Our previous article here (How should Your Organisation Respond to Burnout) raises questions to examine how, organisationally, you can raise awareness of, and begin to address, many of the systemic factors which contribute to burnout.
However, there is an additional area worthy of taking some time to investigate. How, as an organisation, do you unintentionally fuel the individual beliefs that drive a person to create burnout for themselves?
Toxic productivity describes an approach towards work, coming more from an individual’s belief system, that places excessive emphasis on being constantly busy, productive, and achieving goals at the expense of one’s well-being and mental health.
While positive productivity can be an advantageous trait, toxic productivity comes from taking it to an extreme level and can become one of the leading factors in burnout. Here’s how it can happen:
- Overworking: People driven by toxic productivity often push themselves to work excessively long hours, neglecting breaks, rest, and self-care. The focus is on quantity over quality, leading to a never-ending cycle of work.
- Neglecting boundaries: Toxic productivity blurs the boundaries between work and personal life. There’s an expectation to always be available, responding to emails or work-related tasks during off-hours. This lack of separation and constant work engagement can be draining and prevent proper relaxation.
- Unrealistic expectations: Individuals driven by toxic productivity often set unrealistic standards for themselves, striving for perfection, and never feeling satisfied with their achievements. This constant pressure to meet unattainable goals can cause stress, anxiety, and self-doubt.
- Neglecting self-care: In the pursuit of productivity, self-care activities such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones are often deprioritised or completely neglected. This lack of balance can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout.
There is an ancient and very strong driver for this. Status. For our ancestors, status was a matter of survival. Higher status meant better access to food, mates, and safety. Neuroscience has indicated how powerfully the threat and reward perceptions of status (our relative importance to others) can both overtly and covertly influence our behaviour (Rock, 2008). And this is a concept/fear/need we can still carry in our lives today…particularly in larger organisations, with clear hierarchies.
Of course, the outcomes form these personally driven toxic productivity behaviours are unsurprising:
- Reduced effectiveness: Paradoxically, excessive work can decrease productivity and effectiveness over time. Mental fatigue, lack of focus, and decreased creativity can result from constantly being in a state of high stress and overwork.
- Physical and mental health consequences: Burnout, the severe form of chronic workplace stress, manifesting as physical symptoms like exhaustion, insomnia, headaches, and a weakened immune system. Additionally, mental health issues like anxiety and depression can arise.
In a situation where the “benefits” of position and status in obvious – or even perceived – hierarchies seem clear and more explicit, the work of constantly vying for position can leave individuals feeling anxious, stressed, and unfulfilled. At work, salaries dictate individuals’ value. Job titles rank people relative to one another. The promise of promotions can become a compulsion to keep pushing – all becoming misplaced drivers for toxic productivity, as a way to reinforce self-worth.
Unsurprisingly, as well as blurring the boundaries between work and personal life, and bringing with it the possibility of remote surveillance, hybrid working can also exacerbate toxic productivity in several ways:
- Fear of being left out: In a hybrid work environment, there is a risk that remote employees might feel disconnected from in-person discussions, meetings, and decision-making processes that often take place in the office. This fear of missing out on important information or opportunities can lead to an intensified drive to overwork in order to demonstrate dedication and stay visible.
- Pressure to prove productivity: Remote work can lead to a sense of needing to prove one’s productivity to managers and colleagues, as there may be concerns about being perceived as slacking off, or not working as hard as those who are physically present in the office. This pressure can drive employees to overwork and put in extra hours to demonstrate their commitment and value.
- Unhealthy competition: In a hybrid work setup, employees might perceive a need to compete with their peers to stand out, especially if promotions and career progression are tied to visible accomplishments. This competitive atmosphere can lead to an unhealthy culture of comparison and excessive workloads.
To prevent toxic productivity and burnout, it’s important for individuals to cultivate a healthy balance between ‘work’ and relaxation. I hesitate to call this “work-life balance” as that can be a misrepresented phrase because the toxic productivity (the “always doing”) can also be a part of life outside the workplace. The routes out of toxic productivity are to set realistic goals, establish boundaries, prioritise self-care, and practice self-compassion. Recognising the value of rest, breaks, and leisure time can lead to increased productivity and overall well-being.
These are all factors that can be influenced by organisational culture, consciously or otherwise. At an individual level, though, these are within the bounds of emotional intelligence. Higher emotional intelligence is generally associated with lower burnout levels. Developing emotional intelligence skills can potentially help individuals better manage stress, maintain well-being, and reduce the risk of burnout in the workplace. Self-awareness and self-management are powerful starting points and both are important areas that can be effectively worked on with a great coach.