There’s nothing wrong with being productive. It’s rewarding to smash your to-do list, especially if you have an equally busy work and family life and you need to be super-organized.
But is it actually possible to be too productive? If your obsession with getting things done is damaging your well-being, then the answer is yes. This phenomenon is called toxic productivity.
In this post, we’ll explore what toxic productivity means in the workplace, why it’s a real problem, and how to avoid it.
What is Toxic Productivity?
Toxic productivity is when you feel the need to be doing something all the time to remain productive at all costs. You favor productivity over other aspects of your life, negatively impacting your physical, mental, and emotional health. The lack of work-life balance leads to stress and eventually to burnout.
For example, if you’re keen to prove yourself at work, you might volunteer to take on extra tasks or responsibilities. You start off by taking fewer breaks, but soon you’re skipping lunch, logging in to the system on weekends, and working crazy hours. When this becomes the norm, you’re experiencing toxic productivity.
The problem escalates if this overwork becomes an expectation for your company. Some managers take advantage of your willingness to work all hours, while others may not realize you’re doing it. They’ll assume you’re completing tasks in record time and potentially give you even more to do.
Toxic productivity can also cause issues between colleagues. If one person works far beyond their contracted hours, it makes the others look bad or feel guilty. Plus, overwork can actually make you counterproductive. You take on so much that none of it gets done properly.
Signs of Toxic Productivity
If any of these apply to you, you’re probably suffering from toxic productivity.
1. Always working
Toxic productivity means you never give yourself a break. You work evenings, weekends, and when you’re meant to be on vacation. You feel like you don’t even have time to go to the bathroom or make a drink. You’re that person who checks their emails at dinner and in the movie theater.
2. Feelings of guilt
You feel guilty or anxious when you’re not working or when you think you’re not working hard enough compared to other people or to your own high standards. In turn, you probably also feel guilty about not spending enough time with family or friends—but not enough to slow down.
3. Deprioritizing your health
You’re neglecting or damaging your health. You’re tired all the time because you never give yourself enough rest. Eventually, overwork leads to emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion—otherwise known as burnout. You may actually start to dread going to work, but you keep pushing yourself.
4. Unrealistic expectations
You set yourself unrealistic expectations about what you need to accomplish and base your self-worth on these achievements. You always feel like you need a purpose rather than doing things purely for fun. But instead of experiencing fulfillment, you’re consumed by a desire to do more.
Why Does Toxic Productivity Happen?
Now let’s take a look at some of the reasons why people develop toxic productivity.
1. Your role
If you’re new to a job or aiming for promotion, you’ll be trying to prove yourself, while those in management positions might feel they have to set an example. Certain types of roles, such as knowledge workers and creative workers, seem more prone to the problem. You might also experience a company culture where toxic productivity thrives.
Toxic productivity is often displayed by self-employed workers because they don’t have a safety net—if they don’t work, they don’t earn. When you’re trying to build your own business from scratch, you may feel like you need to work constantly. And people who run a side hustle to supplement their income have to balance more than one job.
Working from home can make it difficult to switch off and differentiate work life from home life, especially if your living room doubles as your office. Remote workers also worry that the boss will assume they’re slacking off or social loafing, and they’re desperate to prove this isn’t the case.
2. Modern technology
Technology has many benefits for the workplace, but it can also contribute to toxic productivity. A few years back, we didn’t have 24/7 access to work emails or so many methods of communication. Now that it’s easy to check messages throughout the day, people feel an expectation to do so.
Most of us enjoy full internet connectivity from anywhere, so even if you’re overseas or hiking in the mountains, you feel like there’s no excuse not to check in on work. Managers and coworkers know they can get hold of you wherever you are.
When you see messages from colleagues, you feel guilty that you’re not working too. Plus, when you’re scrolling through social media, it’s easy to get the (false) impression that everyone is more productive and successful than you.
Moreover, the constant barrage of emails, instant messages, and notifications can interrupt and decrease your overall workflow efficiency. While technology has many benefits, it’s important to find ways to manage it effectively to avoid falling into the trap of toxic productivity.
3. Hustle culture
Hustle culture, or grind culture, has a lot to answer for. Born out of the ethos of entrepreneurial Silicon Valley companies, it’s the idea that you need to work relentlessly if you want to achieve your career or financial goals. And if you don’t get there, you simply haven’t worked hard enough.
This glorification of overwork is often promoted by social media influencers, using the buzzwords “rise and grind” or the #grindset hashtag. They’ll post photos and videos of aspirational productivity and brag about how they thrive on three hours’ sleep or whatever. This taps into people’s existing insecurities.
4. Negative feelings
Speaking of insecurities, your own perspectives and perceptions play a big part in toxic productivity. If you’re a perfectionist, you probably suffer from a fear of failure or impostor syndrome (when people doubt their own abilities and fear being exposed as underqualified for their role).
