The conventional thinking is that if you’re busy at work, that means you’re doing your job well. After all, being a productive member of the team means you’re contributing to the team’s goals and vision. But there’s a difference between unhealthy amounts of busyness and real productivity. If you feel constantly tired, burned out, and like your overall well-being is suffering, you might be a victim of toxic productivity.
Most workers are suffering from being caught in the cycle of the type of burnout described above. For example, a Deloitte survey discovered that a stunning 77 percent of workers say that they’ve had employee burnout at some point. The problem has gotten so bad that another survey from Visier found 70 percent of workers who experienced burnout have considered leaving their current jobs.
Many companies aren’t helping matters with their emphasis on getting as much work done as possible, often demanding too much from their employees. North American Chief People Officer for Ogilvy James Nicholas Kinney says toxic productivity often comes from a company’s work culture. “Workplaces tend to reward overworking and the strength of being tough,” Kinney says, which can lead to damage to a person’s mental health.
It’s clear that identifying and addressing toxic productivity should be a goal for all organizational leaders. Otherwise, companies may suffer from low employee retention, which in turn decreases productivity and profits.
In this article, learn more about what toxic productivity is, the reasons people engage in it, and how to break the cycle.
What Is Toxic Productivity?
Toxic productivity occurs when you feel an overwhelming need to always be working, even if it leads to problems in other areas of your life. If you ever feel guilty for taking a break or not having a long to-do list, you’ve fallen into the trap of toxic productivity. When someone experiences toxic productivity, they often adopt a mindset that any time not spent on doing something is time wasted. They will ignore signs of declining mental and physical health. Even when they’re not at work, they think about work and what they need to do to get more done. They often consider themselves workaholics and treat this as a positive trait.
Clear Signs of Toxic Productivity
Being productive isn’t toxic by itself. There’s nothing wrong with being organized and thorough. However, toxic productivity can come in many forms, and knowing what the signs are can help you identify when you need to change what you’re doing.
Be on the lookout for:
- Personal Life Interference: Do the demands of your job take a toll on your life outside of work? It can be something as simple as fretting over the large number of tasks you have to do tomorrow. If you find you can’t enjoy time away from work, then that counts as interference.
- Negative Impact on Mental Health: Constant productivity at the expense of your well-being can lead to more anxiety and depression. This can cause feelings of disconnection from those around you, including your family and friends.
- Unnecessary Feelings of Guilt: It’s okay to feel a bit down on yourself if you miss a deadline. However, if you feel bad that you don’t have enough to do, that may be a sign of toxic productivity. Even if you’re getting a lot done, if you still feel bad because, technically, you could do more, that indicates unnecessary guilt.
- Lack of Self-Care: This happens when you stop caring about your own well-being to instead do more work. That might mean skipping out on breaks, taking shorter vacations, or working even when you don’t feel well.
- Overly Detailed Schedule: Look at your schedule, and note how detailed it is. How thoroughly have you planned out your day? If you have planned everything by the hour or even more incrementally than that, you might have taken things too far.
- Regularly Working Longer Hours: Again, there’s nothing wrong with working a bit longer from time to time. However, if it becomes a regular occurrence, that might indicate an unhealthy level of productivity. Working longer hours includes doing work during weekends as a way to catch up or get ahead outside of normal working hours.
Why Are You Addicted to Being Productive?
On the surface, the solution to toxic productivity seems simple: Just don’t work so much. That’s much easier said than done, however. For many, that extreme level of productivity is an addiction. Saying “no” to it simply hasn’t crossed their minds, and trying to pull back can cause a high degree of discomfort. The following are some of the reasons people are so addicted to toxic productivity.
Your Company Culture Has Unreasonable Work Standards
Many companies have a work culture that expects people to put in long hours day after day. There are numerous examples of business leaders who work well past 40 hours a week and don’t find it odd to ask others to do it, too. For example, Elon Musk is a famous proponent of “grind culture.” Sheryl Sandberg has even gone on record saying, “You know, there has never been a 24-hour period in five years when I have not responded to e-mail at Facebook. I am not saying it’s easy. I work long hours.” Since leaders serve as models to employees, when the boss works nonstop, employees follow suit.
As the former executive editor for Harvard Business Review Sarah Green Carmichael describes hustle culture: “Managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours—nights, weekends, vacation—without complaining.” The idea is that the more work you do, the better off you’ll be. While this doesn’t mean putting in the work is a bad thing, it’s possible to take it too far.
