3 ways to handle toxic positivity

Managers taking an over positive view of problems can be detrimental to staff morale Connor Campbell shares his perspective on this trend.

The workplace can have many stresses – from tense relationships with co-workers to overwhelming workloads. Whilst some degree of stress in the workplace is normal, there are occasions in which these grievances need to be addressed seriously by management. When an employee chooses to report their concerns to their manager, they should be provided with a safe, anonymous and non-judgmental environment in which to discuss, and collaboratively find solutions to, their problems.

However, a new trend has started to emerge that could potentially harm this process and cause employees to become resentful of their employers: toxic positivity. This sees managerial staff encouraging employees to “look on the bright side” when reporting concerns while dismissing grievances as negativity. 

Retaliation to workplace bullying claims

One of the key issues responsible for this trend developing is the growth of workplace bullying. While the discrimination and bullying of an employee or coworker is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, this unfortunately hasn’t stopped harassment from continuing to exist within office spaces. In 2022, workplace bullying claims were up by 44%, increasing from 581 claims in 2021, to 835 claims 12 months later.

With workplace bullying remaining a major issue, some employers have moved away from anything that could be perceived as negativity among co-workers. This has resulted in managers trying to dispel grievance reports with overly positive responses, in an attempt to prevent things escalating. In many cases, this has the unintended effect of employees feeling that their concerns are being dismissed and not taken seriously by their managers.

Management should actively listen to employees when they report a concern, and reassure employees that solutions will be implemented

Dissatisfaction with managerial support is at the root of the problem

If this is allowed to continue, this could ultimately lead to increased resentment from these employees. In a 2022 survey, 25% of UK employees reported feeling unhappy at work due to senior staff, with a further 26% citing a lack of support from management and co-workers as the reason for their unhappiness. 

With a quarter of the workforce feeling they are not receiving adequate support from their manager, this could cause a decline in productivity and morale. According to the ONS, productivity output by workers decreased by 0.1% in 2022. While this may seem like a small percentage, it could be a sign of more to come if employees continue to feel that their opinions and worries are not being addressed. A global study conducted in spring 2021 discovered that 20% of UK employees were not listened to by their employers when providing feedback or raising concerns. 

Failure to address real concerns

Another concern surrounding toxic positivity is that serious workplace issues could be neglected. For example, employees may feel that their mental health is being impacted by another member of staff or a particular workload. If the cause for their mental health struggles is not addressed, this could make their struggles worse. Data from the CIPD’s Good Work Index revealed that 22% of employees do not feel that their organisation encourages them to be open and discuss their mental health problems.

Lack of open conversation surrounding career progression is another concern – if those employees reporting this problem are viewed as spreading negativity, it’s unlikely that a thorough investigation will be done into the concerns raised during their conversations with management, which in turn makes it unlikely for solutions to be implemented. 

A lack of career progression can play a part

One concern that employees may raise with management is feeling stuck at their current career level and being unsure of how to progress. This is a serious concern that should be addressed correctly by providing employees with the necessary information to develop their skill set and progress to a better position.

However, while 2022 data from the CIPD revealed that 74% of employees felt their line manager provided support should they encounter a problem, just 48% felt supported in their long-term career progression. This could become an issue, as employees that are not provided with opportunities for career progression are more likely to leave in search of better positions elsewhere. 17% of workers in a 2022 survey said they would leave their job in the next 12 months due to having no career progression.

While most managers adequately handle employee concerns over career progression, trends such as toxic positivity that discourage negative or constructive feedback could be harmful to employees hoping to negotiate promotions and other progression opportunities.

What employers can do to prevent these issues

While it can be difficult to determine whether toxic positivity is having an impact, as many of these exchanges happen in confidential meeting rooms, there are certain actions that business leaders can take to prevent this becoming an issue.

1. Listen to employee concerns

Management should actively listen to employees when they report a concern, and reassure employees that solutions will be implemented. Rather than telling employees that “everything will be okay”, management should instead thank employees for bringing the issue to their attention and ask them what help they would appreciate.

2. Be transparent about company issues

Toxic positivity is not limited to employees raising concerns with management. Business leaders can sometimes exhibit overly positive attitudes when delivering big announcements. Instead, business owners should aim to be as transparent and honest with their employees as possible, even when delivering less than ideal news.

3. Take action and offer updates

If you are going to listen to the concerns of your employees, you should take appropriate action and keep in dialogue to explain what is being done to address any issues raised. If it turns out that action isn’t taken, it’s important to explain the reasons why.

Connor Campbell is a business expert at NerdWallet

Connor Campbell

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