In modern business, the prevalence of the word ‘productivity‘ is not a surprise. And you may know a few people who exhibit behaviors that could be described as toxic. But you might not be that familiar with the term ‘toxic productivity’. It’s a relatively modern phenomenon, and it’s only risen in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Toxic productivity is also unfortunately tied up with other pandemic concerns, such as remote working, hustle culture, and workplace burnout. For all the good that our COVID-19-inspired re-evaluation of work and life has done for some people, for others, it has accelerated certain behaviors that together can be grouped under the term ‘toxic productivity’.
In this article, we’ll look at a few examples, cases, and strategies to understand and mitigate the effects of this most modern of workplace-related syndromes.
A decade ago, maybe even five years ago, an always-on mentality at work would fast-track you to middle and upper management, when the only worthwhile metric was ‘hours under your belt’. Now, with the idea of working smarter – put anothr way, focusing on quality rather than quantity – gaining more prominence, two ideologies go head to head for the soul of the post-pandemic workplace.
What is toxic productivity?
You finished a presentation deck for the monthly management meeting. It took you all day. You’re mentally tired, but there’s an hour until your Zoom call with the board. What the hell – you could squeeze in an hour’s email admin before it starts, even though you know you’ll be working late this evening on another project.
Hello, toxic productivity.
Exemplified but not driven by social platforms like Instagram, the ‘hustle’, and hustle culture (c. 26,000 hashtags), are uniquely modern phenomena: in parts performative but no less real. And social platforms give people the perfect outlet to let the world know how hard you’re working all the time.
Coupled with the ‘Great Resignation‘ leading dissatisfied workers to go after passion projects, side projects, and other previously sidelined projects, hustle culture and consequently toxic productivity have never been more of an issue. But as we will see, all is not lost.
Step one? Identify the signs.
How to identify toxic productivity
What are the most common toxic productivity signs? Broadly, they can be broken into two different types: internal signs, and then the external manifestation of these in how you interact differently with other people.
Internally, toxic productivity signs could be things like: feeling like you’ve never done enough, irrational envy towards other ‘hustlers’ within your peer group, and a restlessness or an inability to concentrate on longer tasks (because you always think you’ve forgotten to do something else).
Externally, you need to look out for mood swings, fatigue, and an over-reliance on coffee.
Identifying toxic productivity in yourself
If you operate to a hybrid work schedule, chances are that you may be familiar with the feelings and behaviors associated with toxic productivity.
The first step is to acknowledge the concept, research it, and finally, the hard part: to admit that you may need to get better yourself. A reassessment of your values may be needed. What makes you happy?
Identifying toxic productivity in the workplace
With this, it’s all about the culture. What gets rewarded? What gets prized? If tasks or projects get finished, do you get time to decompress? Or is it ‘on to the next one’? It’s something to watch out for.
Toxic productivity in the workplace is way more common than you think. And sometimes it gets waved away as ‘part of the culture’, or ‘how it’s always been done’. This is not good enough, and something that needs to change for the better.
What happens if toxic productivity goes unchecked?
You can imagine how this one plays out. In a hybrid work culture, work is play and you’re never not attached to your email server. What started as a modern phenomenon can easily become a very well-established problem. That means burnout and in the worst cases, depression.
Toxic productivity may be a mindset that comes from a place of genuine good intent, but it invariably leads to behaviors and feelings that aren’t welcome. If balanced productivity truly is the goal, the only solution is rest and reassessment.
How to break out of the cycle of toxic productivity
- Set boundaries, know your limits, and stick to them. Be ruthless about when work ends and when the rest of your life begins.
- No screens on the wind-down. We all know the research about the dangers of the blue screen keeping your brain awake. More than that, it’s good to read a book, wind down and take a break from a day looking at the screen as you transition towards sleep.
- The Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro Technique comes from the Italian word for tomato because the timer that founder Francesco Cirillo used for the Pomodoro Technique, was shaped like a big tomato. Put simply, the idea is to work for 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break. There are variations on this such as ‘Pomodoro plus’ ‘Super-Pomodoro’, etc, but the general idea is to break up periods of work with genuine breaks when you take a walk around, get a drink or simply stand up and change your seated position.
- Meditation. There are various types of meditation from Vedic meditation to more traditional Tibetan forms, but the aim with all of them is to step away mentally from what you’re doing and focus on yourself. Breathe deeply. Detach yourself from the work. Slow down and you will be better for it and be able to focus more easily in the long run.
- Fresh air. Taking a walk around the block, going into your nearest park, or again, changing your environment has untold benefits for how good you’re feeling about your work. It is maybe even better for creating or discovering new ideas related to the work you’re doing. If you’re sat in one place, trying to think up the solution to a problem, it’s remarkably frequent how often you realize that you’re not getting anywhere, no further along in the project because you’re in a cycle, both mentally and physically, of being in the same place. So, not only does taking a walk help to banish toxic productivity, but it also helps promote creativity.
- Gratitude. Say thank you to other people for the work they do, but also think about the things that you are thankful for around you. Your daily environment can’t all be work-related – that’s not healthy. You have to make sure that you put things in perspective and be thankful for your friends, family, safety, or your health, to name a few.
One of the most insidious things about toxic productivity is that it has a positive component – the ‘productive’ part. Hence, it is easy to feel like nothing is wrong as long as you are producing good work, nailing your targets, or ‘crushing it’. But it comes at a price.
Crucially, it may take friends or co-workers to spot the signs, which is why it’s so important to look out for those signs in other people and act on them, but at the same time to recognise that it could happen to you too. Remember: communication is about listening as much as it is speaking clearly. Keep things in perspective, keep the envy at bay, and get enough sleep. You can still be productive and do all these things too.