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How To Handle Toxic Positivity At Work

If you’ve been caught in a downward spiral since last March, you’re not alone. Amid a global pandemic, government shutdowns and millions of layoffs, it was easy to fall into a slump, if not something more severe. And when that starts to happen, other peoples’ positive vibes don’t help. Instead of being motivating or encouraging, positive sentiments can become insincere and delegitimizing when they’re forced out.

Unfortunately, this kind of positivity is permeating workplace culture and creating a toxic atmosphere — even if the intentions behind it are good. So, how can you fight toxic positivity at work, and take care of your mental health while still staying professional?

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is invalidating real hardships that you and others are facing. It’s slapping “look on the bright side” or “it could be worse” on a depressing or frustrating situation. Instead of dealing with negative emotions, toxic positivity labels these emotions as inherently bad, and demands that you completely ignore them and cover up your pain with a smile.

Just be positive. This too shall pass. 

While these sentiments can be sincere at times, they’re simply too cliche for the workplace — or any place, for that matter. But if you’re part of the one-third of Americans that are showing signs of depression and anxiety, the sentiments can make it even more difficult — if not impossible — to focus on work. 

Toxic positivity can also be a byproduct of our high-pressure “hustle culture” in America. Employees and their superiors should validate each person’s full range of emotions, and strive to banish toxic positivity from the office. Here are four ways you can be the catalyst for this self-love movement, and balance your personal and professional persona during these difficult times. 

Acknowledge Authentic Feelings 

The first step in learning how to avoid toxic positivity requires recognizing and acknowledging your – and others’ – authentic feelings. Roughly 42 percent of college students have at least one mental health condition, so it’s no surprise that you can continue struggling with those feelings of anxiety and depression after college and into your career. Your coworkers might feel the same way.

Amy Morin, a licensed psychotherapist, author and mental strength coach, wrote for Business Insider that suppressing your negative emotions in an effort to be constantly positive can actually lead to depression. 

Dr. Russell Thackeray, business psychologist and founder of QED, agrees. “Unrelenting optimism at work shows negative emotions as a failure or weakness,” he tells Her Campus, “but while these emotions can be unpleasant and hard to deal with, they are important and need to be dealt with openly because if we don’t, they will become far more significant.”

Dr. Thackeray adds, “Demanding constant positivity or optimism in the workplace actually invalidates the feelings and emotions of the people finding it difficult to deal with issues. Telling an employee they need to be ‘more positive’ just leaves them feeling unable to share their emotions  — leaving a lack of compassion and support for them.”

Sharing your emotions with others is one way to help you acknowledge negative feelings, express them in a healthy manner, and move on. It can be helpful to prepare to be a safe space for anyone who feels the need to share their struggles. In those moments, it’s important to be a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on, not a “positive vibes only” kind of coworker. 

Communicate Your Needs

You must be equally accepting of your own frustrations and disappointments — and all the negative emotions that come with them. Once you recognize them as a normal part of life, communicating your needs to your boss will be much easier. 

You want to feel productive, happy and engaged again, right? Set up a meeting with your manager or supervisor to explain your mental health state and ask them for help. In other words, prepare to ask for time off, fewer responsibilities or a change of pace for a short while. Be realistic and honest with yourself and your manager during this process so you can find a work-life balance that is acceptable to both parties. Your mental health needs the same time and attention that you give to your career — and not making time for those needs can be damaging long-term.

It may come as a surprise in our productivity-centered culture, but the mental health of employees is absolutely not a burden to managers — in fact, they see it as their responsibility, which means you have every right to communicate your needs to your manager. Open communication and honesty are key when it comes to balancing your workload with your mental health. In fact, managers appreciate when you’re authentic with them.

Kara Harms, owner of the lifestyle blog Whimsy Soul and manager of a team of six women, says she loves when her employees confide in her and communicate their needs for deadlines. “I know most employers and managers are probably like, ‘Wait, you LOVE when your team says no to you?’,” she jokes. “And I do, because it means I have successfully created a workplace where they feel like their boundaries are respected, which is a key complement to mental health and a happy work environment.” 

