Toxic productivity has become a hazard to our health

An ever-abiding sense of chasing our own tails will have inevitable consequences

It very much goes without saying that in 2022 how we work, play and rest has taken a significant shift compared to life before the pandemic.

Working from home and finding our way back into the office has challenged our work ethic, our definition of success, and how we view productivity. At the same time, how we rest has seen us struggle with being idle, vulnerable, and helpless, so we have morphed into DIY experts, curated new hobbies, and again allied being busy with being in control.

We carried on creating a bubble of successful yields while ignoring the potential for this productivity to excessively over-burden our lives. For many of us, whether through our jobs or over-extending ourselves at home, a line was crossed as the pandemic carried on, and our desire to be busy turned away from productive efficiency towards balancing precariously on the broken line of toxic productivity.

"We have been taught in society that being busy equals success, and we should keep pushing for success even when it doesn't feel good," says neuro-linguistic programming trainer Rebecca Lockwood, founder of the Yes, I Can Method academy.


“Often, it is misunderstood that being busy also means being productive. It can leave us feeling guilty when we do not feel productive because we are told so much in the mainstream media that this is what we are meant to do.”

Toxic productivity is not new.

It began with the hustle culture, of always being on and succeeding with the motivational idea to stay connected, engaged, and reach unattainable targets even when it affected our health. And so, toxic work culture was born as longer hours, and intensive self-criticism played on our need to meet high standards but quietly did not value the individual. The pandemic has certainly fuelled this prevailing culture.

Aoife O’Brien, founder of Happier at Work, and host of the podcast of the same name, says that “we live in a culture that is “always on”, that values overwork, and constantly doing more. Technology, which effectively enables us to get more done, frees up time for even more work. We spend a lot of time doing work that probably doesn’t need to be done at all, because our objectives are unclear, or we are striving for perfection which can be a sign of imposter syndrome.”

We wear our productivity like a badge of honour as though working excessive hours, putting our jobs first and neglecting our wellbeing means we are succeeding in our careers and lives. We forgo plans with friends, give our children less time, skip rest and sleep, and rush our meals. But being busy is not productive. It is hurried, frantic, and likely overwhelming.

The more productive we believe we should be, the more at risk we are due to a fear of failure, criticism, harmful and toxic feelings, and anxieties. We work harder, believing we will be rewarded, but the unrelenting pressure continues to grow.

Occupational burnout

Throughout the pandemic, we gave our all to our jobs for fear of losing them, to have a sense of purpose during a turbulent period, and to distract ourselves. There is, after all, safety in being productive. It creates and sustains normality, gives us control, and balances the risks surrounding us. But it is inherently bad for us.

As Lockwood says, “If you are not addressing how you feel, this can lead to burnout. If you are pushing yourself too far and not being mindful of what is happening to you physically, emotionally, mentally, and energetically you are going to experience burnout whoever you are.”

Occupational burnout results from chronic work-related stress with physical symptoms such as exhaustion, complete energy depletion, stomach issues, and headaches. Emotional symptoms include intensive low mood, unable to cope, distancing from colleagues, and poor work performance.

“We have so much available at our fingertips with social media and the ability to contact people,” says Lockwood. “It seems as though people should be always available, which is crazy. It is always important to have boundaries and enforce them. Taking time out from your phone, social media and not feeling the need to always be on top of messages can help.”

We forget that we need rest, time out, and the space to do nothing, which can coincidentally aid how productive we are. There must be a balance. When this balance is consistently threatened or heavily lopsided, it becomes toxic and negatively impacts our self-worth and sense of self.

“We become agitated, frustrated, and angry with our achievements, struggle with self-esteem, become critical of ourselves and others and battle to slow down, step back, and reframe the situation. It’s no surprise that we may start to make more mistakes as we work through toxic productivity.

To avoid falling into the toxic productivity trap, Lockwood advises setting boundaries. This can be a mix of saying no and curtailing our social media and phone use. The idea is not to be available to others all of the time, to allow ourselves time to switch off, indulge in the act of simply doing nothing, and not being reactive all of the time.

Lockwood advises that we remind ourselves that being productive and busy are two different things. Being busy fills our schedules and takes up our time. Being productive measures specific targets and goals. With productivity, we are focused, work smarter, and are fuelled by a purpose. When we balance being busy against being productive, productive will usually win out as it is refined action instead of the consistent “doing” of busyness.

But working from home, being isolated, and hitting targets during times of uncertainty, has led to our level of productivity becoming excessively toxic as those lines become significantly blurred as we maximise how we work to the detriment of our health and wellbeing.

Flexible approach

“Leaders should invest time up-front to clearly define outcomes, set clear expectations and share what “good enough” looks like,” says O’Brien.

“Ask yourself, “What produces the results I need to achieve?” and focus on that. This will facilitate the shift towards a more flexible approach to work which is already happening in a lot of companies – and needs to be a given to attract and retain top talent.”

O’Brien also advises using technology to support you, rather than being controlled by it and to routinely turn off notifications.

Finally, Lockwood suggests countering toxic productivity by understanding what productivity and success mean to us outside of the presumptions and intentions we believe are set for us.

“Often people chase a version of success that isn’t really what they want. It is important to check in with this often,” she adds.

The to-do list will continue to grow. As it does, it is worthwhile remembering what our achievements are, where our successes occur, and how productive we have been while also recognising when we need rest, the time to start again, and to know when we have done enough.