If you have low self-esteem, you may compare yourself negatively to others and imagine that colleagues or managers will perceive you as lazy if you don’t go the extra mile. This is especially the case if you feel that your job isn’t secure.
Finally, if you’re stressed about world events or your personal life, you might throw yourself into work to take your mind off it.
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How to Avoid Toxic Productivity
Here’s the most important part—the actions you can take to overcome toxic productivity in the workplace. We’ve divided it into sections with tips for employees and business owners.
Steps you can take—as an employee
1. Take time out
While you’re working, take regular breaks for drinks and food, a walk away from your desk, or even just a moment when you take your eyes away from the screen and stare out the window. Breaks are not a waste of time; they’re vital for your well-being and help you get a fresh perspective.
On weekends (or whichever days you don’t have to work), you need to stop working. Try blocking out leisure and relaxation time on your calendar. Schedule a fun activity for yourself, preferably with others, and leave your phone at home.
Make sure you take your full vacation allowance! If you’re self-employed, take as much time off as you can afford. It might be hard to switch off at first, but enjoying yourself will help you to forget about work.
2. Set boundaries
Set boundaries for yourself and avoid working outside of those times. Turn your work phone off at a certain time, or use “do not disturb” mode and disable notifications. Set aside a half-hour for lunch and actually take it—try to leave the office so you’re not tempted to keep working.
If you work from home, try to use a separate room rather than your living room or bedroom, as associating those spaces with work makes it harder to switch off. If that’s not possible, make sure you follow a routine by logging in and out at roughly the same time each day.
If you’re responsible for setting your own deadlines, remember to add some flexibility into your schedule. Estimate how long you need for a task, and add extra time—that way, you won’t get slammed and try to squeeze everything into an unrealistic time frame. A time management tool will help you understand how long certain tasks take.
3. Communicate your feelings
If you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed by work, it’s important to be honest about it. Learn to recognize the signs of toxic productivity and of burnout, and consult a mental health professional if stress and negative feelings are impacting your daily life.
You also need to know the difference between toxic productivity and being overworked. Toxic productivity typically stems from your own choice to work extra hours—but if your workload is too high for one person to cope with, you need to take that up with your manager.
So, if you regularly have too much work to fit into your contracted hours despite working at a reasonable pace, speak up, or nothing will change. It’s also important to learn to say “no”, which is something we tend to avoid for fear of letting people down.
Steps you can take—as a business owner
1. Set clear expectations
Start by giving your employees clear start and finish times so that everyone knows when they’re expected to be working. For those who work flexibly, designate a weekly maximum (such as 37.5 hours) and encourage them to split this into equal chunks if possible (such as 7.5 hours per day).
Let all workers know that they can turn off their phones or notifications when they’re not actually working. If you’re going to use time and attendance systems, explain that this isn’t based on a lack of trust—it’s just a way to keep track of who’s working when.
Make it clear that you do not expect anyone to damage their health by working for you. Insist that all staff take proper lunch breaks, use their vacation allowance, and take time off when they’re sick. Lead by example by taking your own breaks and talking to your team about why it’s important.
2. Ensure a manageable workload
It’s important that you don’t give your employees an unrealistic workload. Monitor system logins and the times of day when people are sending emails. If someone regularly works outside contracted hours, raise the issue with them. You can also help by not messaging staff when they’re off work—it can wait until they’re back on the clock.
When overtime is available, share it around. If you ask for volunteers, the same old hands will always be raised. A rota system makes it fairer for all, as well as reducing a trigger for toxic productivity.
Workers sometimes worry that they’ll be out of the loop if they take a vacation. If your business type allows, you could consider holding a company shutdown—for instance, over Christmas or for a week in the summer—so that everyone has a mandatory break at the same time.
3. Support your staff
Business owners have a responsibility to create a happy and productive work environment, so keep an eye on your workforce and hold regular 1:1 check-ins to ensure they’re not displaying signs of toxic productivity or burnout. Make sure you include remote employees.
Offer proactive support by getting to know the individual needs of each employee and learning to accommodate their different productivity styles. Transparency and communication are essential when you introduce new processes or software so that the changes don’t cause extra stress.
You can also provide guidance on the importance of a healthy work-life balance and training on well-being as well as work-related skills. As well as a healthcare package, offer employee benefits that help staff to save money, and a gym membership to encourage leisure time.
Toxic productivity is bad news for workers and, ultimately, bad for business. It leads to stress, depression, and burnout—and nobody can be productive under those conditions.
As people begin to realize the dangers of toxic productivity, a 2022 survey showed that 70% of US workers had prioritized, or were considering prioritizing, their personal lives over their jobs and careers.
That’s a step in the right direction—but in the meantime, employees and business owners alike should learn to recognize the symptoms of toxic productivity and follow our tips to avoid it.
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