When Productivity Turns Toxic

By Sarah Hannan

When Productivity Turns Toxic

December 22nd, 2021 at 4:41 am

When the first lockdown was announced and I was told that I could work from home, I thought it was the best thing that could happen to me. I wanted to make full use of the time that I had at hand and workout, cook healthy meals, do other household chores, whilst trying to meet deadlines at work.


Little did I know that soon, all these tasks were going to overwhelm me and affect the quality of my work. I seem to have set up unrealistic expectations by trying to cram in these household tasks during my work hours, and later on realised that my work was trickling into the after-work hours that I would spend with my loved ones at home.


I was struggling to switch off work mode even during my off-days, which I did not realise until my partner pointed it out. What I was experiencing was toxic productivity – I was extremely obsessed with productivity, yet at the end of the day, had not achieved anything qualitative be it at work or in my personal life.


Although toxic productivity is something that has been under discussion for years, the past two years of the pandemic seems to have popularised the term. Toxic productivity goes hand-in-hand with hustle culture and workaholism, and tends to trap a person in a never-ending cycle of work, which leaves you with a feeling that you are not doing enough.


It stems from a culture that praises and rewards productivity, which is a good thing, but does not always tell us where to draw the line. You get obsessed with work – where you are trying to do more, not taking into account the quality of work that you are delivering, leading you to burnout.


Dangers of Toxic Productivity

While toxic productivity can indeed negatively affect your relationships and leave you with feelings of guilt, it can also lead to workplace burnout and fatigue. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of diseases included burn-out as an occupational phenomenon in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).


According to WHO, “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased negativity or cynicism in relation to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.


If you feel like you may be suffering from toxic productivity right now, you are not alone. A 2020 study conducted by global staffing firm Robert Half  found that nearly 7 in 10 professionals (68%) who transitioned to a remote setup as a result of the pandemic said they work on the weekend. In addition, 45% of remote employees reported regularly putting in more than 8 hours a day. The good news is that you can take simple steps to break the cycle.


Signs of Toxic Productivity
  1. Working so much that it harms your health and personal relationships – If you are ignoring basic human requirements like eating, sleeping, meeting friends and family and forgetting your other obligations and responsibilities, then you are falling into the trap of toxic productivity.
  2. Having unrealistic expectations from yourself – You expect the same output every day, irrespective of the external factors and stressful situations that may disrupt your normalcy, which is unreasonable.
  3. Difficulty staying still or constant restlessness – If you feel guilty taking a break or time off, and feel your self-worth reducing, you may be suffering from toxic productivity.
  4. Overwhelmed by feelings and unable to work – Many of us attach our self-worth to how productive we are or how many hours in a day we have worked. That is unhealthy. It is important to work hard, but equally as important to not work yourself to the point of burnout.


Avoiding toxic productivity

Mood and stress expert Erika Katherine Ferszt, who is also the founder of Moodally – a purpose built-app that provides access to mood management tools to enhance a person’s mood, says that the key to avoiding toxic productivity is finding balance. Ferszt suggests that it is important to read the signals when one notices that they are spiralling and recommends that we take steps to balance them out. The first step towards finding the balance between work and rest is to remember to take breaks in between our work hours – like walking away from our work desk for a 10-minute break.


She points out that most often people do not relax because they do not know what to do. She suggests making a list of the things we would like to do, if time / money / distance / COVID-related travel restrictions were not an issue, such as going on vacation to an island resort in Asia, or travelling across Europe to improve our culinary skills. Ferszt explains that we can start relaxing by watching YouTube videos relating to the experiences, and gradually plan our trip or discover alternatives, such as finding a recipe to make at home that will turn out to be an enjoyable experience.


Ferszt further notes that; “Toxically productive people are so focused on what they have to do that they’ve completely forgotten what they like to do. Investing energy in that discovery will start to awaken an internal voice that reminds us ‘Hey, you remember me?’”.


Ending toxic productivity

Set realistic goals – The pandemic had a drastic impact on many of us as we had to adjust to working from home. This might have blurred the timelines between your work and attending to your household work. It is better to understand these obstacles and work around them by reducing the goals that you set to accomplish within the day.


Take breaks – Taking breaks is necessary and can help you avoid falling into the toxic productivity trap. Studies have revealed that people who take breaks are more productive than people who do not. Schedule breaks throughout your day at regular intervals, rather than taking a break when you are on the verge of collapse. The Pomodoro Method is a great strategy to stay on task while also taking frequent breaks – where you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-10 minute break.


Get some accountability – Have a circle of friends or family members who will remind you of your harmful behaviours (setting unrealistic goals, attempting to take on too many work-related tasks, forgetting to eat and take breaks). Listen to them when they remind you that you are falling out of line.


Define clearer work-life boundaries – Do not take on too much work that it trickles into your personal life, and takes up your relaxation time or the time you dedicate to spending with your family, loved ones or friends. You can always say ‘no’ if your work is taking up your free time. Make sure you communicate your boundaries to everyone in your life. Set a schedule to turn off your work phone / email or set aside your phone when spending time with your loved ones.


Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness is a way to help us connect to the present moment and ourselves. Mindfulness invites us to observe and accept what is happening around us and within us without judgement. We learn to be more aware of our bodies and needs. Mindfulness helps us disconnect from our “fight or flight” survival instincts, allowing us to connect with more mature, healthy ways of relating to the world.


Seek mental health help – Finally, if you continue to feel the signs of toxic productivity even after introducing these tactics to your work and home life, seek help from a mental health professional to ensure you do not find yourself burned out in the future.

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