WTF   //   October 5, 2023

WTF is a doom loop and why is it harmful in the workplace?

We’re all familiar with toxic positivity in the workplace: good vibes only, everything happens for a reason, it’ll all work out. It can be harmful being so positive, which often leads to being dismissive of complex challenges.

But what happens when you’re on the other side of the spectrum and stuck in a negative thought cycle? That’s the idea of a doom loop. 

We spoke with two psychologists to get to the root of doom loops and how it’s harmful for any work environment.

What is a doom loop?

You might be familiar with the term in another context: urban doom loops. That has made headlines because experts are concerned some of America’s largest cities risk falling into an economic doom loop, which is a negative spiral that results from increasing remote work that leads to urban businesses to close and lose tax revenue. It’s what we saw in San Francisco

But for the most part, a doom loop is described as a scenario in which one negative thought leads to the next, and the next, in a continuous loop. One negative event triggers another, which can compound the first or trigger the next. 

Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer, and co-founder of stress management app meQuilibrium, describes it as “vicious cycles“ that focus on the negative rather than the positive.

“People are prone to negative thinking and doom loops as part of their survival strategy,” said Shatte, “Most of us have had times when we woke up at 3 a.m., ruminating over all the terrible things that could come our way. Very few of us have thoughts of unicorns and rainbows at that time of night.”

In a doom loop scenario, that individual is in a fight or flight state, which means that they will continue to interpret neutral or even good events as threats, continuing the spiral. For example, when people get a promotion, they may focus on the increased responsibility rather than the career plus. With a raise, someone might grumble about more taxes.

“That could look like someone who is constantly complaining and every day, everything bothers them,” said Dr. Christina Geiselhart, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks. “It could be the person that is in a meeting that is constantly arguing or complaining whenever there are suggestions being made, or the person in the lunchroom who is constantly venting about clients they’re working with or their boss.”

Geiselhart stressed that ending up in a doom loop builds gradually – it doesn’t appear out of nowhere. It usually starts with burnout in the workplace that sparks those negative thoughts. Or, it could be a bad review or bad encounter with a boss or client.

What’s the impact of a doom loop?

Shatte says that employees who are stuck in a doom loop typically cannot work productively because they are more focused on their negative thoughts than anything else. Employees experiencing doom loops may lose sleep worrying about career threat and job loss and then begin to resent their job and supervisor.

As the employee communicates and behaves negatively, teammates pick up on that negativity, which can in turn impact team performance and productivity. In worst cases, the whole team can become infected with the doom loop psychology. 

“It begins with the individual, but like anything that is negative with humans, it spreads like wildfire,” said Shatte.

“[Doom loop] begins with the individual, but like anything that is negative with humans, it spreads like wildfire.”
Andrew Shatte, chief knowledge officer, and co-founder of stress management app meQuilibrium.

If someone else is talking about potential threats, then they might end up in a doom loop themselves. It can spread throughout the entire team, or even the whole company in the worst cases. It leads to a negative company culture that doesn’t allow people to share their best thoughts if they’re worried that there will always be a negative rebuttal. 

How can doom loops be stopped?

Small positive actions can break and prevent doom loops. For example, teams can celebrate wins and acknowledge contributions as a way to build on each other to create positivity in the workplace. 

But beyond that, psychological safety is at the heart of stopping doom loops in action. Building a culture of psychological safety is the key to many wellness issues in the workplace. It also helps the person dealing with the doom loop remember that others are there to help.

“To say that somehow it’s the job of the individual to be resilient, regardless of the environment they find themselves in, is starkly unfair,” said Shatte. “The onus shouldn’t be on the individual to suck it up and get stronger regardless of what the organization is like. That’s happened for way too long. We want to upskill the individual in how to get around doom loops.”

Leaders need to be able to spot the telltale signs or symptoms that an individual might heading into a doom loop and help them from there, added Shatte. That could look like injecting happiness and gratitude into the mix where it feels right, reminding people that what they do matters and looking at the overall mission, meaning and purpose of the work they’re doing. It’s important to be genuine with this approach in an effort to avoid toxic positivity. 

“It’s having the awareness of being an active participant sometimes in what thoughts you allow to consume your time.”
Dr. Christina Geiselhart, a licensed clinical social worker.

In regards to the person experiencing the doom loop themselves, Geiselhart stressed it’s important to try to recognize your harmful thoughts — then, try to challenge them.

“It can be done independently where you’re catching yourself and you’re actively changing that thought,” said Geiselhart. “But it can also be calling on the support of your coworkers or supervisor if you feel comfortable enough to say ‘hey, I need some help with this. When you catch me talking in this negative way, can you remind me.’”

It’s important to remember that our brain is naturally designed to look for problems. We will focus on one negative thought rather than 10 good thoughts. It could be helpful to encourage workers to start brag books, where they can have a place to write down positive accolades they’ve received at work to revisit when they’re struggling in a doom loop.

“We have to work a little harder to identify those positive things throughout the day,” said Geiselhart. “It’s having the awareness of being an active participant sometimes in what thoughts you allow to consume your time.”