A Negative Workplace Can Be Contagious

Positivity can breed productivity, and it sure makes for a more pleasant day. Although being surrounded by negativity in the workplace can sap your energy, happiness and productivity. So how can you put your best foot forward at work each day when pessimistic coworkers make you want to run for the door?


A Negative Workplace Can Be Contagious

We spend a large part of our day at work. Unfortunately, there are times when it may feel as if it doesn't matter how good our day begins, because once our feet hit the work floor, we know our mood, and productivity, are going to take a nosedive.

We usually can't choose our coworkers, and spending lengthy amounts of time at a job where we must rely on each other in a high-pressure nursing environment often leads to stress. Add the tension produced from negativity transmitted through gossip, attitudes, or our general perception of shared communication and we're left feeling disengaged and uninspired.

Some stress can help motivate us to be more productive, but prolonged workplace stress and negativity isn't good for our mental or physical health. It can leave us mentally fatigued, defensive and contribute to potential burnout.

Infected with Negativity

We tend to mimic, or mirror, another person's mood and facial expressions. This mirror neuron is one way we can empathize with others, and how we interpret the actions of others. Although speculation remains regarding the function of the mirror neuron, many of us can't deny that if we're watching an event, our heart might race along with the contest. Or if we watch a sad movie, we're pulling out the box of tissues. We replicate another's emotional state and reproduce it for a shared experience. Just like laughter is contagious, so is negativity.

When we're surrounded by negative people, sometimes it's easy to fall into the pattern of complaining along with our coworkers, even if we didn't realize we had something to complain about. Sometimes before we can change our behavior, it's necessary to develop an awareness of our unconscious response. Then we can make a conscious choice to avoid the infection of someone else's negative emotional state.

Treat the Virus

It takes time to change a habit. But if waves of discontent have had us swimming in negativity, we should determine how we truly feel about the situation, or our workplace, and then how we would like to respond to it. This requires accepting that we can't change how another person feels, and that we're not responsible for improving their attitudes, only our own.

It's easy to become distracted worrying about the behavior of others, or to become infected with a negative vine of gossip that often has its roots tightly wound in highlighting the shortcomings of our coworkers. We automatically fall into the conversation and become a victim to the effects of our emotional reaction. Instead of joining in, we could discourage negativity by:

  • Ask for their solution - this may cause your peer to admit that they didn't have one, and that they weren't even seeking one and were only complaining
  • Share success stories - what we focus on tends to grow, so look for, and share, the positive aspects
  • Pause - take a deep breath and make a conscious decision of how to respond rather than responding on autopilot
  • Be supportive - but don't feed the negativity
  • Don't take it personally - some people thrive on negativity and won't be dissuaded
  • Look with a new perspective - and try to leave past baggage of experience with the situation, and the individual, behind to see if that changes a conditioned negative perception

Prescribe Happiness

Sometimes it's hard to accept that our happiness doesn't have to be dictated by circumstances. That it's within our control and not always delivered from an outside source. If we rely too much on one person, or one thing in our life, for our happiness, then we've given it too much power over our emotional health.

No matter the situation, if we strive to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses we may be more productive. Positivity is a choice that can allow us to be more curious and open while negativity tends to trigger stress, fear and even anger. Although sometimes changing our mindset isn't enough. If our workplace has become a toxic environment, we might need to consider options which may include a transfer, or seeking a new position.

Seek a Cure

Negativity cannot always be avoided, but we can control how we allow it to affect us. Ongoing negativity in the workplace can be exhausting and detrimental to our physical and emotional health. We can make efforts to dissipate some of the negativity and temper our response, although sometimes the only cure is moving on in our career.

Maureen Bonatch MSN, RN draws from years of experience in nursing administration, leadership and psychiatric nursing to write healthcare content. Her experience as a fiction author helps her to craft engaging and creative content. Learn more about her freelance writing at CharmedType.com and her fiction books at MaureenBonatch.com

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Specializes in NICU. Has 40 years experience.

One can not just smile away what "negativity"there is when things are in reality not very nice.You can not sing "dont worry be happy" and have your manager become a sweet,fair minded ,helpful person.It is not by contagiousness that it spreads or lack of smiling .It is by pervasive unrelenting unrealistic demands and goals of perfect Hcap scores and perfect "always " answers by ex patients.Coupled with Joint commission standards.I have to hydrate my patient yet I am not allowed to hydrate myself because having a water bottle near a patient area or nurses station can raise infection "rate."To arrive home with salty skin and so thirsty you stand in front of the fridge drinking whatever is handy.You can not smile that away.It is real.

Daisy Joyce

264 Posts

I knew our unit was in deep trouble when our manager started hanging sayings on her door about how "Your real power lies in how you control your response to situations "

LOL, we all know that's just something powerful people tell us peons so we don't riot.


98 Posts

Has 3 years experience.

If you want to fix attitudes then address and try to fix the problems. I'm tired of being made to feel like I need to be Pollyanna when there is a dumpster fire on my floor every day I work.


6,594 Posts

"Your real power lies in how you control your response to situations "

Hey, ^ that's true, though. "There was a sign on the door??" :whistling:

Besides. How fun is that motivational/deep quote?! Be positive, you know? Join in with some Jack Handey-esque quotes. Every week you could drop off a mug, a poster, a new door-hanger with something like, "If you're a horse, and someone gets on you, and falls off, and then gets right back on you, I think you should buck him off right away."

Specializes in Med-Surg. Has 9 years experience.

I think this is a good reminder to find something to be grateful for throughout the day. I try to not let other people's negativity drag me down. Days can be stressful and hard, but I don't have to let it create a negative attitude in me. My mental health is important to me, so I prioritize managing stress and self care. I wish more people would do the same.

Trauma Columnist

traumaRUs, MSN, APRN

153 Articles; 21,232 Posts

Specializes in Nephrology, Cardiology, ER, ICU. Has 31 years experience.

We all have to spend some amount of time at work - why not make it as positive as it can be? Life is too short to be unhappy. If your work situation is untenable...move on to something else. As nurses we do have choices.

Change shifts, change floors, change facilities. Look for new opportunities: go for a promation, go back to school. In the end, we all want work to be at least tolerable.

Why not try to change what you can?