Trying to be productive in all areas of your life can hurt you mentally and physically. Here’s how to tell if you’re stuck in this vicious cycle and what you can do now to stop it.
The dark underbelly of productivity
In May of 2020, Eropa Stein found herself in a very tough place. As an entrepreneur and founder of Hyre, a company that provides employee scheduling software, she was desperate to build her business. And the pressure had only become more intense during the pandemic. But as a human being, she was desperate to, well, sleep. And eat. And maybe see some sunshine.
But her human needs took a backseat to her drive to succeed.
“I felt as though if I didn’t spend every spare second working on my business, I was being unproductive,” she says. “I wanted to do everything that I could to help my business survive, and that meant working nonstop.”
Even though she recognized it wasn’t healthy, she couldn’t stop. Her mental health took a nosedive. Not only was she feeling mentally and physically exhausted but she became so overwhelmed that she stopped doing things she enjoyed and became isolated from her friends and family.
She came to a crisis point when she was finally able to see her loved ones after the long quarantine during the pandemic.
“I was visiting my family and couldn’t engage in meaningful conversations. I was so mentally exhausted that I had to leave the reunion entirely,” she says. “Spending time with my family had always been something that I looked forward to, and when I couldn’t even enjoy my time with them, I knew I was burnt out and that something had to change.”
Stein has something most other people in her situation don’t have: a master’s degree in applied psychology and several years as a researcher studying workplace burnout. She even wrote her thesis on workplace stress and toxic productivity.
And she was finally seeing the problematic signs in herself.
This mentality—wanting to achieve a goal at any cost—has a name: toxic productivity.
Toxic productivity is workaholism on steroids
You’ve probably heard of someone being described as a workaholic—someone who compulsively works to excess. Toxic productivity takes that to the next level, says licensed clinical psychologist Elena Welsh, PhD, a senior psychologist supervisor at the California Department of State Hospitals.
Someone dealing with toxic productivity feels extremely driven to be productive at all times, not just at work but in all areas of their lives.
“Toxic productivity is the inability to do something just for the sake of doing it,” adds Erika Ferszt, an organizational psychologist in London who specializes in toxic productivity and the founder of Moodally, a workplace mood-management program. “All actions must always have a goal or an objective that leads to a sense of personal improvement or achievement.”
People suffering from this push themselves to unhealthy extremes and focus on productivity to the exclusion of everything else in their lives.
Yet for something so extreme, it can be tricky to recognize.
“Toxic productivity can be hard to identify because of the high value society places on being productive professionally, socially, and culturally, and because people are often externally rewarded for productivity,” says Dr. Welsh, who’s also a member of the faculty at Antioch University in Los Angeles.
When everyone around you is trying to be extra productive and encouraging you to do so, it can feel normal or even expected. But the consequences of toxic productivity can be devastating.
Productivity is addicting
Toxic productivity be difficult to spot, and you may be resistant to recognizing it in yourself. That’s because the rush you get from achieving things is psychologically addicting, says Ferszt, who has a postgraduate degree in the neuroscience of mental health.
When you accomplish something, your body provides you with a hit of dopamine, which brings you pleasure. When you’re constantly focused on accomplishing things, it causes you to be in a state of “always on,” with elevated levels of adrenaline.
Over time, your body develops a tolerance and needs more dopamine and adrenaline to deliver the initial rush.
“As a result of the way the brain works, toxic productivity can behave like an addiction,” says Ferszt. “You can forget how to live without the sensations that accomplishment and productivity are expected to provide.”
Side effects of toxic productivity
Working too hard over extended periods of time will drain your energy. And it puts a great deal of stress on your body, leading to both mental and physical burnout.
Chronic stress is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety and an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other “lifestyle” illnesses.
Some of the consequences can be unpredictable. For instance, after 22 years as a high-performing advertising executive, toxic productivity caused Ferszt to go temporarily blind.
“I had a burnout episode that put me in the hospital for stress-related vision loss,” she says. “This made me rethink everything in my life, all my priorities.”