Hidden harms in the workplace

By Herman M. Lagon

IN RECENT years, the concept of maintaining a positive outlook in the workplace has been widely embraced. However, an overemphasis on forced positivity, frequently labeled as ‘toxic positivity,’ can lead to adverse impacts on employee well-being and morale. This phenomenon, while cloaked in the guise of motivation and encouragement, often dismisses genuine concerns and emotions, leading to an unhealthy work environment.

Toxic positivity in the workplace manifests in various forms. Imagine a scenario where an employee, overwhelmed by unrealistic deadlines and workload, is simply encouraged to “look on the bright side” or reminded that “others have it worse.” Such responses, though possibly well-intentioned, invalidate the employee’s stress and discourage open communication about workplace challenges. This culture of enforced optimism not only neglects the real issues at hand but can also lead to increased stress and job dissatisfaction.

The insistence on maintaining a positive front can be particularly harmful to young professionals who are navigating the complexities of their careers. They might feel pressured to suppress their true feelings to fit into the organizational culture, leading to internal conflicts and diminished self-worth.

Leaders and supervisors wield significant influence in either perpetuating or mitigating toxic positivity. When a boss consistently downplays the struggles of their team, insisting on a positive outlook despite clear problems, it not only erodes trust but also stifles the potential for meaningful problem-solving and innovation. For example, when an employee expresses concerns about the direction of a project and receives a dismissive response like “just stay positive, it will all work out,” it conveys a message that their input and concerns are not respected or taken seriously.

Furthermore, toxic positivity can have a ripple effect across the organization, creating a facade where problems are glossed over, and genuine emotional expressions are discouraged. This superficial positivity can lead to a lack of authentic connections among colleagues, as everyone is playing a part rather than being true to themselves and their experiences.

Toxic positivity can be particularly insidious among local and small-scale establishments. It can undermine the communal support systems that are a cornerstone of our society. The approach that emphasizes on reflection and discernment offers a valuable counterbalance. It encourages individuals to acknowledge and explore their emotions, both positive and negative, fostering a more authentic and empathetic workplace culture.

Counteracting toxic positivity requires a shift towards a more balanced approach to emotions in the workplace. Employers and leaders may consider fostering an environment where employees feel not only safe but also encouraged to express a wide spectrum of emotions. This includes acknowledging struggles and failures as much as celebrating successes. Encouraging open dialogue, where employees can share their concerns without fear of dismissal or reprimand, is vital. This approach not only validates employees’ emotions but also nurses s a culture of trust and respect.

Moreover, replacing generic positive platitudes with empathetic listening and supportive action can significantly impact employees’ well-being. For example, rather than responding to an employee’s stress with “Just stay positive,” a more helpful approach would be, “I see you’re going through a tough time. How can I support you?” Transitioning from a dismissive approach to a supportive stance can have a profound impact on the workplace environment.

In the workplace, embracing the cultural values of bayanihan (community spirit) and kapwa (shared identity) can also serve as antidotes to toxic positivity. These values emphasize empathy, understanding, and collective well-being, aligning with a more balanced approach to emotional expression. Integrating these values into organizational culture can foster a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

While positivity is a valuable trait, its excessive and unbalanced enforcement can be harmful. The workplace should be a space where all emotions are acknowledged and validated. By fostering open communication, empathetic leadership, and a culture that values authentic emotional expression, organizations can create a healthier, more productive, and more satisfying work environment for all employees. This approach not only benefits individual well-being but also enhances overall organizational health and effectiveness.

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Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world that is grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views herewith do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.

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