Your Personality Type Favors It
You may have a personality type that leans more toward being overproductive. For example, if you’re a “Type A” person, you have an inner motivation to get the best results possible. You’re also very competitive and like to do multiple tasks at once. When these traits form a large part of who you are, it’s easy to see how you can begin delving into the realm of toxic productivity.
Or you might be a perfectionist—someone who has to get everything exactly right no matter how long it takes. Doing so often means staying late at work or putting in the hours during the weekend because you can’t stand to deliver an imperfect product. Perfectionists can easily become consumed by their jobs in this way. A perfectionist often views their internal value as deeply tied to their work. They feel that if they don’t do a good job or put in double the effort, their employer and coworkers will find out they’re not actually valuable.
Psychological Effects Support It
Many people also experience certain psychological effects that come from getting a lot done. For example, when someone completes a task, they might receive a dopamine rush. This is a release of pleasure chemicals that reward us for doing a certain behavior. The feeling can be a motivational one, encouraging us to do something helpful.
But there’s a negative side to that dopamine hit. If you feel that pleasant sensation from completing a task or receiving praise from your manager, it may motivate you to do more work-related activities. That means doing more work for more dopamine spikes. The push to be productive at all times can then become almost impossible to ignore. When this happens, it can lead to unhealthy behavior like toxic productivity.
6 Ways to Disrupt the Cycle of Toxic Productivity
Toxic productivity doesn’t have to be your default setting. With some effort, you can break the cycle and maintain a more healthy balance. The answer isn’t to be deliberately unproductive, but rather to channel your energy in better ways. Start by trying the following strategies.
1. Set Reasonable Boundaries
In your job, set boundaries that you won’t cross. For example, when you go on vacation, completely unplug from your work. Don’t look at emails. Log out of any work-related messaging apps. Notify your colleagues that you won’t answer any phone calls. This shows dedication to maintaining distance from your job. You don’t always have to be on the clock.
2. Schedule Breaks During the Day
Whether you make detailed schedules or not, you should still plan times during the day when you take a break. These breaks are your chance to relax and recharge. Make sure you get away from your desk. Take a walk or meditate. If you’re working from home, schedule a full hour to eat lunch. If you don’t schedule your breaks, you’re more likely to skip over them and spend all of your time working.
3. Do Only the Most Important Things
On the list of all the tasks you need to do, identify only the most important things. Those are the items that should receive your full attention. There’s nothing wrong with putting something not so important or urgent off for another day. As you concentrate on only the most important items, you’ll find that your schedule opens up, and you won’t feel as busy as you were before.
4. Undergo a “Dopamine Detox”
If you’re one of those people who gets a dopamine hit from completing tasks, you can try what some experts call a “dopamine detox.” While this usually relates to cutting back from social media, you can apply it to aspects of your job. Put away the phone for long stretches, especially outside of normal business hours. Allow yourself to slow down. And don’t place as much emphasis on checking things off a list.
5. Delegate Certain Responsibilities
If you’re in a position to do so, don’t be afraid to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others. Delegation is a useful tool where a leader can give others opportunities to take on more responsibility. This often frees up schedules and allows you more time to focus on what really matters.
6. Remove Yourself From Unhealthy Situations
As is often the case, toxic productivity may not come from who you are. Instead, it comes from the demands of management. If you’re in a hostile work environment, or if you have a toxic boss, you may feel pressure to do more than you can handle. If you find yourself in that situation, the best thing to do is to find a new job. That’s far from easy, but getting yourself in a position where you don’t experience workplace conflict of that type can only benefit your mental health.
Start Working Smarter, Not Harder
Working harder doesn’t always pay dividends. One study from Stanford found that after working 50 hours per week, productivity declines dramatically. Instead, find ways to work smarter. And interestingly, that can start with taking full advantage of your PTO. According to the U.S. Travel Association, more than half (55 percent) of American workers didn’t use all of their PTO days in 2018. Even then, a QuickBooks report shows 52 percent of employees say they’ve done work while taking days off.
Don’t fall into those traps. By using all of your PTO, you give your mind and body a chance to rest and reset. That allows you to fully unplug from your job and focus on your own well-being. From there, you can work on creating habits that make a difference and fight toxic productivity.
Another way to help yourself is by establishing a healthy morning routine. Find out how from the following article:
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