The Dangerous Trap of Toxic Productivity—and How to Break the Cycle

This is what happens when constantly being ‘on’ turns unproductive, unhelpful, and unhealthy.

Remember back in 2019 when The World Health Organization (WHO) officially added workplace burnout to its International Classification of Diseases as an "occupational phenomenon"? And everyone was like, yes, thank you, we know—because the experience of working to the point of mental and physical deterioration was nothing new to most people with jobs?

While officially inducting burnout into the canon of negative work-place-related syndromes was an excellent first step, professional people still struggle hard to find the proper balance and boundaries between work and non-work. Technology renders anyone reachable at any time (You're on the road? Take that quarterly call from the car!), and anyone can hop online from anywhere (on Fly-Fi, with a smartphone hotspot, at a nearby Starbucks). You have a couple of bars, so why not get a few more emails sent or that Instagram sales post up, right?

Sounds harmless enough, but this never-ending compulsion to be productive is doing things to us. Productivity has its own threshold, and it's no shocker that mental health has taken a massive, simultaneous dip in the past few years as the expectation to be "on"—to be online, to be available, to do one more thing—keeps climbing up, up, up.

Behold: the diminishing returns of toxic productivity. This is effort and output that, ironically, and though well-intentioned (maybe), drains us of physical and mental energy—thus resulting in a lack of productivity, motivation, and efficiency. It also just makes us feel terrible.

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Where Is Our Toxic Productivity Coming From?

"Many folks feel the burnout of throwing themselves into their work and that the only way they're productive is to be 'on'—constantly being on phone calls, on Zoom meetings, or on your laptop for schoolwork or your job," says Kruti Quazi, a licensed counselor and certified clinical trauma professional. These are, as Quazi says, "impractical and unrealistic expectations to set for yourself and that can have a deleterious effect on your physical and mental well-being."

The notion of toxic productivity isn't a new one. Quazi points to the pitfalls of modern "hustle culture," the unspoken competition of who can do more and sleep less. The anxiety of knowing that if you unplug, there will always be someone out there still plugged-in, still working harder than you—and that that is apparently the ideal behavior.

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But we can't deny the pandemic's role in warping our work ethic. Ever since Covid sent many office-based employees home to work remotely—and many now teleworking by choice—there's been even more pressure to be "on" all the time—to prove you're definitely working hard—not running to the grocery store mid-day; to compensate for not being in the office (even though being remote isn't your fault!); to be as available as possible; and to come out on top as the most reliable, effective, productive worker.

"We feel the need to work at our normal pace and not create the time and space to be with ourselves and practice self-care," Quazi continues. "Technology has allowed us to believe that we can continue to work and become obsessed with achieving more."

One self-perpetuating issue with toxic productivity is the fact that one simply cannot work and rest at the same time. Every extra hour spent grinding, hustling, performing, and producing is time not spent walking, reading, swimming, watching TV with family, or sleeping.

We are squeezing our window for personal time down to the absolute bare minimum—or extinguishing it entirely.

"Some of us may not even acknowledge that this pandemic has had any effect on our lives, but the subtle signs are there in all of us," Quazi adds. "We start becoming impatient with loved ones or don't take time to decompress [after work]. We've even started to attach our self-worth to the number of hours we're working, and then feel guilty for not having worked enough—that feeling of, I should have been more productive."

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What Can It Look Like?

"Toxic productivity occurs when an individual has an unhealthy obsession with being productive and constantly on the go," Quazi says. "[It] gives us a constant feeling that we're just not doing enough." This restlessness is often fueled by a fear of failure or sometimes the feeling of being an impostor who'll be discovered as a fraud at any moment. It can also occur if someone's working to avoid or delay other personal problems. Or it may happen to individuals who measure their self-worth purely based on hours logged, emails sent, and dollars made. Taking a break is viewed as weak or a waste of time. Work tasks take priority over the basics: rest, meals, exercise, and regular contact with those we love. Laundry is piling up. You're working through dinner time. Your friends haven't heard from you in days. You're not moving enough.

"We end up overworking to the point of impacting our physical and mental well-being, relationships, and sleep," she adds. "We're unable to set boundaries and make ourselves available to work at all hours without taking days off to rest and re-energize ourselves."

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What Can Happen if Toxic Productivity Goes Unchecked?

Toxic productivity feeds burnout and fatigue and is often a red flag for such other worrisome issues as anxiety and depression. "Negative outcomes in our mental health are bound to occur where there's an expectation of high and constant productivity, whether we're pushing ourselves to work longer hours or cannot relax during our free time," Quazi says. "[Overworking] may be a sign that we're struggling with high-functioning depression by covering up feelings of low self-worth, guilt, sadness, or decreased energy and by channeling all of our energy into our work."

According to Quazi, toxic productivity tips over into true burnout when the lines between work and free time start to blend (or overlap completely).

"There is no rule that we have to run on empty to be successful," she insists. "[That] path to success is ridden with anxiety and depression: We tire easily, complain of aches and pains, and our mindset becomes negative." The only way to become healthily productive again is to rest.

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How to Break the Vicious Cycle of Toxic Productivity

Time to set some boundaries and think about what it means to practice true work-life balance. Here are Quazi's top tips for doing it.

  • Ask yourself: Is the company you work for human-centered or productivity-centered? "If it's human-centered, your employer will understand your attempt to take time for self-care," she says.
  • If you have the option, schedule daily meetings so that you have 10 to 15 minutes between them to get fresh air, stretch your legs, eat and hydrate, or play with your pet.
  • Be very disciplined about going screen-free for a few moments throughout the day: Take a breath, listen to music, or meditate to help undo those (undeserved!) feelings of guilt and shame.
  • If you need time off to recuperate mentally and emotionally, take it. "If there's a deadline, go ahead and complete the work necessary, but then take a day off that week, if you're able," Quazi says. "If not, plan on relaxing over the weekend, being intentional about staying away from your computer and work."
  • Set and stick to boundaries that make sense for you. Here are some examples:
    No cell phone at meal times.
  • Take a break after three hours of steady work.
  • Set aside specific days/times to spend with your partner, kids, family.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep a night.
  • Plan to have at least two large, square meals per day.
  • Detach from your social media, which also pushes us to do more, Quazi warns. "Watching TikTok or doom-scrolling Instagram can leave us feeling guilty and depressed as to why we aren't doing as much as [others] are doing."
  • Talk to a mental health professional. "If it starts to become overwhelming, seek professional help from a doctor, counselor, pastor, etc.," she says. If you're not ready to go to therapy, there are so many amazing therapy apps you can try, including a therapist-led group support app like Sesh.

"Feeling physically well and having a good mindset will help you to do your best work rather than run yourself into the ground," says Quazi. "Remember that healthy people can also be successful!"

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  1. Zadow AJ, Dollard MF, Dormann C, Landsbergis P. Predicting new major depression symptoms from long working hours, psychosocial safety climate and work engagement: a population-based cohort study. BMJ Open. 2021;11(6):e044133. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2020-044133

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