be] trying really hard to … move the team out of what feels stuck or broken by having them focused on moving forward, having them focused on a solution,” she says.

“But sometimes you have to just get down in the trenches with your people.”

A manager or supervisor who is told by team members that they are being toxically positive might be surprised to hear that assessment, she notes.

“I think a natural human response is to go put a wall up and be like, ‘No I’m not,’ and try to defend your position,” Ms. Hudson says. Her first piece of advice is to “take away the label” and identify what issues employees feel are going unheard.

Some managers may worry that if they do acknowledge challenges and complaints, they might get stuck there, Ms. Hudson notes.

“But people just need that for a moment sometimes,” she says. “And if you get down in there with them and they feel really understood, you’re probably going do a better job of moving them forward to the solution.”

A culture of openness

Dr. Kang says that creating a more communicative workplace culture can help address toxic positivity. “Creating a culture of openness where people are allowed to express their emotions in constructive ways,” she says.

If a workplace makes talking about issues constructively part of the norm, there will be less of a need for toxic positivity.

“You [will] have a culture where even negative feedback is acceptable,” she says.

From the perspective of the individual, Dr. Kang says it’s important to unpack the nature of “resilience.”

“People sometimes think that resilience means that something bad happens and you don’t react to it,” she says. “Resilience actually means that you do feel that emotion, but you can manage it in a productive way. So, you feel the emotion, you acknowledge that you’re feeling it and then you come back down to baseline.”

Ways to process these negative emotions might include taking a break, talking to an empathetic co-worker or finding an outlet such as exercise, therapy or keeping a journal.

“If you can develop those more constructive coping mechanisms, then that’s how you really build resilience,” says Dr. Kang.

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