Malte Scholz, CEO of Airfocus, feels the same. “I love people who are able to stand up for themselves and communicate their needs and feelings,” he says. “From the manager’s standpoint, I understand how easy it is to get carried away when you have positive people who are enthusiastic about more work. However, this system isn’t sustainable.”

Scholz prioritizes a healthy mindset over an overflowing workload, and he believes it’s the responsibility of managers to provide that safe space for people to be open about their boundaries. “People work much better when they’re satisfied,” he says. 

Your managers understand that you’re a human being, and they’re available to support you. Be honest with them. 

Set Boundaries At Work 

If you’re just beginning your career, it can be challenging to establish healthy boundaries at work. It can be tempting to overcommit, overwork, and overinvest in workplace tasks and communications, both in and out of the office. In order to make your career a fulfilling experience and not just a stressful one, it’s important to establish healthy boundaries between work and life.

Her Campus contributor Sammy agrees. “I think a lot of what I do to balance professionalism with mental health comes down to setting boundaries for myself,” she says. “For example, I work hard during the day but try not to check my email or chat messages past 5pm. When I’m out of the office, I disable all notifications so that I’m not tempted to check work stuff while on vacation, and I make sure to say that I will be ‘fully unreachable’ in my out of office email responder.”

As a new professional trying to make your way up the career ladder, you might feel obligated to take on much more than you should handle and say yes to too many people, especially superiors you feel you should impress. However, saying no is essential when learning how to maintain your mental health at work. Sammy says she’s also “working on saying no if I truly don’t have time to help out with an extra task, as opposed to what I used to do (which was always say yes and then just work super late to get it done).” 

We’ve certainly all been in the position of being offered more work than we can juggle — the important thing is knowing how to approach that “no.” Remember, respectfully setting boundaries does not jeopardize your career. It ensures you’re not jeopardizing your mental health.

Remain professional by kindly refusing to take on more than you can handle. Better yet, suggest co-workers who might be well-suited for the job, even if it means missing out on a raise or bonus. While it might feel like self-sabotage, prioritizing your mental health early on in your career and expressing negative feelings about overworking is essential to long-term success. 

Invest In Your Personal Development 

Avoiding toxic positivity at work is your first step to healing. The second step is much more personal. To effectively balance work life and mental health, you must be willing to invest in your personal development

In other words, make time outside of work to give back to yourself — whether it’s through mindful hobbies, comforting activities or ongoing learning.

Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in music in San Diego, emphasizes the importance of emotional release and catharsis in balancing negative emotions. “The pressure to be positive and upbeat in a given work setting can set employees up to fail,” he tells Her Campus. “Catharsis, rooted in authentic and open expression is needed as an alernative to toxic positivity.” 

Set aside time for yourself to explore activities that relieve stress, spark your creativity or bring you a sense of personal satisfaction. Even if you’re trying to develop your professional skills, do so with the intention of making yourself a more well-rounded person. Don’t be the best version of yourself to impress your boss; invest in yourself for your own sake. Engage with new ideas, grow your mindset and lean into the person you’re becoming. Your entire life will be better off for it. 

Balancing professionalism with personal mental health begins and ends with you. Sure, other people may still try to force optimism on you and your co-workers, but it’s up to you to reject false positivity, cultivate authentic positivity when you can and embrace your emotions for what they are — the good, the bad and the ugly. Only then can you move forward, strengthen your mental health and become a more successful professional. 

Studies Referenced:

U.S. Census Bureau. (2020) Household Pulse Survey 

University of Minnesota Twin Cities. (2018) 2018 College Student Health Survey Report


Dr. Russell Thackeray, Ph.D

Kara Harms, owner of Whimsy Soul

Malte Scholz, Co-Founder, CEO and CPO of airfocus

Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D.