It’s tough for even the most experienced leaders to know what to say when negative emotions arise at work. But no matter how well-intentioned you are in reassuring an employee or co-worker that “things will get better” or to “look on the bright side,” you might be causing more harm than good. These statements that minimize negative emotions are called toxic positivity, and they can damage your workforce’s mental health and trust in the organization.  

Downplaying a person’s emotional experience and ignoring what they’re trying to say can bring up even more negative feelings. As companies continue to navigate the pandemic, leaders must not create an environment of toxic positivity in a misguided effort to maintain employee wellness. Instead, leaders should develop a culture of trust and acceptance, where employees are encouraged to process and discuss negative emotions. Accepting negative emotions without judgment can help employees process and move past negative emotions faster, resulting in healthier, happier employees

The solution to toxic positivity is to validate feelings, actively listen, and give others space to feel how they feel. Here are four examples of common toxic positivity phrases to avoid and examples of how to acknowledge difficult subjects in the workplace with empathy. 

“Everything happens for a reason.”

This phrase is a typical example of toxic positivity that can leave the employee on the receiving end feeling helpless. What makes the phrase especially harmful is its use of “everything.” An all-encompassing word like “everything” unintentionally speaks to seemingly senseless tragedies that don’t necessarily have a “reason.” 

An employee coping with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis or a favorite colleague getting laid off is unlikely to agree that there was a reason behind the event. 

Next time use: “Thank you for sharing this with me.” This phrase entrusts others to you, knowing that they can come to you with problems — whether work-related or personal — without fear of judgment. 

“Think positively.”

The idea that tapping into positive thoughts or positive vibes to change your future is something we’ve grown to hear a lot. But it can come across as dismissive if you tell an employee or co-worker, who shares a worry, to be positive. Also — it’s simply ineffective. Having an optimistic perspective while working through something will undoubtedly help us put in the hard work to achieve a desired outcome. But positive thoughts alone won’t change how your employee gets through their current struggle.

Next time try: “Let’s make a plan to help you and the team get through this.” This phrase shows that you’ve listened to the other person’s concerns and reflected on how to help instead of offering impractical positive vibes. By making a plan, you also create tactical ways to support the employee, which is more effective in the end. 

“There are others here that have it worse.”

Suffering is not a competition. One employee might have experienced the effects of the pandemic very differently than others on the team — and that’s okay. Everyone’s pain is valid. However, when you compare one employee’s pain to someone else’s, you minimize their pain. It signals that it’s not okay for them to be unhappy with their current circumstances. 

Next time try: “Let’s discuss the resources we have available in the company and what else you might need.” When an employee comes to you to discuss their problems — whether related to work or personal issues — the role of a leader (or even a peer) is to listen more than talk. When appropriate in the conversation, guide them to tools, people, or resources to help them. For instance, find a wellness or productivity course that can help them deal with the stress of working remotely. 

“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

This commonly used turn of phrase can insinuate that whatever challenges the person is facing will fix them in the end. It’s not helpful to hear from a leader that one’s pain is a good thing. Unfortunately, this phrase also severely minimizes an employee’s current feelings, making them less likely to reach out for help again in the future. 

Next time try: “What can I take off your plate?” Don’t wait for a missed deadline to occur or your employee to feel like they’ve hit a breaking point before validating their emotions. Instead, acknowledge your employee’s feelings and help them find ways to overcome any hardships, such as lightening their workload so that they can achieve better work-life balance. 

Mental health is workplace wealth

It’s all too easy to tell somebody to be positive in response to negative emotions. But, if you want to create a supportive work culture built on authenticity, you have to be okay with handling difficult feelings and conversations. Know that it will result in happier employees in the end. For more tips on wellbeing in the workplace, watch our webinar with instructor Deborah Grayson Riegal on How to Talk About Mental Health at Work.