how do I get out of my office’s toxic positivity meetings?

A reader writes:

So I work at a small nonprofit in a non-U.S. country, during this pandemic. Due to a number of pandemic-related factors, the work I do has been complicated multiple times during the last year or so, and I am doing my best to manage this stress and all of the deadlines my job involves, but the management team at my job are not helping and are filling my calendar with frivolous meetings.

They insist on doing what they refer to as TEAM CONNECTS! which are Zoom calls where they ask questions about Covid and how we are feeling. There is an intense, albeit unstated, pressure to be chipper and cheerful at these meetings, even if you are not feeling that way.

For example, one of the first times we did one of these calls, they had not only just reduced my pay and hours the day before due to the pandemic (something that was not universal but done to select staff), but laid off half of my working team 10 minutes prior to the meeting! Although I was upset and shaken, in the meeting I was called out on the spot by name to contribute something positive about Covid! I was so shocked, the best I could muster was that it definitely was reminding me about what was important and what my priorities should be.

Since that event, these situations keep arising. I have lost family members due to COVID. and still, every two weeks, whether I want to or not (I don’t!), I have to gather to discuss what inspires me or what I consider team work to be during this era of Covid.

The one time I was honest and talked about how upsetting the losses have been and how taxing talking about/dealing with Covid is for me (I am the only person in staff of 20+ with a school-aged child), I was met with uncomfortable silence and nobody even addressed or acknowledged what I’d said before they quickly moved on to another topic.

I am trying to be “a team player” but I am tired and honestly? I already have a therapist for this kind of stuff! They say we don’t need to speak in these meetings, but if I don’t contribute to the discourse, I am called out by name and forced to speak. If I make suggestions that don’t involve being put on the spot and only contributing to discussions when time/mental health allow, I am met with complaints that “optional interaction isn’t as valuable!” They are now gearing up to relaunch the social committee and push us into even more social situations where we do things like eat lunch and watch Netflix together! My lunch hour is the one break I get all day — I don’t want to do this!

I understand that other people may get something out of these exercises (a number of the senior management team are single people who are quarantining alone), but for me, they have become forced socialization appointments on my calendar that I completely dread. I felt like crying at the one I had today.

What do I do here? Is there a polite way to bow out of these meetings? I actually like my job and the work I do (in spite of the stress right now), but these events are awful!

What the F.

They’re demanding that you name something positive about Covid?

Over and over?

When people are losing loved ones?

And they demanded that you name something positive about Covid 10 minutes after half your team was let go and a day after they cut your pay?

I hear a lot of ridiculous things writing this column, but this should win some sort of prize for how out of touch it is.

And the one time you tried to speak openly about how upsetting the pandemic is, everyone acted like you’d pooped on the floor and you were the problem?

What is going on in the culture there? I mean, there’s plenty of toxic positivity floating around in lots of companies — and lots of “share but only share in the exact way we want, and make yourself vulnerable but only in ways we approve of” — and lots of “your mental health is our business even though we’re in no way qualified to address it and might in fact worsen it” — but this is still a remarkable commitment to bad practices on multiple levels. So I’m curious about what else goes on there, because I’m skeptical that there aren’t other problems.

As for what to do …

At a healthier organization, you’d be able to simply say that you don’t find the meetings helpful and would like to opt out so you can focus on pressing deadlines. But when you just asked not to be forced to speak in the meetings, you were told “optional interaction isn’t as valuable!” (??!) so I’m not optimistic that you’d get a different response if you proposed not attending at all. (But who knows, maybe you would. Sometimes people get hung up on “if you’re here, you participate” and so it goes better if you can just … not be there.)

At this point, I would go straight to telling your boss that these meetings are bad for your mental health and so you need to stop attending. You could use language like, “I have lost family members to Covid and I am not in a place where I can participate in a discussion of what’s good in the pandemic. I’ve made a good faith attempt for a while, but it’s become clear to me that these meetings do me more harm than good. To protect my mental health, my plan is to stop attending and I’ll use that time to work on projects like XYZ.”

Your boss may still push back, but you’ll have put it in terms that will make it much more awkward for her to do that so let’s see what happens.

But if you’re outright required to continue attending, even after that conversation, one option is to stick to really vague responses that don’t require any real emotion from you: “I’m hanging in! Such a weird time, blah blah.” … “Team work in the age of Covid? I guess I’d say it’s been important for us all to be flexible and work together to support our goals.” … “Something positive about the pandemic? Well, it’s made me appreciate family and friends more than ever.” … just totally vague and bland pablum.

The other option, of course, is to refuse to play along: “Well, to be honest, I’m shaken by the layoffs! I’m worried about the colleagues we lost and about how to absorb that work on fewer hours. Can we talk about the plan for that?” … “Nothing from me today — I know you’ve said we don’t need to speak in these meetings, so I’m going to pass today.” … “Like a lot of people, I’m not feeling positive about Covid right now. So I’ll pass today.” … “While we’re talking about team work, could we talk about how the team should approach Work Complication X?” … You’d need to judge how much this might or might not hurt you politically there, and how much you care, but it’s an option. (And if you do a few “can we talk about the plan for handling X?” they might be happy to have you opt out of future meetings.)

Also, any chance you’ve got other coworkers who feel similarly to you? Even if there are just a few of you, pushing back as a group can often carry more weight and make it harder for you to be singled out as the problem person.

Your office is exhausting.