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Toxic Productivity

The Diminishing Returns of Toxic Productivity

The World Health Organization (WHO) added workplace burnout to its International Classification of Diseases in 2019. It’s listed as an occupational phenomenon – not technically a disease, but a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.¹ The experience of over-working to the point of mental and physical collapse is nothing new, so this addition wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Since the problem has been identified and studied, has it gotten better? Unfortunately the answer is no. 

What Is Toxic Productivity?

It may sound like an oxymoron because productivity has historically been a great thing! We’re always trying to boost and increase our productivity, so where does the line fall between positive and toxic? And, how can we avoid slipping into the bad habits that feed the latter?

Toxic productivity is a precursor to workplace burnout and is the obsessive and destructive desire for productivity at all times at the expense of other priorities like family life, health, relationships, and hobbies.² In the workplace, we strive to be productive, but this type of behavior can be destructive if left unchecked.

It’s Never Enough

If you are always busy “doing,” you aren’t alone. Many of us are more comfortable doing rather than not doing, or making hurried decisions because sitting with a problem is too uncomfortable. This restlessness might be fueled by a fear of personal failure or insecurity. It can also develop if there’s an avoidance to face personal problems and issues outside of the workplace – it’s just easier to throw yourself into work. Individuals who tie their self-worth to dollars made, hours worked, or meetings attended can fall into this category as well. They think they can always do more, but no matter what, it’s never enough. If all of this pressure to “do” leads to exhaustion or constantly feeling guilty for not accomplishing goals or producing better results, you’re probably experiencing toxic productivity.³ 

Even while there may be more hours logged or tasks completed, this type of work ethic does not create better results. Many times, projects and assignments are rushed through, just to move on to the next. Quality of work suffers, and productivity actually declines. 

Can Working From Home Help?

Despite having more free time during quarantine, many people working from home felt they had to increase their efforts to be noticed "doing" more. This reaction was underlined by self-imposed, impractical expectations and a need to prove their worth. There quickly became an indistinct line between home life and work life. While this was positive in some ways (sharing pets and kids on Zoom calls, less commuting, more casual dress code), it also meant you were never “away” from the office. After-hours emails and texts could always be answered. Our increased use of technology, both for work and personal reasons, make it even more difficult to switch off from “work mode.” 

The onslaught of social media posts about taking advantage of pandemic time to learn new skills (sourdough bread, anyone?) didn’t help. Instead of slowing pace, there appeared to be a need to "do" and then “do more.” There was also added pressure to demonstrate publicly just how much you’re doing. 

Have You Crossed the Line Into Toxicity?

If some of the above-mentioned behaviors seem familiar, you aren’t alone. The good news is that there are some easy ways to combat toxic productivity. What’s interesting is that many of the same actions we take to increase productivity will actually help decrease toxic productivity.

Define work boundaries - Set a specific time to close the laptop and silence phone notifications. Set the expectation with colleagues that you won’t be available after hours unless it’s an emergency.

Practice self-care - Take a walk, listen to music, meditate. Understand that giving yourself a break is productive!

Adjust your goals and expectations - Set realistic deadlines, don’t overcommit your time, say “no” when necessary, and delegate if possible. 

Attention management vs. time management - Shift your strategy to self-motivate. Learn to recognize where your thoughts are, how it affects your productivity, and practice shifting to the brain state that is more relevant in the moment. 

Don’t compare yourself to others on social media - Some platforms make it easy to feel competition with friends, as well as strangers. Don’t over compare, and remember that social posts are never a full picture of reality.

Reflect - Self-awareness is necessary for your psychological health. Those who are emotionally self-aware can distinguish how their feelings affect them and influence job performance. Reflect on times you were able to be productive without compromising your well-being.

Do nothing - Schedule 5-10 minutes in your calendar to literally do nothing. Sit with yourself (as uncomfortable as that may be) and let your mind wander. Stare out the window or doodle. If work thoughts encroach, acknowledge them and let them float away like a balloon. You may find yourself coming up with better ideas and experiencing a heightened level of creativity and innovation.

Focusing on productivity can be healthy and will always be important in the workplace. But, when it starts to affect other areas of your life, it’s time to take a step back and honestly assess your behavior. Making small adjustments throughout the day to ensure work/home balance will help both aspects of your life and will lessen the chance of burnout. 

Interested in “doing” less? If your voice services platform runs on Cisco BroadWorks, we can help. Check out Park Bench Solutions today.


  3. Psychology Today
  4. Real Simple Time Management/Attention Management
  5. Kool Kanya Toxic Productivity

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