Maybe you’re trying to make as much money as possible, as soon as possible. Maybe you were an overachieving child conditioned to believe your value lies entirely in your work. Maybe you’re just in a shit job with a shit boss. Whatever it is, a lot of us have fallen into the trap of feeling like we have to be working all the time. Call it being a workaholic, getting that bread, or anything you like. But a lot of the time, it’s really just toxic productivity.
“Toxic productivity is a desire to always be productive at all times and not wanting to stop even though the task has been done,” said Rea Celine Villa, a clinical psychologist based in the Philippines.
Villa said that our compulsion toward toxic productivity can arise from several reasons.
“Some people may tie their identity and self-worth to their ability to be productive, which creates a toxic cycle of overworking and stress. They may feel the need or compulsion to keep themselves busy, because if they’re busy, they’re doing something right. Being idle is seen as a sign of slacking off, so if they’re working, they see themselves as having value,” said Villa.
The pandemic seemed to exacerbate these mindsets. Even though many people are working from home, Villa said they might feel the need to double their efforts to appear like they are doing and achieving more—not just at work, but in life in general.
“Working from home made a lot of self-imposed expectations, like learning a new language, baking, holding events on Zoom, getting fit, etc. There is always that desire to be on the move, to do things, to show people that you are doing something.”
Villa pointed to an extreme example of toxic productivity—the Japanese phenomenon of karoshi, which means death caused by overwork or job exhaustion. But some examples are more subtle. Answering emails or doing work outside of assigned work hours, said Villa, can also be a form of toxic productivity. Mulling over unfinished work when you’re out with friends is another manifestation.
An emotion that might also play into toxic productivity is guilt.
People might complete a task early, for example, only to feel guilty about having some extra time to themselves. According to Reyiel Pela-Tecson, a psychologist who’s also based in the Philippines, that’s another symptom of toxic productivity.
For Pela-Tecson, some managers may also be unknowingly perpetuating a culture of toxic productivity when they imply that employees who aren’t working all the time are not “giving their best” or “striving for excellence.” In this light, combating toxic productivity—or calling any practice “toxic” at all—might be seen as settling for mediocrity.
In these situations, Pela-Tecson recommends that people “remember that productivity has its threshold, and surpassing it is both physically and mentally exhausting… There is no price for health, and people can still be successful without compromising their well-being.”
“There is no price for health, and people can still be successful without compromising their well-being.”
Of course, the irony is that the need to constantly be productive can itself lead to being unproductive.
“When you’re so preoccupied with your work, you may even neglect to do your responsibilities at home. You forget to cook or clean, your laundry piles up, and you forget to do the grocery shopping. These are all symptoms of toxic productivity that people may not even initially notice,” said Villa.
This is not to say that all hard work is bad. Villa explained that hard work only becomes bad when you spend so much time working that you no longer have the energy to take care of yourself. Not knowing when and where to draw the line could lead to stress, fatigue, and burnout. “It can also affect your productivity, motivation, and job satisfaction,” said Villa.
Perhaps more importantly, it might also affect your relationships with family and friends, whom you might end up neglecting in favor of your work.
Instead of “hard work,” Villa likes to practice what she calls “smart work.”
“This is when you still continue to work hard and give your best but in a smarter way. You can push yourself to your best abilities but you must also know when to step back. This helps you to reframe and refocus, which could give you more time to think and generate ideas, and build that creativity bubble,” Villa said.
“Smart work is also learning to utilize the resources around you, and ask for help from your team or groupmates. This does not only help you with your task but also helps you build relationships and strengthen your teamwork. We can always work hard but we can also work smarter.”
So how should people deal with toxic productivity?
According to Villa, one way is to practice sound discernment.
“Not all of the work is urgent,” said Villa. “It is important to always ask yourself: What is the worst thing that will happen if I take 24 hours to think about this before taking a step to action?”
“It is important to always ask yourself: What is the worst thing that will happen if I take 24 hours to think about this before taking a step to action?”
Even then, Villa said that not every situation or issue requires your action.
“Choose your battles and your actions. Be choosy on when you should take action or let others also do it. This does not only set healthy boundaries for you, but also creates opportunities for others to be involved,” she said.
Villa added that people are only able to produce quality work when they themselves are taken care of, so one way to counter toxic productivity without sacrificing work quality is by practicing self-care.
“Take time out from ‘doing’ and also take time for yourself. We all have our breaking points and we can’t give what we don’t have. It is important to replenish and purposely take in and recover as well,” said Villa, adding that anything like playing sports, going on a road trip, taking care of plants, or practicing mindfulness can all give people some much-needed rest and peace of mind.
What it all boils down to, however, is remembering your worth outside of your deliverables, and remembering your life outside of your job.
“Knowing to separate your self-worth from your work output will help keep your perspective in check, and knowing your boundaries, especially when it comes to your mental and physical capacities, will help you keep track of your limits,” said Villa.
For Pela-Tecson, “what thrives is what is tolerated,” and breaking away from toxic productivity can start with something as simple as saying “no.”
“Balancing productivity can start by simply saying ‘no’ to the things that violate your personal space and time. If you do not control your time and space, others will control it for you.”
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