Toxic positivity: Can helping harm employee mental health?

Workplace mental health is a hot topic for employers around the world. But can trying to help sometimes actual do the opposite?


by Lauren Payne

Mental health is a trending topic these days, and for good reason. It can impact worker’s cognitive and physical abilities, subsequently making them less productive, forgetful, and even put them in harms way in certain work places.

In turn, many companies are taking measures to help with employee’s mental health. This can include learning about new buzzwords like presenteeism and wellbeing washing. This is great! Mental health is crucial and creating programs to help is a great first step for many companies. But sometimes, this can lead to a change in work culture that’s a little too positive — also known as toxic positivity, which can cause even more harm than good.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) as “encouraging statements that are expected to minimize or eliminate painful emotions, creating pressure to be unrealistically optimistic without considering the circumstances of the situation.”

Examples include:

  • “Good vibes only.”
  • “Keep your head up.”
  • “You’ll be fine.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

It’s easy to fall into these patterns. Leaning into positive thoughts is vital to helping a lot of mental health issues, and creating a positive work environment can help employees be happier at work. But when these statements are said without a thought of the impact, that’s when you start to enter the “toxic positivity” space.

For example, if an employee states their burnout because they’ve been working overtime for several weeks, simply responding “keep your head up” is not a helpful statement and can lead the employee to feel like they cannot bring up their concerns to their managers.

What are the impacts of toxic positivity?

They’re seemingly harmless statements, but can create a work environment where employees don’t feel comfortable expressing their pain or frustration. This can lead to employees bottling up negative feelings until it boils over into extreme reactions — such as quitting or becoming possibly verbally or physically abusive.

In turn, before reaching such extremes, employees can seethe in their anger and become less productive, lessen their cognitive ability, and possibly put themselves in harm’s way, depending on the work site. This can lead to other health issues too, including increased blood pressure, heart problems, increased cortisol levels, and lowered immunity to diseases. These issues are likely to subsequently impact the employee’s work, resulting in absenteeism or extended leaves to treat the other health problems.

What can companies do to actually help employee mental health?

There are several ways you can help avoid toxic positivity in the workplace.


Listen before speaking

A great way to start tackling toxic positivity is to actually listen to employees before giving a response —especially a generic response. Employees that feel heard will be more willing to open up, thus allowing managers to listen and provide more appropriate responses. Instead of saying “keep your head up” to a burned-out employee, listen to their exact problems, and maybe start with providing encouragement then a solution — “you’re doing great but I understand you’re feeling overwhelmed. Would you like to take some time off or have some of your workload reduced?” can be a great starting response.


Validate emotions before providing advice

Another great way to help is by validating an employee’s feelings before providing advice. There are situations where responding with “you’re doing great” (another common toxically positive statement) is an appropriate response. But think of the repercussions first. Adding in a statement as simple as “I hear you and that is a valid feeling in this situation” before going into your advice or feedback is a good way to let the employee know they’re in a safe space and being heard.


Check in with employees regularly

This is a common piece of advice but it can be extremely helpful to let employees know they’re being heard. If an employee lets you know they’re feeling burned-out, include check-ins as part of your action plan to support them. See how the plan of action helped — or if it didn’t. Sometimes letting an employee that’s overwhelmed take a day off isn’t helpful if all they think about is work while they’re at home. By continuing to check in on them you can make sure the problem has been solved and they’re feeling supported.

Don’t let toxic positivity contaminate your workplace

Toxic positivity can be an easy habit to slip into, but it’s a dangerous one for employee’s mental health. Be cognitive of your statements to avoid these harmful impacts, and really listen to your employees. Good work environments can help improve mental health, which subsequently can improve an employee’s overall performance.

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