Is there such a thing as “toxic productivity”?

How to maintain better work/life balance

One of the defining characteristics of Cultural Stress is its 24/7, “always on” connectivity, which—among other things—blurs the boundaries between work and personal life, making it harder to set time aside to recreate, rest, and recharge. Work from home (WFH), which expanded greatly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, has accelerated this trend. The result is that employees often feel as if they can never take a break, or fail to respond to calls, emails, and text from work–ending in long-term damage to their physical and mental health, their relationships, their hobbies and other interests, and ironically, their productivity in the long term. This phenomenon is becoming known as “toxic productivity.”

Although the term “toxic productivity” is new, it is an integral part of what I’ve been calling Cultural Stress for nearly two decades now. Dr. Joanne Barron, a clinical psychologist recently interviewed in Grey Journal, agreed, saying that “although ‘toxic productivity’ is a new term, the concept has been talked about for a long time—especially in terms of American culture and how it doesn’t value the person. We value productivity, wealth, achievement, doing and being more, and looking good while doing it, which doesn’t make for healthy emotional and mental health.”

Dr. Barron also said that, “It [productivity] is so ingrained in our culture that oftentimes we as parents can unknowingly be guilty of teaching our children that they have to be the best. We all want our children to do well in life, but many kids today are so competitive. From the time they are old enough to know anything about college they’re taught they have to get into the best one so they meet the best people and can get the best grades to have the best career and make the most money. All of that directly relates to the toxic productivity of our culture.”

Echoing my own concerns, Kruti Quazi, a licensed counselor and the clinical director of Sesh, a virtual group support platform, told Real Simple, “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. Technology has allowed us to believe that we can continue to work and become obsessed with achieving more.”

This never-ending compulsion to be productive has become so widespread that in 2019 the World Health Organization (WHO) officially added workplace burnout to its International Classification of Diseases.

Unfortunately, the goal of 24-hour productivity is diametrically opposed to the goal of a long and healthy life—or even a short and healthy one! It’s simply a fact that one cannot work and rest at the same time. It’s also a fact that one cannot skimp on rest and remain healthy and happy for very long. That’s because every extra hour spent working is time not spent sleeping, recreating, enjoying time with family and friends, or even enjoying time alone, pursuing whatever activities interest you, or no activity at all.

The reason that rest is so essential to health—and even to long-term productivity—is that your body isn’t “doing nothing” just because you are. Rest is the only time your body gets to repair and regenerate. So, while it might look like you’re lying around “accomplishing nothing,” your body is actually accomplishing a great deal. For example, when you sleep:

  • Your pituitary releases growth hormone, which is essential for tissue repair, even in adults.
  • Your pancreas balances your appetite by releasing and balancing levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin. (Too little sleep leads to unwanted weight gain and attendant cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.)
  • Your cortisol levels subside, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, and giving your entire nervous system a rest.
  • Your brain sorts and processes the events and information of the day, so that you retain what your brain considers important and forget the rest.
  • Your conscious “executive functioning” takes a break, allowing new ideas and insights to come to awareness from your subconscious. That’s why taking a night to “sleep on it” often yields new approaches and solutions to problems.
  • Your entire body—including your brain—flushes toxins and repairs cell damage.
  • Your gut digests your food; your liver and kidneys conduct a 24-hour cleanse, and your immune system gets a boost through the scavenging of free radicals by antioxidants and the repair of any damaged DNA.

When you recreate you reap an entire array of other benefits. If you’re recreating with friends, you’re nurturing relationships, which, in and of themselves, are important stress relievers. If you’re recreating in nature, you’re also reducing stress, grounding yourself to the earth, to “place,” and to the many health benefits I’ve written about here and here. In addition, researchers have found that when we take a break and play after spending a long time thinking about a problem, we’re often surprised by new solutions that pop into our heads effortlessly. It seems that our brains are able to come up with all kinds of new possibilities, once we give them the freedom to relax.

All of these benefits are essential to keeping you healthy and productive over the long run—as well as healthier and happier in the short-term!

“Toxic productivity occurs when individuals measure their self-worth purely based on hours logged, emails sent, and dollars made,” Quazi said. “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.”

So, if you feel compelled to always be available to demands from work because “everyone else is doing it,” do yourself and your colleagues a favor and stop. Give your job your best for the hours you’re on the clock, and then give yourself your best the rest of the time. (“Yourself” includes your health, your relationships, your hobbies, interests, and other pursuits.)

Recognize “toxic productivity” for what it is: an element of Cultural Stress, the constant, ever-increasing stress of modern living. And you know what? Your employer isn’t going to care if you burn out, get depressed, ruin your health, or even die an early death. Sure, some of your colleagues will care. But your employer will just hire someone else.

So, rather than trying to set an example of the most productive employee, try setting an example of the healthiest, happiest employee who also gets her work done. After all, you are not a drone, a machine. You are a unique, creative human being who has a right to enjoy a healthy life for as long as possible. Honor yourself, wear your crown, and set your own boundaries. One of those boundaries should acknowledge that the only way to maintain healthy productivity is to rest.

That’s my prescription for #ModernWellness and #ConqueringCulturalStress.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider, who should also be consulted with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.


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