Is Toxic Positivity The Thing That’s Making Work Unbearable?

Work is always a balancing act — juggling deadlines, a work-life balance, and office relationships is never easy — but the last few years have been especially challenging. According to 2023 data from Future Forum, burnout is at an all-time high, with over 40% of all desk workers reporting burnout — though women and workers under 30 were the most stressed. Add on a global pandemic, hiring freezes and layoffs, economic uncertainties and a competitive job market, many workers are feeling the pressure.

But what happens when your workplace expects you to ignore these real-life concerns and instead act like everything is absolutely amazing in and outside of work? You may be experiencing toxic positivity. Often, toxic positivity is expressed through platitudes like “Just look on the bright side” or “We don’t talk about problems, we work on solutions.” 

“Toxic positivity is the pressure to express only a small range of the spectrum of human emotions, so that anything that isn’t cheerful and upbeat is repressed and avoided,” says Angela Amias LCSW, a therapist and founder of Healthy Relationship Academy, a workplace wellness training program. 

“Toxic positivity is harmful because it creates an atmosphere where people can’t be authentic,” says Amias. “In a workplace, this means putting on a smile and pretending that you’re happy when you’re actually struggling.” Keeping up a facade takes a tremendous emotional toll and, ironically, Amias says toxic positivity actually makes the problem worse — to the point where people may dread going to work. But there are ways to prevent toxic positivity from taking over your life.

Refinery29 spoke to experts, as well as people who have dealt with toxic positivity first hand, on how best to protect your mental health.

Learn to identity a toxic workplace

The first step in addressing toxic positivity is to identify it — which can actually be more challenging to do in the workplace, where there are usually more boundaries around privacy and what constitutes appropriate, “professional” behaviour. In some workplaces, the toxic positivity is baked into the culture from the start, while in others it develops more slowly as management can’t or won’t adapt to the needs of its workers. In both scenarios, toxic positivity is used by management to shirt the responsibilities it has to its workers. It’s easier to sweep issues like wages, work hours, discrimination under the rug when everyone feels forced to grin and bear it.

“The first sign that you might be in a toxic positivity workplace is that it seems like everyone else is doing fine because no one’s talking about having difficulty inside or outside the workplace,” says Amais. You may feel overly tired after work or burnt out by your job. These are both normal, physical responses to an oppressive environment, says Amais.

Next, think about how your bosses and co-workers respond to feedback. “If every expression of frustration or request for help at work is being met with ‘Keep your chin up’ [or] one-dimensional, bumper-sticker kind of responses, then you need to recognise that you’re being dismissed,” says Katherine Morgan Schafler, psychotherapist and author of The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control

Marleigh, a 26-year-old customer service representative who didn’t want to share her surname, says her management often writes off valid concerns in this way. During a series of dramatic department changes, Marleigh says employees were expected to “smile and go along with everything”. Eventually, Marleigh got the impression that maintaining a positive attitude would impact performance reviews and even raises. “In order to get ahead, you have to stay in this type of positive character, to not offend anybody or come across as negative,” she says. 

The expectation to grin and bear it can be particularly harmful when leveraged against people with marginalised identities — like women, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour — and may keep them from reporting inappropriate behaviour or seeking support. For Marleigh, a mixed Black woman, voicing her concerns also meant navigating racist stereotypes that could be used to dismiss her.

How to practice affirmations

Despite the common expression, work isn’t your family, often, managers use this “family-first” language to appear nice and welcoming. In reality, this sort of messaging can guilt workers into giving more labour to the company via extra favours, duties, and hours outside their responsibility. This unfair expectation can often be justified through toxic positivity — and the belief that people should act grateful for their jobs or like an employer is doing you a big favour simply by cutting your pay cheque. 

But rather than try and convince others they are feeding into a toxic work environment (or that you’re not family), it may actually be more helpful to affirm your own perspective and concerns. When you experience dismissal or invalidation, Schafler recommends telling yourself “this is a sanitised version of what really happened [and] how hard this really is. I know what really happened [and] I know how hard this really is, and it’s okay for me to be frustrated, sad, exhausted.”

“Be in the practice of validating yourself, and surround yourself with people who are also good at allowing the full range of emotions to come up, and then validating those emotions,” says Schafler. Your support network doesn’t have to be coworkers, either, as you can seek validation from family, friends, or a therapist.

Manage the situation — until you find a way out

In some cases, self-affirmations and acknowledging toxic positivity won’t be enough — you’ll need to find a new job. Until then, there are steps you can take to manage your situation and protect your wellbeing.

For SJ*, a 35-year-old operations and billings manager, this means “playing the game”, partially to keep the peace and partially to not burn bridges. After being confronted for not being “bubbly enough” at work, SJ says, “When I go to get coffee, I have to make sure that I say good morning to everybody that I pass.” Though she hates putting on airs, SJ is also the only Black woman in her office, and feels she’s in a precarious position despite meeting her deadlines and doing quality work. Currently, SJ is planning to leave her job to pursue a PhD.

Community and communication helped Marleigh manage the changes. She’s vocal about boundaries — like if she’s at her workload capacity and pointing out when she needs support or space — and has also connected with co-workers she trusts and who validate each other’s experiences. She also recommends taking full advantage of your PTO if you have it and not overworking yourself. In other words, “I’m going to give you the effort that I feel that I’m getting paid [for],” says Marleigh. Recently, Marleigh was promoted to a different department, where she hopes there will be a better work culture.

These tools, communication, community, and playing the game, are all viable strategies to manage toxic positivity. But it’s important to remember they are coping mechanisms — you still deserve to feel comfortable and feel genuinely positive about your work.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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