The Cost of Toxic Productivity

As we continue to think about toxic productivity and turn to the cost of it, I’ve realised I need to give quite a bit more thought to each area and so I plan to publish this post in shorter segments over a few weeks. I am going to look at the following areas:

  1. Costs to our mental health
Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

In many ways, as we look at this issue of toxic productivity, the costs of it should be obvious, but I still wanted to pause before thinking of a solution, to think more on the impact of the problem. This is because where we don’t understand the problems as well as we could, our solutions will be slightly off. For example, one piece of indirect feedback I have received would suggest that the problem of toxic productivity is exclusively that we do not rest and that therefore all of the problems are resolved by factoring adequate rest times.

But, this is only part of the solution because it only addresses part of the problem. I’ve defined this in practice as the situation whereby any aspect of our work or lives and how we go about getting things done develops a far greater significance than it actually merits. One way in which this manifests is what would be traditionally defined as workaholism — working more than is merited and healthy. But the cause of this problem is not going to be resolved by simply taking an extra couple of hours off a day. Also, there may be things beyond simply the amount of time that we spend working that mean that our relationship with work, productivity and getting things done does not primarily manifest in spending more time working and therefore cannot be solved simply by resting more.

I need to pause briefly to elaborate here, perhaps to clear up something that wasn’t clear from my previous post. The problem with Toxic Productivity is not that we aren’t resting enough or taking enough time off. It goes well beyond that. It may be that we are working set hours and having plenty of time off but not really ever switching off mentally. This does not necessarily mean that we are always thinking about ‘work’. It’s more that our minds are always functioning in a particular way and so we never achieve relaxation. It may manifest in the form of always trying to improve the way we do things and so we are never satisfied and always feel that we are not productive enough. So having a few extra hours off each week, will not ever be enough to solve the problem as the problem is more to do with how our mind has been operating.

Ultimately, Toxic Productivity is about having a mental need to control things that are utterly beyond our ability control and being broken by our pursuit of this and our failure to achieve it.

So, I am going to look briefly at the costs of toxic productivity in the following categories. Our mental health, our physical health, our family and relationships, our productivity and our overall effectiveness.

To our mental health

Now, I am not a psychologist and therefore approach this with a bit of trepidation. I have some personal experience here though. Getting things done become an obsession. What can begin as a simple drive for greater efficiency and organisation becomes all consuming. It develops into something like an addiction driven by fear. Possibly the biggest two threats from this to our mental health are stress overload and burnout. These two are linked. And the reason why I have begun here, is because I am increasingly convinced that our mental state is often the catalyst for impact (positive & negative on our physical health and family health etc etc).

Stress Overload

Life becomes miserable. We have this goal that we are desperate to achieve and we cannot. The sense of failure grows with this over time. With this grows the feeling like we need to do more. I don’t just mean working more hours. But I do mean being more efficient, more on top of things and making less mistakes. Once I was asked to explain my job to a few of our trainees and I concluded with an illustration. I had a number of different areas that I needed to keep on top of, keep ticking over and a few discrete projects to sort out other areas that had either been neglected in the past or were new things that needed to be organised. I described the whole thing as being like plate spinning. The areas I was keeping ticking were essentially plates that were spinning and every so often I need to go and attend to them to prevent them from crashing to the floor. In large part, the projects were new plates that I was setting up to spin. This is essentially fine. However, looking back, this was the beginning of the problem. The number of plates I had spinning grew. This was fine, my maturity, experience and skill grew as well making the whole process easier to manage. But then over time the rate of growth also grew. What began as 2 or 3 projects to set up new spinning plates, drifted towards (at one time I recall) having 11 projects on the go at once to get on top of more and more. Then towards the end of my employment, 37 different projects to address to set up new spinning plates. Now this was only in part due to expectations from my employer and structural issues (no one else considered these things to be their responsibility). But was also in part due to this growing sense in my mind that I needed to be on top of everything all of the time. And therefore greater efficiency was required. To push the illustration to its extreme.

Plate spinning progresses to epic plate spinning, that progresses to sprinting plate spinning, that progresses to plate spinning on roller blades that progresses to plate spinning on jet propelled roller blades that progresses to doing that whilst wearing a complicated piece of headgear with mirrors enabling me to see in all directs at once.

This is stressful. This is not sustainable.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

This is my experience. But more generally, our need to be on top of things can become toxic and can lead to ever increasing stress. This essentially puts the body in fight or flight mode all of the time. Life is miserable being in this state nearly all of the time and it can lead to burnout.

Burnout

I am learning more about this all of the time. Essentially our mind and our body decides that enough is enough and to some extent shuts down. Symptoms include depression, exhaustion, lack of motivation, desire for quick wins or dopamine hits, irritability, anger, anxiety, insomnia. It’s pretty bad.

I do not know enough at this stage to elaborate but here is a good video to watch as a start point. The damage of being in this state should be obvious. Getting out of it, is quite difficult, especially with the normal pressures of daily life continuing around you.

Conclusion

Essentially, the impact on our mental health from toxic productivity can be massive. And like anything, it becomes harder and harder to address the longer it goes on. A friend told me about a small patch of brown staining that appeared on their living room ceiling, below the bathroom, in their rented house. They reported and nothing was done. It grew larger, nothing was done. A small drip appeared. Nothing was done. A crack appeared. Nothing wad done. The crack grew. Nothing was done. They returned home to discover a portion of their bathroom in their living room. So what would have been a simple job, fixing a leak, became a replacement floor/ceiling and remodel of the living room and bathroom.

These things can be addressed and the sooner we do it, the better.

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