Ever heard of toxic productivity? The term itself isn’t new, but the problem has been exacerbated by the mass switch to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is the outsized desire for productivity at all times and at the expense of our other priorities, from family life to hobbies. So what are the signs you’re suffering from toxic productivity, and how can you combat it? 

The pandemic exacerbated toxic productivity

While productivity is a priority for many of us (and our employers) during working hours, toxic productivity typically refers to the inability to stop working and take adequate time to rest and recharge, spend time with friends, or read a book for pleasure. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue of toxic productivity for a number of reasons.

When many employees started working remotely full-time in March 2020, the line between work and life began to blur. Almost half of workers regularly worked longer than eight-hour days, and 68% reported working on the weekends. With office work now firmly ensconced in our home lives, the line between our professional and personal lives has only grown fuzzier. 

For some, this has meant checking emails over the dinner table or finishing up a task after putting children to bed. For others, the “always on” phenomenon has turned into a desire to be as productive as possible, allowing other priorities to go by the wayside. 

The rise in geographically dispersed teams has also increased the perception that someone else is always working, so you have to be ready to respond at all times. 

Remote working has driven employees to try to prove their worth via productivity, as it became possible to complete life tasks within reach of your computer. To assuage guilt and compensate for doing laundry mid-afternoon or taking the dog for a walk between morning meetings, employees check email outside of office hours or work late.

While these trends might seem temporary, there is a high likelihood that employees will continue to work remotely in the future, either full-time or as part of a hybrid work schedule. Toxic productivity will therefore remain a risk that employees should be on the lookout for. 

Signs you’re suffering from toxic productivity 

Toxic productivity can be difficult to recognize, especially as workers transition to flexible schedules that combine working from the office with working from home. These are the typical signs of toxic productivity: 

  • Inability to turn off: You feel unable to shut off work-related tasks to rest, enjoy hobbies, or spend time with friends and family.
  • Guilt about productivity: You feel guilty about not getting enough work done, even when you are completing a reasonable amount of work-related tasks. 
  • Problems with health or personal relationships: You begin to experience issues with your health or personal relationships due to the above issues. Significant others may feel they are getting less of your time or attention than work.

Dangers of toxic productivity

While toxic productivity can indeed negatively affect your relationships and leave you with feelings of guilt, it can also lead to workplace burnout and fatigue. In 2019, workplace burnout was added to the World Health Organization (WHO) classification of diseases as an occupational phenomenon. According to WHO, “burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased negativity or cynicism in relation to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. 

If toxic productivity goes unmitigated, workers are susceptible to workplace burnout that leads to depression, anxiety, and distraction. This, in turn, can seriously affect performance, mental health, and personal lives. 

How to combat toxic productivity

If you believe you’re suffering from toxic productivity, these five adjustments can help you begin to combat the problem. 

Method #1: Define work boundaries

Defining work boundaries – adequate time for sleep, spending time with family, and engaging in hobbies – can reduce the emphasis on constant productivity. Setting a schedule for turning off your work email or setting down your phone can help readjust your work-life balance. 

Method #2: Set realistic goals

Setting realistic goals that are achievable, attainable, and flexible can help you differentiate between work that must be done immediately from work that can be completed at a later time. Speak to your manager or supervisor to determine the most essential professional goals and daily tasks to work on. 

Method #3: Create buffers in your schedule

Instead of scheduling back-to-back meetings, create buffers in your schedule that allow you to take small breaks throughout the day. Allowing fifteen minutes between Zoom calls to have a snack or quiet meditative moment can help decrease feelings of anxiousness and lessen the need to increase productivity. 

Method #4: Seek mental health help

Finally, if you continue to feel the signs of toxic productivity even after introducing these tactics to your work and home life, seek help from a mental health professional to ensure you don’t find yourself burned out in the future. 

Method #5: Take advantage of EAP

Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is a “voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems.” Many employees aren’t aware that their employer offers this type of program, so it’s worth finding out if your company does and taking advantage of it fully.

Incorporating tools that allow for asynchronous communication and work can also help you combat toxic productivity. Software like Wrike that allows teams to communicate and collaborate on their own schedules can help reduce the need to check email outside of office hours or constantly look for status updates on pressing projects.

Focusing on productivity can be healthy and helpful to your daily work, but when your quest for productivity veers into toxicity, it’s important to take steps to ensure you keep work and life balanced.